The trigger for a string of lynchings in Jharkhand was a message circulated through mobile application WhatsApp that spooked villagers, mostly unsuspecting tribals, into believing that their children may be targeted by abduction gangs.
“...Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malyali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang,” the message in Hindi said.
Villagers along the borders of Seraikela-Kharsawan, East Singhbhum and West Singhbhum districts picked up weapons and were attacking strangers since the rumour started spreading.
On Thursday, seven people were beaten to death in two incidents.
Police said they have not been able to trace the origin of the message yet.
New to such media and smartphones, most of the villagers taking up arms believe what they see on their devices without question. “They lack the ability to distinguish between a rumour and news,” said a tribal filmmaker, Vinay Purty. “Everything shared on the phone is regarded as true, prompting people to react with emotion and anger,” he said.
In the tribal belt in Kolhan region, people are largely illiterate or school drop outs.
The platform, and social media websites such as Facebook, are also being used to circulate photos and videos of the attacks, fanning more tension.
“We are in talks with the service providers and might take a decision soon to ban social media in the entire district for a day or two till the rumours die down,” said East Singhbhum rural SP, Shailendra Burnwal.
Photos and videos of the attacks triggered violent protests in Jamshedpur where roads were blocked and people clashed with policemen in multiple localities.
Four of them men killed on Thursday were Muslims, leading many in the minority community to believe that the attack was communally motivated.
Many Muslim-dominated areas in Jamshedpur were shut down and the police used lathis to disperse violent protesters.