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Murderous whispers

Gurvinder Singh | Updated on July 20, 2018 Published on July 20, 2018
Herd on social media: In Malda, rumours of kidnappers prowling the villages were circulating for months, both online and through word of mouth

Herd on social media: In Malda, rumours of kidnappers prowling the villages were circulating for months, both online and through word of mouth   -  Gurvinder Singh

The panic that led to a mentally-ill man being lynched refuses to die down in Malda’s villages

As one approaches Malda town, about 350 km from Kolkata, the green fields and grazing cattle appear as a welcome relief from the pollution of concrete urban jungles. The sight of children gambolling in the dust in front of their tin-roofed mud houses presents a complete contrast to the big-city kids lost in their virtual world.

The North Bengal town appears no different from the countryside elsewhere in India, but the surface calm and stupor soon give way to an unknown fear and suspicion that shadow you as you enter Bulbulchandi-Dobapara village in Habibur block.

Any new visitor is bombarded with questions and some of the women hurriedly push their children inside the house.

It was in Dobapara that on June 12 a 40-year-old man was lynched on suspicion of being a kidnapper. Little is known about the deceased, except that he was perhaps mentally ill. According to the police, as he was seen loitering in the area the villagers grew suspicious and dragged him to a local football ground, tied him to a lamp post and beat him up until he fell unconscious. By the time the police intervened and rushed him to the Malda Medical College, he had died.

Hours later, fearing police action, the residents of Dobapara and adjoining Ramkandopur fled with their families.

As many as 250 households remained empty for nearly three weeks. “We were worried that the police were targeting even those who were not involved... We returned home just a few days ago,” said Kartik Haldar, a young fisherman who was among those who fled home.

Present tense: Khubja Halder (in front) says her husband and son have been falsely accused of taking part in the lynching of a mentally-ill man in Dobapara village   -  Gurvinder Singh

 

Over a dozen people have been arrested, but their families claim they were falsely implicated. Khubja Halder, mother of one of the arrested, 28-year-old Jibon, said he had returned from work around 12.30 pm on that day, over an hour after the incident, yet the police took him away. “He is innocent and has no past criminal record,” she said.

Jibon’s 75-year-old father, Gobind, has also been booked in the case. “My husband suffers from breathlessness. He was also not at home when the lynching occurred,” said Khubja.

Parvati Das (50), the mother of another accused, Kishore, does domestic work in Delhi. She took the first train to Malda on hearing about her son’s arrest.

“My son sells lottery tickets, going from village to village. He was just passing through the area.”Her employer in Delhi has been calling her frequently, but Parvati refuses to return until her son is back home.

How did this otherwise nondescript village become the scene of such a violent crime? Locals said rumours of kidnappers roaming in the area had set off widespread panic.

Somnath Halder, a local youth, blames social media for the rumours.

“Some messages showing children being kidnapped or hacked to death and thrown in bushes were circulating for over two months,” he said, declining to be photographed for fear of being arrested.

The June 12 killing was, in fact, preceded by two other back-to-back incidents of mob assault. On June 8, a man and a woman were severely beaten in Chaitangachi, barely five km from Dobapara.

“They were passing through the area when some villagers began to shout that they were child-lifters,” said Sushant Haldar (70), a farmer. The police managed to rescue them on time. Two days later, a homeless woman was similarly assaulted at the nearby Madhyam Kendua village.

The panic was so great that parents stopped sending their children to school.

“Of the school’s 81 students, only four or five attended classes after the lynching incident. The children were heard asking worriedly whether their kidneys would be taken away. We had to visit their houses and assure them that everything was safe. The situation is better now,” recounted Tanuja Saha, assistant teacher of Dobapara Primary School.

Rumours also spread about Rohingyas crossing over from Bangladesh to kidnap children from Dobapara, which is barely two km from the border.

The police, however, deny there were any Rohingyas in the area.

“There has not been a single instance of kidnapping till now... baseless rumours have led to the present situation. We have already arrested 15 people for the lynching incident. The investigation is on and it would not be possible to pinpoint any particular reason for the mob frenzy. We have not picked up any innocent persons, as the arrests were based on mobile phone recordings of the crowd,” said Arnab Ghosh, Superintendent of Police, Malda.

The children were worried that their kidneys would be taken away

 

The Block Development Officer of Habibur, Subhajit Jena said the administration is working to create awareness to prevent any recurrence of the gory incident. “We have placed banners asking villagers to inform the cops if they see any suspicious-looking outsider.”

The septuagenarian Sushant Haldar refused to pin the blame solely on social media. “It’s the youngsters who basically operate Facebook and WhatsApp, but people from all age groups were involved in the lynching.”

Gurvinder Singh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata

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Published on July 20, 2018
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