Having seen three separate incidents of lynching in the course of a day over rumours of child-lifting, including of one person who had been hired by the district administration to dispel the rumours, the Tripura Police has started intensive community engagement programmes in cooperation with officials in the sensitive pockets.
The lynchings happened two days after an 11-year-old boy was found dead with cut marks on his body in Mohanpur, just 25 km from state capital Agartala, and rumours spread that his kidneys had been removed. The discovery of the body had led to a clash between residents and policemen, leaving more than 10 people injured on both sides.
Tripura Minister for Education and Law Ratan Lal Nath had visited the boy’s family the same day, June 26, and in a video, was heard telling a gathering that “the kidney was taken out of the boy’s body after making a round cut”. Nath also said “never had Tripura witnessed such an incident” and that the incident was linked to “kidney smugglers” with probable “international” connections.
Consequently, there were several media reports saying the boy’s kidneys were “probably missing”. The next day, Chief Minister Biplab Deb too visited the family, though hours later, he told the Assembly that the kidneys of the boy had been found intact in a post-mortem.
But by then, rumours of child-lifters being on the move had spread across several parts of the state. On June 28, three people were killed in different districts over suspicion of trying to kidnap children. A woman was killed in Sipahijhala district, whose name and age have not been disclosed.
Then in West Tripura, a hawker from Uttar Pradesh, 30-year-old Zahir Khan, was killed while three people accompanying him were injured in an attack. The same evening, Sukanta Chakraborty, 36, hired by the administration to make announcements against child-lifting rumours, was attacked by a mob in Kalachhara in South Tripura district and killed. A government official and a driver accompanying him were injured.
Police said eight people had been arrested for the lynchings, four for the killing of Chakraborty, and four for the woman’s death. Police are yet to make any headway in Khan’s lynching. A senior official said they were in “the process of identifying the accused”.
Defending his remarks, Nath told The Sunday Express that whatever he said that night at the boy’s home was “in the interest of the people”. “The parents of the killed minor were saying that the kidneys were taken. Thousands of people who had gathered said that the kidneys were taken. There would have been an outburst had I said the opposite. My comments that night were to ventilate the sentiments of the family of the victim and the gathered crowd. It was to give importance to the sentiments of the parents and the crowd,” he said.
The CPM has demanded Nath’s resignation, saying his “irreponsible” statements had led to the killings. Senior CPM leader Gautam Das said, “Nath’s comments went viral before the rumour was dispelled by the Chief Minister. Since then, several incidents of thrashing of innocent people suspected to be ‘child-lifters’ have taken place… Nath should bear full responsibility and resign. Otherwise, he should be sacked.”
Calling Nath “the pioneer of rumour-mongering”, the Congress has said it will seek a judicial inquiry. The BJP, led by CM Deb, however, has accused people associated with the CPM of instigating the lynchings. Tripura BJP spokesperson Mrinal Kanti Deb said he saw a “conspiracy by the CPM” in posting rumours and fake news on social media.
Talking about Chakraborty’s killing, Superintendent of Police of South Tripura district J S Meena said he was attacked when he was making announcements at a crowded market place that people should not believe in rumours being spread on social media.
The team had held two such meetings in the Sabroom sub-division and was addressing a third when Chakraborty was assaulted by around 2,000-odd people. “We are investigating every possible angle,” Meena said. The SP added that they had intensified police patrolling following the incident, and that the situation was improving. “Now rumours are dying. Police teams are talking to people and advising them against believing rumours.”
Ajit Pratap Singh, SP, West Tripura district, said they were reaching out to the public through announcements. “Also, under the community policing programme of Tripura Police, ‘Prayaas’, we are conducting meetings with people in interior areas and advising them against rumours,” Singh said.
At least 15 ‘sabhas’, or sessions with locals, had been held in the past few days, Singh said. Mobile Internet and SMS in these areas remain suspended, and local police officials said this had helped. Said K V Sreejesh, IGP (Law and Order), “We are campaigning extensively. We have also counselled a few minors and teenagers who we found were posting and forwarding certain kind of posts.”
Adding that they had made arrests of some people over spreading rumours, he said the situation was under control and hoped normalcy would return soon. The lynchings in Tripura follow the killing on June 8 of two people in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district over suspicion of being child abductors. The Assam Police had later arrested at least 40 people across the state for posting ‘inflammatory’ or ‘hateful comments’ on social media.