A brutal case of mob lynching from Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu has left the state in shock and disbelief. A family of five from Chennai, who had stopped their car at Polur to visit a temple, were assaulted, chased and attacked by a mob of 200 people.
This hostility from the villagers of Athimoor was triggered by the visitors distributing sweets to children in the village. The strangers were then immediately labelled as child traffickers and angry villager descended on them, killing a 65-year-old woman, Rukmani, in the group.
(Mob lynching in Tiruvannamalai district)
As this horror unfolded in front of the village temple, 200 kilometeres away in Tiruvallur, a similar nightmare was just beginning for an intellectually-challenged man.
Thirty-year-old Ganesh* had been roaming on the streets of Palaverkadu for several months now. According to the police, most people in the area were aware of his mental condition and kept their distance. But on Wednesday, close to 90 villagers attacked the man, broke his nose and pierced his eyes. They then tied a noose around his neck and hung him to death from a bridge.
Similar incidents have been reported from multiple districts across the state. And the cause for this mass hysteria and violence have been narrowed down to a single factor - false messages, audios and videos that have been circulated on Whatsapp about child-traffickers.
Subsequent stories by sections of the Tamil media too added to the panic.
What do the messages say?
According to locals, police and journalists who have been receiving these messages, the deluge of false information began in early April.
The latest in this blitzkrieg of alarming messages is an audio recording, purportedly by a man from Vellore. In the audio, an unidentified man alleges that 400 people had come to Tamil Nadu to abduct children. This warning even came with a video that allegedly showed how easily children are being picked up from the streets.
"I live in Vellore and two kilometres from my house a child was abducted by a Hindi speaker," the audio from an unknown person begins.
"The villagers caught him and rescued the child. After rescuing the child, they beat him up and called the police. When the police came he fervently stood on the middle of the road and said "400 of us have come to the Tamil Nadu to kidnap people. Even if you kill me now in an encounter, the others will ensure that the kids are kidnapped and taken away." This happened on May 1 in Vellore. Why I am saying is that even if they are not only four people, we should still be careful. We have to protect our children. Whoever is listening to this, please share this with your neighbours, with your family and you relatives if they don't know this," the message says.
The video which is being spread along with it shows two men on a bike picking up a child who was playing cricket on the road and speeding away. The video, according to multiple sources, is old and is being misused to create panic. A message with video further urges people to circulate it.
These messages have been spreading like wildfire across districts and they carry wrong data and statistics to alarm the reader.
A message targeting the people of Kancheepuram district reads, "Don't allow your children to leave the house alone. Till today, 52 children have been abducted in the district. There are complaints in every police station."
Another undated and false message reads that a man from Rajasthan has been arrested at Vandavasi in Tiruvannamalai for attempting to abduct a child.
"These fake messages have led to unprecedented attacks across districts on anyone the public deems suspicious. Two days ago, in Kancheepuram, a local auto driver was mistaken for a Hindi speaker trying to abduct children and assaulted," says Kancheepuram SP Santhosh Hadimani .
"The numbers that these messages propagate are completely wrong. In Kancheepuram for instance, no case of child abduction has been reported in the last two months," he adds.
In Vellore meanwhile, a 30 year-old-man was beaten to death by a group of residents of Parasuramapatti in Gudiyatham town after they mistook him for a robber.
Countering the propaganda
Police have recognised the alarming effect of these messages on the general public.
"The villagers who were on edge after seeing videos of child trafficking on WhatsApp and assumed that Rukmani and her relatives were here to kidnap the kids," says R Ponni, Superintendent of Police, Tiruvannamalai district.
Across the state now, awareness drives have been undertaken by the district police to counter the false propaganda.
In Vellore district, SP Pagalavan has dispatched autorickshaws with speakers to announce messages to the public. In Kancheepuram too, a similar method has been adopted. Police officers travel in these autos, asking people to not panic and turn violent if they suspect that someone could be a child abductor. He has also said that Goondas Act will be filed on those indulging in mob violence.
The public service announcement goes as follows – “Don't believe rumours about child abduction. Without proper investigation, you can't harass or assault anyone. If your children are missing, come inform the nearest police station. If you find someone suspicious, inform the police. Action will be taken against those who attack innocent people by accusing them of child abduction.”
Villupuram SP Jayakumar has further warned the public that the Goondas Act will be slapped against those taking law into their own hands.
While 23 people have been arrested in connection with the attack in Tiruvannamalai, arrests are yet to be made in connection to the lynching of the intellectually-challenged man in Tiruvallur.
*Victim yet to be identified