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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

How fear, rumours fuel mob fury

He said over the six months that he has been posted in Sambhal, not a single child has been kidnapped in the district. He attributed the string of mob lynchings in the region to low levels of literacy, an abundance of free time, and a general disgruntlement among the public.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2019 01:27 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
New Delhi
A view of depopulated village at Asalatpur Jarai, in Uttar Pradesh.
A view of depopulated village at Asalatpur Jarai, in Uttar Pradesh.(Amal KS/ Hindustan Times)
         

On September 5, as the long day wound down, a bunch of men gathered under a tree in the village of Asalatpur Jarai in western Uttar Pradesh for evening adda. Curiously, though, they discussed neither their daily affairs nor regional politics. Instead, they huddled around a mobile phone and watched a video. The video featured extreme violence – 200-odd people attacking two men, killing one and leaving the other almost dead.

In the video, the mob first beats the two men with their hands, slapping and punching them till they fall down. Then they carry on with their legs, kicking and stomping the bodies till they draw blood. The beating continues, egged on by the cries of “maro, maro (beat them, beat them)” resonating through the crowd. As time passes, the mob grows bigger, joined by people halting their bikes or descending from a bus. Everyone is trying to get in a blow, but there are too many of them for every blow to land. One of them leaps to the front line with a stick, someone else follows with a cricket bat, and many others shove their way up brandishing their shoes. Fully armed, the mob attacks their victims with a fresh vigour.

The footage is accompanied by narration, by someone who presumes himself to be a voice of the people. He tells his viewers that the people of the village Asalatpur Jarai have identified two child kidnappers and are in the process of punishing them. He zooms in as someone in the mob asks one of the bleeding men where he picked up the kid from. The man says the kid is his nephew. The questioner turns back and repeats his answer to the crowd. No one seems to hear him, not even the man shooting the video. He next finds the kid in the crowd and zooms in on him, telling his viewers that this four-year-old boy is the one who was rescued by the mob. The boy looks baffled. The viewers are told to notice that the boy has been injected with drugs by his kidnappers. There are, however, no signs on his body to indicate this.

Meanwhile, the mob has worked itself up towards a finale. They have divided themselves efficiently into two halves, one victim for each group. One of the victims has got up on his feet and is begging for mercy. The other one is lying completely still on the ground, his clothes torn and his face bloodied, as multiple phone cameras jostle for the closest shot of this moment. Finally, someone shouts: “One of them is going to die!” The video ends.

Life after the lynching

Some of the men watching the video under the banyan tree in Asalatpur Jarai were present at the spot where the mob attacked the two men. None of them admits to being a part of the mob. Life hasn’t been the same for around 3,000 residents of Asalatpur Jarai since the village hit national headlines. Hundreds have locked up their houses and left the village to avoid being questioned or arrested. Many of them have forsaken work and shut themselves in. But some are still trying to make sense of the events of August 27. Watching the video is a part of that exercise, but it doesn’t explain why a mob consisting of people they know attacked two innocent men travelling with their nephew. So, they have come up with some explanations of their own.

“For 15 days, we had been hearing word about gangs of child kidnappers roaming this area,” said a woman who did not want to be named. Various people in the village said they had been receiving similar information — in newspapers, on television channels, through WhatsApp forwards, and word of mouth. “People don’t read beyond the headlines, and the headlines have been saying that somewhere or the other a mob beat up a person on suspicion of child-lifting, so they think that children are being lifted,” said Saurabh Chakravarti, a local journalist.

“The television channels have been running coverage of mob violence back-to-back. It is causing a lot of agitation. The situation is made worse by social media. On WhatsApp, people are receiving alerts that are saying that groups of child kidnappers have entered the area. Some of them use random images of poor people as culprits. Some of them circulate manipulated videos of children being kidnapped, their organs being extracted,” said Yamuna Prasad, superintendent of police in Sambhal district.

Those who receive such messages forward them as if driven by duty, he said. “It goes back to the old forwarding culture on Indian WhatsApp. Think of it as another version of people sending messages claiming that goddess Santoshi was sighted somewhere and telling the recipients that if they don’t forward the message to a certain number of people, they would be setting themselves up for consequences,” Prasad added.

He said over the six months that he has been posted in Sambhal, not a single child has been kidnapped in the district. He attributed the string of mob lynchings in the region to low levels of literacy, an abundance of free time, and a general disgruntlement among the public.

The disgruntlement appears to span nationwide. In the past month, incidents of mob attacks over suspicion of child-lifting have been reported from various states — 20 cases in three days in Rajasthan (the first state to pass a bill against mob lynching), three cases in 12 hours in West Bengal (a week after the state assembly passed the bill), 46 cases in a month in Uttar Pradesh, where mob lynching is punishable under the stringent National Security Act. The victims are often poor and marginalised: a woman beggar attacked in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh; four men, including an eight-year-old boy, attacked in Bihar’s Gaya; a pregnant deaf-mute woman attacked in Delhi.

In one of the recent reports from Jharkhand, a man was attacked by a mob on the suspicion of child theft in Jamtara for slapping his own son in public. In most of these cases, members of the mob later explain their behaviour by saying that they had heard rumours about children having been kidnapped in nearby places or child kidnappers being on the prowl in their area. In none of the cases being investigated has there been any basis for such rumours. Yet, no one knows why the rumours are spreading like an epidemic or what can be done to stop the attacks.

In the mood to kill

Three hours before the mob outside Asalatpur Jarai surrounded Raju and Ramautar, brothers from Chhabra village in the neighbouring block of Kudh Fatehgarh, Yamuna Prasad had released on WhatsApp a video dismissing the rumours. He had assured the district’s residents that no child-kidnapping gang had come to the notice of the police, and that no one should take the law in their hands in any circumstances. The transcript of his video was published in the local newspapers the next day. It was too late by then.

“There were only three people present at the spot in the beginning. One of them, a woman, noticed that the boy sitting between the two men on the motorbike seemed to be crying, so she raised an alert,” said Sushil Kumar, the village chief. “Some of them ran behind the bike, asking the men to stop but they didn’t stop, which made them suspicious, so one of them rode out on a bike and blocked their path,” he added.

“If they had stopped after the first call, perhaps they wouldn’t have been attacked,” Kumar said. He is not so sure of that, however. The sight of a child being visibly in pain may have prompted concern among the people at the bus stop, but it wasn’t the only reason they got suspicious. “One of the men looked like he was Muslim, with a sharp face and pointed beard. Others felt that the two men were distinctly darker than the child, and, from their clothes, potentially of a lower class than him,” Kumar said.

Raju and Ramautar were neither Muslims nor came from a “lower class” than the child they were travelling with. They all belong to a Scheduled Caste, Pasi, and they were taking their sick nephew to the nearest hospital, in Chandausi block, because his father, a migrant worker, was away from home. The two brothers also worked as migrant labourers and happened at the time to be on a break from construction sites in Punjab. If they looked poor to the people at the bus stop in Asalatpur Jarai, it’s because they were. In many other cases of mob lynchings across India, the victims were targeted because they looked different from the mob — in their caste, class, faith, gender, region or physical and mental ability. “No one dares beat up the rich and the powerful because they know they will have to pay for it,” the SP said.

In western UP, where communal strife and caste atrocities make up daily life in the villages, even randomly formed mobs follow established norms of persecution. In Asalatpur Jarai, the dominant Thakurs live in the heart of the village, the Muslims in a corner, and the Jatavs (Dalit) on the edges. “Ours is categorised as a sensitive voting booth, but people live peacefully in the village,” said Mangal Saini, the former village chief.

The tension between the communities is reflected in their responses to the lynching. The Thakurs blamed the Jatavs, the Jatavs blamed the Thakurs, and the Muslims chose to be quiet. Almost everyone in the village who spoke about the incident also blamed outsiders.

“Surely there were some people from this village in the mob, but there were also those who were passing by. How else did the mob swell 10 times within minutes? Bahar wale logon ne kiya (the outsiders are responsible),” said Sushil Kumar.

The first thing that Raju and Ramautar did after being surrounded was explain their relationship with the child and the reason for their rush. “Even Ravi told them that the men were his uncles, but no one would listen,” said Mohammed Usman, the family’s neighbour in Chhabra village, which lies 10km from Asalatpur Jarai. “They took the child to this quack’s clinic; he took a look at him and said that he has been drugged and shouldn’t be believed,” said Chakravarty, the local journalist. The village quack then joined the mob as one of its leaders. “They showed their Aadhaar cards to the public and even made video calls to the pradhan and the headmaster of the village school in Chhabra, who confirmed their identity, but the crowd wasn’t convinced,” said Usman.

The crowd was in the mood to kill by this time. “Someone phoned me from the spot. I tried to stop the violence, but no one was listening. Some of us carried one of the brothers to a nearby shop and pulled the shutters down, but the mob broke in and dragged him out. I got beaten up myself,” said Kumar. “Someone in the crowd lifted a vat of hot oil from a sweets shop and poured it on Raju’s waist,” said Usman.

Finally, someone at the spot called the police. Sushil Kumar, the village chief, said the police showed up an hour later. The SP refuted the charge. He said the crowd wouldn’t have gotten out of control if Kumar had intervened in time.

Mobs everywhere

Eleven people have been arrested so far for their involvement in the lynching and charged under the National Security Act. “Additionally, non-bailable warrants have been issued against 19 people,” said Prasad. “Across the region, 150 people have been arrested for spreading child-lifting rumours,” he added.

The rumours continue to circulate through the villages despite public service announcements, social media appeals, and physical mobile phone checks. The mob rule continues, too. In the days after the lynching in Sambhal, similar incidents were reported from Meerut, Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad and Hapur. As many as 90 people were arrested across Uttar Pradesh in August for mob violence in which 29 people were injured, said OP Singh, the state’s director general of police.

Recently dispatched from a hospital in Moradabad, where he was admitted with multiple fractures, Ramautar doesn’t know when he will walk again. His treatment costs are an additional burden for his family, which has already lost one earning member. His nephew, Ravi, no longer suffers from the stomach ache that set off the incidents of August 27, but he hasn’t spoken since that day.

Ramautar himself struggles to speak but, when he does, he wonders aloud why no one believed them when they had every proof to offer. “We even showed them our Aadhaar cards. They asked us where we had stolen the cards from. Can you believe that?”

First Published: Sep 13, 2019 01:27 IST