Bidar, Karnataka: It’s a picturesque village or “Tanda", as Lambani community settlements are known. A horse, without a care in the world or what transpired with its masters, grazes on the lush green grass with forests on one side and newly sprouting soya bean crop on the other. The cloudy skies with a few escaping rays, add to the contrast of colours of this Tanda, known as Bhatkul, which has 30-35 homes tucked away in the interiors of Bidar, a district bordering Maharashtra. But the village wears a deserted look, with only a handful of curious children, a few women and just three men.
“Tandas have different rules unlike other villages. When we see the police coming, we run first and think later," says Raavan Keshav, a 50-year-old differently-abled resident of Bhatkul. Lambanis or Banjaras are a nomadic race whose origins can be traced to Rajasthan and despite decades—or even centuries of settlements—the community carries the social stigma attached with gypsies.
But this time, many of them have been accused of spreading misinformation through WhatsApp on alleged child abductors, resulting in the brutal lynching of Mohammed Azam Usmansab, a software professional who worked with Accenture in Hyderabad, and grievously injuring three others, in Murki, a small village of about 6,000 people, a week ago.
The incident, adding to recent frenzy around alleged child abductors on the prowl across the country, was triggered mostly due to the borderless communication that social media provides. With more than 200 million WhatsApp users in India, monitoring social media platforms is a challenging task for Indian law enforcers.
On Friday, WhatsApp said its users in India would not be allowed to forward more than five chats, among other measures to reduce the circulation of fake news.
The incident in Murki is no different from other lynching episodes reported from other places. The four young victims who distributed chocolates to schoolchildren on their way back home between Bhatkul and Handikera were mistaken for child traffickers.
Already exposed to similar misinformation earlier, the villagers posted the video on multiple WhatsApp groups, with some sinister additions that these men also possessed weapons. Sensing danger, the men sped away from the spot, only to find themselves at the bottom of a 10ft deep ditch in Murki, about 3km away.
“We had nothing to do with this. But there is a curse attached to our village now," said Mahadev Hanmudgi, who runs a small eatery right next to where the incident unravelled for almost an hour, with the four policemen on the spot pleading the mob to stop.
“We have deleted at least 20 WhatsApp groups since the incident," said D. Devaraj, superintendent of police, Bidar. So far, 28 people have been arrested.
But caught in the middle is the small village of Murki, whose only fault was that it played host to an incident that has grabbed international media attention. “We are left feeling guilty for a crime our village did not commit," Hanmudgi says.