Call to kill

P Anima | Updated on July 20, 2018

The day after: Rainpada was largely deserted afteramob lynched five men on July 1. Many residents fled the village fearing arrests pravin khare   -  Pravin Khare

What spurs largely peaceful communities into a raging mob?

Twenty days later, the question still haunts the administrators of Rainpada, a remote hamlet in Maharashtra’s Dhule district. Just what turned its largely peaceful tribal community into a bloodthirsty mob? It was July 1, and the village was geared up for its weekly market. But the cheerful air suddenly turned chillingly violent. The villagers found a group of beggars at the haat suspicious. They had heard rumours about child-lifters, and these five men were outsiders.

They chased the five men — who belonged to Mangalvedha, a small town in Solapur — and pulled them out of a gram panchayat office where someone had tried to lock them in to save them from the mob. The villagers beat them up, killing all five.

The dead belonged to the Gosavi community, and Rainpada saw them as outsiders. Almost everybody killed in mob violence in recent times across the country has been dubbed a stranger. “Rainpada is home to a peaceful tribal community. Everyone is surprised. Dhule has not witnessed such violence in the past,” district magistrate Rahul Rekhanwar says over the phone.

Similar questions are being asked elsewhere, too. Mobs have killed about two dozen people in the country in the last three months. A fortnight after Dhule, a 32-year-old man fell victim to rumours about child-lifters in Bidar, Karnataka. Two men were lynched in Karbi Anglong, Assam, while three, including an official deployed to dispel rumours about kidnappers, were killed in Tripura in June. Rumours spread and led to deadly assaults in Telangana, while a woman was lynched in Tamil Nadu.

The mobs in every case, the police say, were spurred by rumours on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, about children being picked up by strangers. Some of the news that spread across the sites spoke of children’s organs being sold. In all the cases, the victims were unknown people; scary “outsiders”. Further, cases of child kidnapping were hardly ever reported from these places.

Clearly, mob frenzy builds up when certain emotional issues — the cow, for instance, or an innocent child — are at stake. And, invariably, the ones under assault are unknown faces.

Pradip Shinde, sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, finds latent anger behind acts of mindless violence and is concerned about migrant workers who come from other States. “The last time I was here, I found many Bihari labourers working in farms. The lynchings put people in the informal and unorganised sector in danger,” says Shinde, who belongs to Dhule and visited the area after the lynching.

Several factors, including economic ones, could manifest into acts of violence. “The contemporary political language is very aggressive. People are discontent as promises have not translated into positive changes in their lives. The underlying frustration and anger is waiting for a trigger, and the rumours that abound in social media serve that purpose,” Shinde says.

Rumours, he adds, had functioned as a potent weapon in subaltern cultures. A mob revels in anonymity and is empowered by it, he argues, while stressing that it is imperative to trace the source that sets off a mob. It is important to study the origin of inflammatory messages and the motivation behind them.

“Ours is a society still grappling with social media. We will evolve and find a way to handle the medium, but until then there will be the urge to believe everything,” points out Nimesh G Desai, director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Delhi.

Desai draws parallels between the lynching incidents and Delhi’s monkey man panic in 2001, when an unknown monkey-faced man was being sighted in different localities. These cases, he points out, may not fit the classic definition for mass hysteria as the victims were widespread, but many aspects share a similarity. “We did a scientific study on the victims and witnesses in 2001 and 90 per cent of them had a mental health explanation. That bolsters my belief that what we are seeing now is also a form of mass hysteria,” he adds.

The lynchings underscore the need for greater access to law enforcement agencies. Dhule has responded — though five deaths too late — by allotting villages to police constables who will keep a close watch on the goings-on and be the point person to call in case of trouble. “We have spread the word through weekly markets,” says Rekhanwar.

The administration is seeking to get the village back on track. “We have to ensure that villagers shed their fear,” says Rekhanwar. PJ Rathod, station-in-charge of Pimpalner, under which Rainpada falls, adds that a new police outpost has come up four km from Rainpada. He also asserts at all meetings that there have been no cases of kidnapping in the area.

Rainpada was a little-known village till its men went on a rampage. The Supreme Court has called for laws to halt “mobocracy”. But who will check the mindsets?

Published on July 20, 2018

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