Last week in the town of Dhule, located in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, five men accused of being child lifters were lynched due to a rumour spread on the messaging platform Whatsapp. The police team that promptly reached the place where the lynching was taking place were confronted by hundreds of angry villagers. The cops tried to plead to the angry mob that two of the survivors should be allowed to live, but they found them beyond reason.

Consumed by murderous hate, the mob continued to beat them with sticks and iron rods till they had satisfied themselves that they were dead.

The victims were nomads who had been visiting the village for years. They not only had nothing to do with child lifting but also did not really fit into the description of those shown in the Whatsapp forward. This did not deter the people baying for the blood of those who they believed were kidnapping children and selling their body organs.

As has been the trend for the past few years, the lynching was recorded on mobile phone cameras and their grisly images of torture and violence forwarded to a world of millions who do not question text or visuals before consuming them. Finally, fake is as real as real can be. Tragically, this fake news stokes passion, kills innocent and shapes politics.   

Not just in Dhule, but also in other parts of India, village communities have taken the law into their own hands to lynch 20 strangers in the last one month. Earlier in June in the northeast part of India, a person mandated by the state government to raise awareness on fake news peddled by Whatsapp was also not spared. Despite his desperate pleadings, he was killed by the villagers who believed that he was a child lifter.

Earlier, two young men who were heading out to a waterfall in their SUV were dragged out of their vehicle and killed. A friend who called their phone heard a voice inform him that they had killed him and he can watch his friend’s death on the TV next day. It is clear that the lynch gang was confident that the video that had been shot on the mobile will not just be Whatsapped, but also sent to the local TV station.

Interestingly, the victims of these latest rounds of lynchings are mostly Hindus.

Authorities have been blaming Whatsapp forwards for this spike in violence. Indian law enforcement agencies have asked Facebook, that also owns this messaging platform, to find ways to prevent dissemination of these fake videos that spread hatred and lead to mob violence.

Whatsapp, which has 200 million users in India, has promised to prevent the spread of hate messages, but could be confronted with a serious dilemma as many of the lynching cases in India in the past few years represent the point where politics, sociology and history intersect with each other. For instance, the lynching of Muslims for consuming beef or trading in it by cow vigilantes has not elicited a trenchant response. 

Furthermore, civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha and some ruling party MPs have stepped out to support those involved in the lynching of a Muslim in the state of Jharkhand. Sinha, in fact, garlanded them after they were released on bail. The dilemma for the BJP government in Delhi that has active support of the Hindu lunatic fringe would be to tell the messaging platform what kind of rumours peddled through Whatsapp forwards were fine and what were not?

This is a question that is unlikely to find ready response, but Whatsapp is the vector that is used by different political parties to send out audio and video messages. There is an acknowledgement amongst political parties that the messaging platform is being used to shape the perception of an individual in a manner that may not be possible in the case of Facebook or Twitter. 

Many of those who get a Whatsapp forward take it to be gospel truth as it falls into their inbox. This has allowed ultra-nationalists to rewrite history in a manner that diminishes India’s secular past and trash many of its icons. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has been the favourite target of those rewriting history, which they pack in with dodgy details and salacious gossip. For a right wing Hindu nationalist brought up on a staple diet of whatsapp history, Nehru is the reason for India not becoming a world power.  

As a recent investigation in a Delhi daily, The Indian Express, discovered that the information that is put out through Whatsapp is delivered to a pre-literate section of the society that is not in a position to process it due to a lack of education or socialisation. Many of them are unemployed and harbour a deep sense of hatred for the privileged — especially those who either belong to the minorities or within their own community.

These people feel left behind by the forces of development and perceive in their act of violence an attempt to reorder the complex social reality. Unfortunately, these lynch mobs find abettors in those who practice majoritarian politics, which believes in excluding those groups that do not fit into their narrative. Little wonder that incidents of lynching have spiked ever since a 2014 when BJP came to power in Delhi.

While there is ample literature on the rise of mob violence against Muslims in India , there is little on why there is a spike in rumours pertaining to child lifting? The Indian Express report attributes it to growing superstition and intolerance in the society. Another publication believes that there is merit in the fears of the villagers about their children being kidnapped. 

The police does not really take the disappearance of children seriously and invariably dismisses them as their escape to a city and to better life. The attitude of the police makes light of organised harvesting of body organs of kidnapped children or using them in sex rackets. A promotional film that was made by a Pakistani NGO to generate awareness amongst the parents about the imperative of protecting their children from dangers elucidated above was mischievously re-edited in India and sent out as a Whatsapp forward. It was this video that has prompted many villagers to stand guard in the night to protect their families and even kill outsiders with strange accent or hair styles. What’s still not clear who would benefit from spreading these rumors. 

What is apparent is that it would take more from the Indian government than to just request Whatsapp to filter hate from the messages to end this spiral of rumours and lynching that have blighted India’s landscape. Is India ready for more  credible and professional policing and responsible politics? 

Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer in Delhi

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