Child-lifters don't exist, say the police. So, why these mob lynchings?

Child lifting rumours are doing the round yet again. Gaon Connection spoke to police authorities, sociologists and cyber-crime experts to understand what triggers rumour mongering, which leads to mob lynching incidents

Ranvijay SinghRanvijay Singh   11 Sep 2019 11:19 AM GMT

Child-lifters dont exist, say the police. So, why these mob lynchings?

On August 27, seven-year-old Ravi's stomach started hurting. His family, that lives in Chhabra village in Uttar Pradesh's Sambhal district, decided to take him to Chandausi, around 500 kms from their village, to get him admitted to a hospital. Two of Ravi's uncle sat him on a bike and the trio left.

When they reached Astalpur village, which is just a few kms away from their village, Raju, who by now was feeling really unwell, started howling. The villagers assumed the two to be bachcha chor (child lifters) and started chasing them. They stopped their bike and bashed them up. The two kept pleading with them; they tried telling them that the boy is their nephew, but the senseless mob was not willing to listen. By the time the police took them to a hospital, one of the uncles had died.

This incident happened just 400 kms from Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow and it wasn't an isolated one. In August, more than 160 people were arrested in the state for spreading "bachcha chor" (child lifting) rumours and for inciting violence.

Not just in Uttar Pradesh, parents living in many states in the country, are panic-stricken these days as child lifting rumours are spreading like wildfire. Gaon Connection spoke to many villagers who are too scared to even send their children to school, to know what the situation is like. We also spoke to police authorities, sociologists and cyber-crime experts to understand what triggers rumour-mongering, which leads to mob lynching incidents.

"After the child lifting rumours started doing the rounds in our village, we are keeping a tight vigil. People don't sleep at night. We don't let our children go out anywhere alone," said panicked Pankaj Gupta, 22, who lives in Sulemabad village in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki district.

Mob thrashed a person to death in Uttar Pradesh's Sambhal district on August 27

The numbers say it all

This is not the first time that child lifting rumours have led to mob lynching. According to India Spend, between 2017 and 2019, 106 child lifting related incidents have come to the light, in which 35 people have lost their lives. Between January 1, 2017 and July 5, 2018, 69 cases were reported, in which 33 people lost their lives and 99 were injured, according to a list prepared by the data portal based on news reports published in English mainstream media.

In the first week of July 2018, nine cases were reported in which five people had died. The numbers clearly show that in July last year, every day at least one child-lifting related incident was reported. It is to be noted that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) hasn't released any data after 2016.

In August and September so far 85 such cases have been reported.

"Rumours reflect societal mindset"

When Gaon Connection spoke to Kamal Nayan Chaubey, the Jharkhand Director General of Police (DGP), he said over the phone: "We are taking two types of action. First, we are reaching the crime spot as fast as we can. This way we are able to contain the number of people dying because of mob violence. Second, soon, we are going to start a public awareness campaign through newspapers."

He added: "I have requested government officers to spread awareness in their departments. The police can get involved only when a mob is on a rampage. But the mentality behind mob lynching is not a police issue. It reflects our societal mindset. The government should also do its bit in containing this."

Most number of child-lifting rumours and subsequent instances of mob lynching are emerging from Uttar Pradesh. The Uttar Pradesh DGP OP Singh released a video in which he urged people not to spread rumours or be a part of any kind of violence.

In the video he mentioned that 82 people have been arrested in Uttar Pradesh until August 28 for spreading rumours. They were booked under the National Security Act. He requested people to inform the police if they come across any such instances.

"The anti-social elements are spreading these child lifting rumours. These are leading to mob lynching incidents. When we investigated these incidents, we found that they had nothing to do with child lifting," he said in the video.

Just like the Uttar Pradesh police, the Jharkhand police too did not find any truth in the rumours. "Someone starts these rumours. Those who look different from ordinary people get beaten up because people are assuming them to be child-lifters," said DGP Chaubey.

Drug addicts, beggars, mentally ill are prime targets

Most of the cases so far have indicated that drug addicts, beggars or mentally disturbed people face the mob fury as they are not able to fend for themselves.

On September 6, Mithhu, a resident of Naurangpur was beaten up by a mob for being a "child lifter". He has been mentally unstable for the past two years. He managed to reach Dariyapur village in Itaunja town near Lucknow, but he couldn't make the crowd that had gathered around him understand how did he reach Dariyapur. They thrashed him assuming he is a child lifter.

On the same day, in Vikrampur village in Itaunja, a mentally disturbed woman was beaten up by a mob. The police swung into action after the village head called them up.

Inspector Nandkishor from Itaunja police station said both the incidents happened after someone spread child lifting rumours. We have arrested those involved and filed a case against them. "The child-lifters don't exist. Anti-social elements spread such rumours. When we make some arrests, rumours start doing the round that a child-lifter has been arrested," he told Gaon Connection over the phone.

Social media is to be blamed?

In this video clip, an injured person could be seen crying and apologising. He is seen accepting that he is a child lifter. In many cases, the mob after beating suspected child-lifters up, forces them to accept that they are bachcha chor. Such videos often go viral.

Many other viral videos are spreading panic. Some messages are pointing fingers at Rohingya refugees and accusing them to be running a child-lifting racket in India. The messages claim the Rohingyas then sell organs of these kidnapped kids. When we called up the Public Relations Officer of Uttar Pradesh DGP to clarify this, he clearly said: "There is no truth in this. These are just rumours."

Social media is being used as a tool to spread these rumours. In the recently-concluded Parliament session, the government was asked to clarify if various social media platforms are being used to spread misinformation in the country and if yes, what has the government done to prevent this.

Ravi Shankar Prasad

On July 3, 2019, Information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, said in the Parliament: "Thecyberspace is off-limits. It gives people a platform to be anonymous and write posts. It has become easy for people to spread rumours and share fake news. This is a global issue. We respect freedom of speech which the Constitution grants the people. The government is not monitoring content on social media at present. As per some media reports, the Internet, especially WhatsApp is being used to spread rumours."

There are 400 million WhatsApp users in the country at present. By next year, this figure will touch 450 million.

"These users are increasing in rural areas because people living in urban India have been using WhatsApp. The number of users has gone up in Tier II and Tier III cities and villages. More and more people have started using smartphones," said Pratik Sinha co-founder of Alt News. It's a fact-checking website that keeps a tab on the mainstream and social media.

He said that in the past six months the number of people shooting videos and sharing them has gone up. These people don't believe in verifying facts. This trend is on the rise. Because high-speed internet has reached many villages in the past one year, the child-lifting rumours this time are more intense as compared to the last time, he said

He added: "These rumours start with fake news. Many messages were shared which said that around 2,000 Rohingya refugees are living in India who kidnap children and sell their organs. Such messages spread panic. Following this, mobs beat unsuspecting people up and share those videos. It's a cycle."

When asked how to deal with the situation, he said people living in rural India don't know how to use the Internet. The government will have to run awareness programmes.

"It's difficult to trace an individual in a mob"

On September 5, Pintulal Burman, who lives in Gediya village in Jamtada, Jharkhand, was beaten up by an angry mob. He was at a market and his son Chotu started crying as he wanted chips. People assumed that he was a child lifter and bashed him up. He could put his point across only after the police rescued him from the mob and took him to the police station.

"It's difficult to trace individuals in a mob which is why people are taking liberties," said Rita Sigh, a sociology professor working with the Banaras Hindu University.

Talking about the mob lynching incidents, she said: "A mob never goes out of control. People beat someone up because they want to do that. They don't do it unknowingly. In a mob, people behave like animals. They don't follow any ethics and morals. They fall prey to the herd mentality. In the case of road accidents, even before helping a victim, people start beating the driver up. This is how the mobs function."

The major problem, according to Alt News' Sinha, is that the government fails to act when the rumours start.

"This year, the rumours started spreading on July 25. Last year around the same time when rumours started spreading in the South, authorities swung into action. This time panic has gripped North India. Authorities should have acting in July. To contain this situation is not impossible. If we can vaccinate children even in the remotest areas of the country, even this can be achieved," he said.

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