Lynching: When authorities lose control

Last Updated: Sat, Jul 07, 2018 16:43 hrs
Mob lynching Why are we so prone to rage?

The debate over the usefulness of technology versus its dangers will never cease.

One of the central government’s many mantras is “Digital India”, and to that end, our biometrics are in a vulnerable database, our pockets are full of smartphones, and mobile data packages cost a fraction of what they used to.

The problem is, the authorities’ only solution to combat the most insidious effect of technology – the rapid spread of unfounded rumours – is to impose temporary bans.

Every year, around Independence Day, Republic Day, and various Martyrs’ Days across the country, mobile networks and sometimes the internet are blanked out in insurgency-hit areas.

This is supposedly to prevent incitement to violence, and to stop the spread of rumours that could disturb the peace.

The rumour that has claimed several lives, meanwhile, continues to spread.

Having never practised tackling the problem head on, rather than muting it, the authorities are now clueless.

No effort is made to combat rumours with facts.

No effort is made to dispel rumours with reassurances.

No effort is made to trace rumour-mongers and punish them with the zeal reserved for those who dare to tell the truth about the government’s inefficiency.

The numbers are various. Some reports say 18 people have been lynched in six weeks; others say 31 have been lynched since last year.

All this has been attributed to a rumour on WhatsApp about a travelling group of child traffickers: a panicky message, accompanied by CCTV footage of a purported live kidnapping, says this gang has entered the concerned state.

There have been reports of lynching of mostly homeless people and migrant workers in Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Assam, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat and Tripura over this rumour.

The CCTV footage has reportedly been appropriated from a simulated kidnapping for a child safety awareness campaign, shot in Karachi. A child is shown being carried away on a motorcycle.

It is true that India has a terrible record with child safety. CCTV footage has caught people kidnapping children at night. One of these recordings helped trace the man who raped and murdered a four-month old baby in Indore.

Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau indicate that a child goes missing every eight minutes in India. They could be runaways or victims of abduction. They may be sold into slave labour, sweatshops, sex work, illegal adoptions, and the organ trade, among other things.

A quarter of the reported missing children are never traced. We don’t know how many cases go unreported because their families or guardians are themselves involved in the disappearance. Even as awareness about child safety spreads, so do rumours that lead mobs to mete out their version of justice – capital punishment.

After a spate of lynching in Tamil Nadu, three people were lynched in Tripura on June 28.

Among them was Sukanta Chakraborty, an announcer hired by the government for Rs. 500 a day to assure the public that the rumours were false. He was attacked by a mob while speaking in a marketplace, along with two government employees who had accompanied him and managed to survive the assault. Chakraborty’s relatives told the media that he had been set upon with stones, sticks, and broken bottles.

Last month, the news agency PTI reported that the Modi government was considering the possibility of blocking WhatsApp calls in conflict zones, in order to thwart terrorists, whom they termed “keypad jihadis” for the purpose of the meeting called to discuss this.

Chaired by Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba and attended by key officials from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Department of Telecommunications, and security agencies, the meeting was reportedly called to examine the effectiveness of WhatsApp call blocking in minimising terrorist activity.

The imbecility of such a proposal is only indicative of the ineptitude of the authorities. Often, WhatsApp remains the only way for people to reach out in case of emergency in areas which are prone to mobile network blackouts – provided the internet still works.

To consider banning calls in the hope of preventing militants from communicating with each other is laughably obtuse. All it will achieve is to make life even more difficult for the man on the street.

There is a very real danger out there, far scarier than militants – a rumour which has proven capable of galvanising mobs across the country.

Yet, the government has issued no statement about the rumour, or made any attempt to trace its origin.

Digital India, indeed.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

The "most dangerous country" poll should not make us defensive

The illusion of secularism

When hooliganism is state-sanctioned

Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury

Karnataka: Death of democracy

India shining as ecosystems die?

Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless

When death does not deter

Power play at a time of crisis

A country in denial

The gods have left the temples

What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show

Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private

No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?

Do we really have the right to die with dignity?

Democracy has no place for mobs

The Sridevi South India lost 

Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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