There seems to be an air of panic in some districts in Tamil Nadu after multiple incidents of lynchings.
One such case occurred last week when a large mob attacked a family of five from Chennai after they had stopped their car to visit a temple at Polur. On spotting some children, the visitors decided to distribute some sweets. This was when the scene turned violent. Mistaking them for child traffickers or for having ulterior motives in giving chocolates to children, a group of people attacked them, killing a 65-year-old woman.
Police arrested 23 villagers last week even as they were investigating the incident. The reason for these incidents that have been occurring across some districts seems to be the spread of malicious rumors and messages on social media; messages that seem to warn of people who are on the prowl with the aim of kidnapping children.
The Superintendent of Police of Vellore P Pakalavan has issued a warning against such rumor-mongers saying, "We will book them under Goondas Act." The origin of these rumors was traced back to an audio message that was circulated three weeks ago and which falsely claimed that people from North India have entered the state to kidnap children. The Hindu editorial emphasised the importance in analysing these incidents to understand the underlying anxieties of people –
"Three recent incidents of lynching in Tamil Nadu, unrelated except for the mindless violence and brutality, are grim reminders of the power a mob can wield. Such instances of mob madness require a firm response from the police, one that signals that those who dispense such 'instant justice' will be severely punished."
The police in these districts, in response to these false messages, have started an awareness drive to counter such dubious claims. In Vellore, autorickshaws with speakers attached to them have been warning locals to avoid panicking and to stop believing these messages. People have also been told that strict action will be taken if any violence is reported against innocents.
"At least one rumor-monger has been arrested. Social media, by its very nature, enables the unchallenged dissemination of unverified information, and its regulation presents a challenge to law enforcement. Fear mongering is typically undertaken on social media,” the paper went on to note.
A particular video that was circulated on social media was found to be the same one which was being distributed last May. This video seemed to have originated in Pakistan. The circulation of the video in May 2017 had resulted in several lynchings in Jharkhand.
This unverified video is becoming viral on whatsup in Tamilnadu and may be provocative. It is spreading rumours of child kidnapping and needs to be verified before posting anywhere. Rumours can create havoc. pic.twitter.com/1RkrGBxN8v— P.Uday Shankar (@udaygeeth) May 10, 2018
"Mobs are amorphous units that confer anonymity on perpetrators, emboldening them, on the spur of the moment, to collectively commit vile acts without a sense of individual guilt. The state needs to break this pattern through demonstrable action against perpetrators, and widely disseminate news of action taken against the guilty," The Hindu's editorial went to note.
Many villagers in these districts live in fear of outsiders coming to their towns and causing trouble. People from nearby villages and districts perhaps unwittingly have spread messages they hear about people coming from outside the state to kidnap their children.
What follows is a mentality of doing whatever it takes to protect children in villagers and hence a sense of paranoia grows and engulfs a large group of people who spring to violent action at the first sight of something that they think is suspicious.
Author Nandini Krishnan, in a column explains the state of vigilantism in the state –
"Tamil Nadu has always had its share of vigilantism. It usually manifests after mixed caste marriages. There have been cases where justice has been served, if the conviction of those involved in murder can be called justice. But there is something more sinister at work – the idea that the people have power, and can get away with lawlessness," she wrote.
Residents in some of these villages have deserted their homes over fears of police interrogation. Many of the shops and houses have remain closed since some of the lynching incidents. All it took was a video on WhatsApp and one or two people spreading it through word of mouth for the fear to catch fire and travel through several towns and districts.
Such vigilantism isn't new for the country or indeed the state. This points to a fundamental breakdown in the law and order framework and structure in the state in general, but particularly in the inner districts and rural areas.
With no trust in law enforcement, people feel emboldened to be judge, jury and executioner with paranoia as evidence. The role of technology cannot be ignored. Basic sensitisation that enables people to easily understand what's true and what isn't can help.
For the situation to improve going forward there must be dialogue between law enforcement and the local population on the dangers in spreading false information; particularly that which prove inflammatory. Educating locals on the difference between news they can believe and those that they should dismiss as false is necessary; but there the police should also take steps to ensure that they have the trust of people who they are obliged to protect.
More columns by Varun Sukumar