I was just eight weeks into my new posting as District Police Chief of Jogulamba Gadwal district in Telangana that an incident happened which made us all look at social media as not just a medium of communication, but as a deadly weapon in the hands of anti-social elements.
Bala Nagamma Oggu Katha is one of the most popular Burrakathas (Burra-Tambura Katha-Story) in Nadigadda region, a favorite rural pastime event. It is part of an oral storytelling technique in the katha tradition performed across the villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. One can see this form of narrative entertainment during the summer Jatharas (local festivals) in the villages. It became the most significant medium of awakening during the Indian Independence movement in southern states inviting the wrath of the British Government and the Nizam's regime. Both banned it in their dominions. The topic usually is a Hindu mythological story or a contemporary social issue.
Manemma and Maheshwaramma are budagajanga folksingers who carry forward this tradition in a limited form. In their early fifties, these two women travel far and wide to perform Burra Katha on the famous tale of Bala Nagamma and other local folklore in places where fairs and weekly markets are held as they get fairly good amount of alms in such places. Their forefathers were Jangam minstrels who worshipped and sang of deities in the Deccan region. Hailing from Sanchara Jathulu (nomadic communities), Budaga Jangas have traditionally been the officiating priests for some of the Holeya and Madiga communities. They are religious mendicants, soothsayers and wage labourers as well. They live off their earnings from begging in the name of local deities after smearing their foreheads with vermillion and turmeric and also perform in festivals.
That day, 11th May 2018, wasn't any different for these women until that fateful moment struck when they missed the last bus that would have taken them back to their village after their performance in the Jatara.
So they decided to rest for a while under the Banyan tree on a small platform next to it. As night fell they took shelter in the temple of the local deity. At the stroke of midnight, a villager saw them resting inside the temple. He rushed back to the village and woke everyone up and told them that he saw two women who looked exactly like the child lifters he saw in a WhatsApp video. Within about 10 minutes the whole village gathered and these women were forcibly taken out of the temple and locked up in the Gram Panchayat office. The villagers firmly believed that these women were child kidnappers because that's what all the WhatsApp groups spoke about for two weeks. Asking them to be careful, to protect their children and to attack anyone who they thought had a suspicious demeanor about them. When all the villagers reached the temple, these women were dragged out. One of them lost the use of her legs when a man tried to tie them to a pole in a sitting position. Having taken up the position of law enforcers, the villagers started interrogating the women fervently. A glaring instance of mob law.
Both the women kept pleading that they be spared as they are from the neighboring district. So sure were the villagers of the fact that these women would take away their children, few sane voices from the elders were not sufficient to keep them away. As the frenzied mob heckled them, an elderly man had the presence of mind to call the local police. With some trepidation, the police team galloped through the crowd forcing their way right up to the corner in the Gram Panchayat building where the two victims were restrained. They were a team of four and the mob was over two hundred.
"Who has done this?' the Sub-Inspector asked. There was no reply. Then a voice from the midst of the mob shouted. "They came to take away our children" followed by a chorus of affirmations. There was mass hysteria in the air. Fear had taken hold of them, fear instilled by a series of videos they saw in WhatsApp groups. Dread of the unknown gangs had been giving them sleepless nights since March.
The police team rescued the two women from the hands of the mob with the help of some elders and safely brought them back to the police station. In the meantime, the Sub-Inspector spoke to the Station House Officer who had jurisdiction over the village these women belonged to. He, in turn, collected their identity proof and sent it through WhatsApp. It took three long hours for the police officers to show it to each villager and convince them that these women were not child kidnappers but indeed folk singers from the nearby district of Wanaparthy.
This was the very first case of mob violence in Jogulamba Gadwal district. In the days that followed, during my review of the day's occurrences (crime and related incidents), I became acutely conscious of a trend that was slowly engulfing the region. It was a challenge for us. I am well acquainted with fighting criminals with a face but this was new. But here, we had no idea whom to fight.
Mob lynching is a subject, which in recent months, has attracted international attention and stirred a public debate to such an extent that people across the sections have voiced their indignation in no uncertain terms.
There is scarcely a place in India in which social media rumours have not created a dangerous atmosphere.
The incidents of lynching of persons by mobs instigated by social media rumours of kidnappings of children in some parts of the country are a matter of grave concern for law enforcement officers. This became a red flag for us in Gadwal in the last week of March when one of my Village Police Officers told me during a review meeting that he noticed something very unusual in the villages that he visited. This was part of our citizen-engagement programmes to create awareness about the ills of child marriage, drunken driving and child labour. He was baffled by the fact that most of them were sleeping inside their houses in the sweltering March heat. Definitely, a cause to worry about. His hunch was that this must be happening elsewhere in the district too. Right after the review, I sent different teams to check if that was true. Shockingly, it was. The Village Police Officers who went around talking to people about it realized that a fear was gripping the residents, even the ones who stayed in remote thandas (tribal hamlets).
The villagers were receiving certain videos, images and voice clips through WhatsApp groups. So graphic, some showed people being attacked by a mob. One video showed a man pleading for his life and a group of four stood around while one man put his hand inside the ripped body and pulled out his organs. There was also unverified information about Parthi gangs (an inter-state criminal gang earlier notified by Britishers as criminals) coming back in action in Nadigadda (land between two rivers as Gadwal is flanked by two major rivers – Krishna and Tungabhadra).
These rumours of inter-state Parthi gangs and child lifting gangs made the villagers patrol in anxious groups on the lookout for anyone they do not recognise. Strangers were restrained and questioned. It was the immense trust these villagers had in their family and community that forced them to believe these rumours and graphic warnings followed by 'frantic forwarding' to everyone they knew. This mass hysteria went on for about nine days while I watched in disbelief.
This was for the first time we realized that technology had penetrated to areas where education hadn't. The unintended consequences of technology were staring at us. The incidents that led to this new law enforcement challenge were equally baffling. There came a moment when I sensed the lurking danger behind the unwarranted fear.
I decided to launch an intensive education and awareness campaign. At that time, I had two options. One, to go after the origin of these inflammatory contents. Two, to go door-to-door to educate the people. The former became increasingly difficult and had to be ruled out due to the end-to-end encryption feature of WhatsApp. We were left with the latter. Hence began one of the largest citizen-engagement campaigns I ever did in my career.
As I saw it, our primary responsibility was to promote an overall sense of safety and security among citizens. People were exposed to continuous feeds of misinformation through WhatsApp, Facebook and other digital media platforms with no way of determining the authenticity of the source or whether it was trustworthy. It had a direct impact on law and order and has the potential to flare up a situation. I pondered long and hard about whether we could do anything impactful to stop the further circulation of the grisly content in the local WhatsApp groups. The obvious solution was to bank on our community outreach campaign to bolster public engagement.
The bigger challenge for us was to trace the origin of these potentially violent videos. Deep fake videos made using face-mapping and Artificial intelligence (A1) tools were beyond our capabilities. So we had to totally depend on educating people to fight this menace. Since April, we have also been keeping abreast with the trends in social media. So I called for an urgent training session for all the police officers and taught them how to educate people about fake news and rumours in social media. I taught them how to identify morphed images and unverified content. We started a door-to-door intensive educative campaign to teach them how to spot a fake video and to appeal to the villagers not to forward them frantically.
We started the campaign much before lynching deaths were reported in other parts of the state and the country. First round of campaign was done in the last week of March. It took us three distinct phases over a span of 45 days. In the first phase, I trained the Village Police Officers on how to spot fake massages and go out into the community to educate the people. For two weeks my team went to each village and tribal hamlets and appealed to them to not believe in these rumors.
In the second phase, we trained the local drummers to convey the message on behalf of the police with an aim to make it more interesting. Locally they are called Dappu (a small drum) artists. We trained them to convey the message in one minute. They accompanied the police officers and would start beating the drum to gather people and the message was conveyed.
Also, I personally conducted a training session for all the village sarpanches, MPTCs, ZPTCs, up-sarpanches in both the districts (194 sarpanches from Jogulamba Gadwal district and 233 sarpanches from Wanaparthy District). Collaboration with different stakeholders was the need of the hour and became a force multiplier for us.
In the third phase, we wrote songs on fake news and misinformation and used local folk artists along with trained police officers to educate the people. These folk songs were written in a manner that reflected the local culture. This was a huge hit and helped us immensely in dispelling the rumours.
There is no denying of the fact that misinformation and disinformation are fast becoming a security threat in India. WhatsApp has become the largest digital platform for spreading hatred and fake news. Though law enforcement agencies are working hard to unravel the mystery behind the mass-pumping of fake security threats into social media it seems to me that there is a consistent and deliberate attempt to undermine the sense of security people have by instilling fear through fake rumours. And we don't know 'by whom' and 'why'. WhatsApp has also given rise to a heightened sense of online socio-political and religious activism in India and these are fuelling sectarian tensions.
In a country like India, where most people are digitally illiterate with access to technology, merely sending a message with 'do's and don'ts' won't work. Education and Enforcement have to go hand in hand. As I welcome the pro-active measures initiated by some of the digital platforms, I strongly feel that regulation of inflammatory content, preventing the spread of hatred and non-amplification of divisive messages is the responsibility of the social media companies.
As technology is so deeply woven through the entire fabric of our lives, it certainly is a public safety issue that needs specific solutions. On the legal front, we do need an India-specific anti-lynching legislation as this issue is unique to India given the social fabric with many fault lines. It will help us send out a strong message that 'lynching' is a crime and has no place in a civilised society. Criminals are primed to hijack the technologies of tomorrow upon which we are building our future. It is time to wake up from our collective cognitive laziness and say to no to 'fake news'.
(Rema Rajeshwari is a young IPS officer of the Telangana cadre whose innovative policing techniques have been earning her accolades. She was the best lady officer of her batch at the National Police Academy, Hyderabad. She shares her experiences of policing in the interiors of the country in a regular column.)