On Sunday, Vijaya who had given birth to a baby girl on June 27, had returned to Hyderabad's premier Government Maternity Hospital in Sultan Bazaar from her village in neighbouring Ranga Reddy district, to get the newborn vaccinated. When her husband had gone to get their Aadhaar cards photocopied, a woman approached Vijaya, offering to take the child for vaccination. Assuming she was a hospital staffer, Vijaya gave her the baby along with the relevant papers. She panicked only when the woman did not return for a considerable amount of time.
CCTV images recorded the lady in a blue saree walking out of the hospital with the baby. After similar cases of baby thefts in the past, the security protocol now ensures no one is allowed to exit the hospital with an infant, unless the person has the papers. In this case, the documents made it easy for the kidnapper to make an easy exit. The Hyderabad police tracked her movement out of the hospital through various traffic junction CCTVs and the last footage of the woman showed her boarding a bus to Bidar in north Karnataka, a distance of 140 km. Even while it was being investigated whether there was any account of child trafficking activity in Bidar, the baby was found abandoned at the government hospital in Bidar on Tuesday, but the accused woman is yet to be traced.
In terms of timing, the incident of the child theft could not have come at a worse time. For the past four months or so, images from foreign countries are being passed off as those from India, insinuating that child kidnapper gangs are on the prowl. This has led to as many as 29 people getting lynched to death in different incidents reported from as many as ten states.
Now, the Hyderabad episode will be held as proof that the rumour is not entirely untrue, police fear.
“My fear is that the CCTV video clipping of the hospital child theft that is being shown on the media would have already spread in various Whatsapp groups with an intention to spread more panic,'' a senior IPS officer says.
Hyderabad had a terrible case of lynching on May 26. A group of transgender women were attacked by a mob in the Chandrayangutta area in the old city, and one of them was killed. The mob believed they were child lifters, based on WhatsApp rumours.
At that time, the Hyderabad police commissioner had insisted that there are no child kidnapping gangs operating in Hyderabad.
And now, too, the police reiterate there are no such gangs, and that the hospital incident is an isolated case.
“I am very sure there are no such gangs in Hyderabad that abduct children for trafficking or introduce them to begging. If a gang was behind it, they would have either killed the baby or dumped her at an isolated place. Here, the lady has left the child at the hospital so that she would be found. It may have been done by a childless couple,'' says Hyderabad police DCP V Satyanarayana.
In the past three months, Whatsapp and Sharechat apps have been used to disseminate inaccurate or completely fake news, using unrelated images of child abductions to trigger panic. In this latest round, the messages have played on the insecurity among parents and families about their little ones, treating every stranger with suspicion.
Not that the police force has not been equipped to tackle such a menace. In January 2015, the Cyberabad police had set up the Social Media Management Centre to eavesdrop on the chatter on various social media platforms. But the decision of Whatsapp to go encrypted in 2016, killed the efficacy of the centre and meant the cops could no longer be the Big Brother who is constantly watching.
“We can access Whatsapp if we get hold of a particular handset, copy its QR code and then the messages can land on our phone as well. But this will be at best, limited access to one person's contacts. Moreover, if a dedicated group is plotting something dangerous, they are highly unlikely to be careless with their phone,'' says an Intelligence wing officer of the Telangana police.
Bengaluru-based social media brand consultant Supriyaa Srivastav says the organised effort to foment trouble can be fought only by a massive effort to educate people about fake news and tying up with hoax slayers to debunk mischief.
“The content is delivered personally on our smartphone and we tend to believe it when it is sent by a close friend or a relative. Most of it is a funded content marketing plan, an organised effort. So it is everyone's responsibility to question the content,'' says Supriyaa Srivastav.
With many of the lynching incidents reported from the semi-urban areas and the countryside, the police in rural Telangana have also begun regular patrolling with a constable counselling smartphone users not to believe every video or image they receive. This interaction is part of the process of building trust in order to ensure the villagers will be open to showing to the police any suspicious content they may receive.
Views expressed are the author's own.