In the beastly manner that it treated a group of people who visited them, Bidar was Hapur revisited. Mohammed Azam, the 32-year-old software engineer who worked in Hyderabad, was dragged away by a mob on Friday evening, his right hand tied with a rope, his face to the ground. This, even as the mob hit him. Seriously injured, this was minutes before the techie succumbed to his injuries on the way to hospital.
In June in Hapur in Uttar Pradesh, cattle trader Qasim was similarly lynched and his body dragged away to a police van, even as three cops walked alongside the corpse, displaying no sensitivity and forgetting the dignity that needs to be accorded even to someone dead. While the Hapur mob had accused Qasim of cow slaughter, Azam in Bidar was branded a child lifter who had kidnapped children in his vehicle.
In the India of 2018, a lie propagated through word of mouth or Whatsapp forwards, often casts the first stone. The humans then take over.
In Bidar in north Karnataka, even though the police was completely outnumbered, they tried to save Azam from the mob. After Azam and his two friends were suspected of being child lifters, their vehicle was chased by a group of people on motorbikes, even as the nervous trio drove at breakneck speed. Azam who was at the wheel hit a culvert, the vehicle overturned and fell into a ditch. The mob instead of rescuing the injured, started pelting stones.
An hour or so earlier, Mohammed Afroze had taken Azam and three other friends from Hyderabad to his uncle's home in the district. They asked for lunch to be cooked and in the meantime decided to take a ride to the uncle's farm, by whose side a small pond with a natural waterfall is a local attraction.
Salham Eidal Kubaisi, who reportedly works with the police from Qatar, had wanted to buy ‘natural’ honey and Afroze had said it would be available at his village in Bidar. But with no honey available in the monsoon season, the friends decided to savour the sights instead.
“Salham had carried a box full of chocolates and we distributed it first in the village to children as well as adults. Driving, on way to the farm, we saw children walking on the road, and gave a few to them too,'' says Afroze.
It was almost sudden, the manner in which the mood changed. The friends were by the pond when suddenly three people came and started deflating the car tyre.
“We asked why. That is when they started accusing us of being child lifters and up to 200 people gathered. I told them my uncle is from Handikere hamlet but they wouldn't listen,” says Afroze, still a shaken man.
Afroze's uncle Mohammed Yaqub said with great difficulty they managed to bring away Afroze and Noor Mohammed from the trouble spot. “They wouldn't even listen to me and accused me of being in cahoots with them. The other three fled in the car. We hid the two boys in our homes, worried that they could come after them,'' says Yaqub.
Ismail was the one who took the duo away on the bike before coming back to Murki to see Azam being lynched.
“I do not know what got into them, they behaved like animals,” says Ismail, recollecting what he saw.
Just as the friends broke away and escaped, a phone call from Handikere to Murki village, 5 km away, did further damage. That there was a child lifters gang, in a gleaming new red car “without a number plate” and even had weapons inside, there could be children too, they were told. That sealed Azam's death warrant.
Manoj Kumar Biradar, the admin of a Whatsapp group called ‘Murki mother’, named after the village, was one of those who transmitted this message. Another accused is Amar Patil, who too transmitted the Whatsapp message in a group with 180 people.
Such was the rage that had built up by then that Murki was determined to stop them. A tree had been placed on the road to stop the car which is where the car lost control, hit a bike by a culvert and fell into a ditch. The passengers were not allowed to get out of the overturned vehicle and stones were pelted to smash the car.
Video footage that has emerged of those last moments shows Dilip Sagar, the circle inspector pleading with his hands folded before the mob that was baying for the blood of the three men in the red car, to spare them. Four days after the horrific incident, Sagar frets about having failed to do his duty that evening, regretting his inability to save a life.
Raju Patil, the sarpanch of Murki says he was working in his field when he was informed about what was happening.
“When I reached the spot, they were hitting the men. Most of the onlookers were from Murki but the mob that was assaulting was from Handikere. Many of us including the police requested them to stop, fell at their feet but they just would not spare them. I feel terrible thinking of what happened,” says Patil.
There were initially less than half a dozen policemen taking on a mob of close to 500. The onlookers would add the figure up to 2000. By the time reinforcements came from Aurad town, 22 km away, it was too late. Twenty eight people, including two women and two minors have been arrested.
The police have reportedly been given instructions from the headquarters in Bengaluru not to speak to the media. The Superintendent of Police of Bidar is unwilling to meet in person or even speak over phone. This at a time when the police should in fact go all out, to communicate to the people, through the media or directly, not to fall prey to fake news and rumours.
In sharp contrast to the approach is the police in neighbouring Telangana that is trying out a template of making constabulary in police stations in rural and semi-urban areas become a part of community Whatsapp groups to keep an eye on the content being posted. Police teams in Telangana are making regular rounds of the villages, interacting with the villagers, to tell them that fake videos from outside of India are being circulated to provoke mob behaviour.
The villagers insist that unlike in Hapur, there was no communal angle to the lynching. It was as if the devil had got into the people that fateful evening, says a woman. Murki is playing devil's advocate.
Views expressed are the author's own.