July 1 saw two incidents of mob violence in villages in Maharashtra and Tripura, triggered by social media posts which draw strength from an old fear in pockets of rural India of child-lifters. Five nomads seeking alms were lynched in a remote Maharashtra village. In Tripura, an announcer was killed for delivering a message from the government, urging people, ironically, not to believe rumours about child-lifters. He was in a government vehicle and accompanied by an official. In Maharashtra, a police party sent to spot of the lynching was attacked by villagers. In neither case, evidently, was the mob deterred by the apparatus of the state. This should be a matter of serious concern to politicians, administrators and the police.
Over time, the lynch mob has acquired the mystique of impunity, and it will take determined action by the administration and the political leadership to regain control of the situation. To blame social media and WhatsApp would be to shoot the messenger. These are merely communications tools to which no particular moral value adheres.
Instead, the government should drive home the message that while the misuse of these media with disruptive and murderous motives is unacceptable, acting upon the message will invite immediate and clear consequences. Such internet messages usually advertise themselves as “forwarded as received”, apparently absolving the sender
of complicity. They are difficult to trace to the origin because of encryption, but those who act upon incitement to violence are much more easily identified and should be firmly discouraged.
Some state police forces practise deterrence with outreach campaigns warning against disseminating rumours, and it is encouraging to see that in Maharashtra, the first step has been taken to bring the culprits to book. Some of the members of the mob have been arrested. It is a step forward from filing an FIR against “persons unknown”, the common practice following mob violence. Prosecution should be transparent, to ensure that the equally common practice of rounding up the usual suspects is not followed.
A firmly articulated political response to the menace is also required. Because not only is public safety at stake here, the climate of insecurity and fear which electronic rumour-mongers generate and feed off also has a chilling effect on the very idea of a free and open society. Two of the guardians of this idea, the political leadership and the administration, have an immediate stake in the matter, since the state is being challenged by the mob.