Bengaluru: An awful lot of people in Bidar have fled their homes even as notable outsiders, including senior police officers and television journalists, come to visit them. Normally, this arid north Karnataka district rarely grabs the news headlines, except for its recurring droughts. But this year, despite good rains bringing relief to its vast farmlands, the place is simmering with tension.

Bidar shocked the nation on Sunday when a mob of about 200 people in one of its interior pockets beat Mohammad Azam Usmansab, an IT engineer, to death.

Usmansab who worked for Accenture in Hyderabad had come to visit Handikera village, along with three friends. They were suspected to be child kidnappers because of rumours spread by villagers on messaging service WhatsApp. The police launched a massive crackdown, arresting almost 30 people in the neighbourhood of Handikera, said Bidar superintendent of police D Devaraju. They are raiding more homes in search of the rest, forcing many to go into hiding to evade arrest.

Surrounded by a swarm of television cameras stationed outside their homes, the villagers seem perplexed about what they did. “Control kho gaya… Right or wrong we don’t know," said a person from the region, speaking over the phone, who did not want to be named because his wife is afraid of police action.

Usmansab’s fault? Apparently, he gave chocolates to children returning from a school. “These days, everybody knows you don’t give chocolates to kids you don’t know personally. So then, why did they give the kids chocolates? They should have explained to us that they don’t want to harm the kids, but instead they speeded up their car. They should have stopped at least when we tried to stop them by blocking their way with wood. But instead of explaining, they tried to jump over it," the person quoted above said in Hindi.

Police officials say they pleaded with folded hands, but the villagers did not stop. In the majority Hindu-populated region, the minority identity of the victims may have also played a role in the attack, as per locals. A New Indian Express report on Wednesday said the villagers repeatedly shouted, “Arre, ye aatankvadi hain, maaro (They are terrorists, beat them up)."

The incident comes at a time when a spate of similar killings, mostly related to rumours spread on WhatsApp, which is used by 200 million Indians, have generated a heated debate. Only two weeks ago, five men were lynched by a mob at Dhule in Maharashtra, following similar rumours shared on WhatsApp, forcing the Supreme Court to take note of it on Tuesday. Calling them “horrendous acts of mobocracy", the top court told Parliament to make lynching a separate offence that could land the offenders in jail for as long as five years under a speedy trial. State governments, it said, need to form task forces to identity people with a history of spreading provocative and fake statements, and identify regions with a lynching history.

The central government has passed on the matter to technology companies and state administrators to police this matter. It told WhatsApp to take appropriate measures to curtail the spread of fake and provocative messages on 4 July, following which the messaging service rolled out a new feature that would clearly mark forwarded messages. In full-page advertisements splashed in all major dailies, WhatsApp called it a move aimed at curbing the spread of rumours.

But the perpetual, endemic nature of the lynchings stands out. It is no longer a threat, but a violent encounter where often the justification for the attack includes the desire to be safe. Would policing alone stop it? “It is easy to pin the blame on political parties, media debates, or target specifically a political party or a technology company or even an individual. But the fact is that we have a problem as a society. Everybody thinks they are victim, even the majority ones," said Narendar Pani, writer and professor of economics and social science at National Institute of Advanced Studies. “A deeper sense of insecurity or an identity conflict prevails, which gets transferred into this. If I am right, I can kill, seems to have become a popular notion. Why is there no moral pressure not to kill?"

In a country where exclusionary politics and violent wars form the core of many of its stories, ranging from ancient myths to modern political discourses, there may not be a magic bullet to solve this problem. But at the grassroots level, district administrations in several parts of India are trying to respond to this threat in their own ways. Pratik Sinha of AltNews, a fact-checking website, says his organization may be small, isolated and insufficient, but it nevertheless fills a crucial gap left by the absence of any larger institutional push for battling rumours on WhatsApp.

Noor Mohammad Sadique shows the injuries he sustained in the attack. Photo: The News Minute
Noor Mohammad Sadique shows the injuries he sustained in the attack. Photo: The News Minute

Palamaru, Telangana

Around the same time when people in Bidar were thrashing a man to death based on rumours on WhatsApp, a village that’s only a five-hour drive away was buzzing with the songs sung by local musicians about the evils of fake news. The activity was part of events being held in 400 villages spread across 5000 sq. km in Telangana’s Palamuru region, where a district police officer, Rema Rajeshwari, has made it a mission to fight fake news.

Rajeshwari landed in Jogulamba Gadwal district, as superintendent of police, in March, and in a short while noticed a trend—a series of child kidnapping rumours on WhatsApp creating havoc in villages.

Unlike in a normal summer, villagers would not sleep outside their houses at night for fear of kidnappers they’d read about on WhatsApp. A shepherd couldn’t step out of his home for a week after his picture was circulated on WhatsApp as a child kidnapper. An ex-convict found it easy to waylay and extort money from tourists by creating fake WhatsApp messages about them being child kidnappers. A school dropout with injury marks all over his body said he was attacked by a gang of child kidnappers, putting the village in a state of frenzy for three days—all because he did not want to do the work his parents had told him to do: graze the cattle. Another person, whom the villagers suspected to be a kidnapper, was a labourer from a nearby district. When they asked him why he was there, he remained silent because he had come to visit a woman with whom he was having an affair there, and ended up getting beaten up by the villagers.

In the last four months, the district has seen at least 13 cases of vigilantes coming together to attack someone over a rumour they read or saw on WhatsApp, says Rajeshwari. The district is one of the most backward regions in Telangana, with about half of the people illiterate, and is prone to violence because of a history of factional feuds. There has not been a death so far, with the police stepping in to stop any violence, she says.

“There are 30-40 major (WhatsApp) groups in small villages. It was impossible for us to check every group. So we decided to begin an awareness campaign, starting with our own men in uniforms, and devised a mechanism to send our message in the best possible way," she says. It led to the formation of a team of artists, comprising mostly local singers and drummers, who wrote songs on fake news. “People identify more with their songs than our speeches," she says. These village artists sing of how to fact-check news, how not to forward unverified messages, even if they are sent by friends or family, and how not to take the law into their hands by forming vigilante groups.

This was followed up with debates and discussions at the grassroots level, along with a series of official deliberations with local politicians. Every village now has a couple of WhatsApp groups where the admins are the sarpanchs (village chiefs), who monitor the messages and inform the police if anything has a potential to flare up.

“If you are part of a mob, you have an unusual courage, you become anonymous, you end up doing something without really thinking about it," says Rajeshwari. Until, perhaps, a cop shows up and tells you not to.

Mohammad Salman Alinor shows his injuries sustained during the attack. Photo: The News Minute
Mohammad Salman Alinor shows his injuries sustained during the attack. Photo: The News Minute

Kannur, North Kerala

Are you ready for the truth," asks a video at its start, over a background score similar to what an action-packed movie would have when its hero is staring at danger. The 17-minute clip was widely circulated among minority-populated north Kerala districts in end-2017, projecting the state’s vaccination campaign as part of an evil plot to kill children in poor nations. It showed former US President George Bush talking about a new world order, and then segued into Bill Gates allegedly talking about reducing the world population by vaccinating more children in a Ted Talk. Gates apparently meant reducing population growth by promoting health, but the video, put out by a sham organization that only exists on Facebook, cleverly showed it as a mass murder plot.

This global conspiracy theory to depopulate the earth by promoting vaccination among children was found to have influenced people. When public health officials approached children in the region for vaccination last year, they were fiercely resisted. North Kerala was in for a public health crisis.

While the rest of the state provided vaccination to more than 70% of children (one of the reasons Kerala has the best health indicators in the country), pockets in the northern districts languished below 20%.

One of the people most taken aback was Mir Muhammad Ali, collector of Kannur, a northern Kerala district. “I was frustrated. I just couldn’t fathom the thought that people would risk their children’s lives because of a rumour they read on WhatsApp." He began a campaign to fight fake news, “Sathyameva Jayathe". First, he called the heads of schools with less than 20% of vaccine coverage, put them together with public health officials and asked them to discuss their problems. Over a series of such meetings, public health officials patiently tried to talk sense into teachers and parents, and by November, Kannur had vaccinated almost 71% of children.

Ali has made the campaign a project to be run in all schools. In July, students in 150 schools were given three-four pieces of news, and were told to go home and find out if they were true—and, if not, why. “We need to train children (to distinguish) between right and wrong, we need to give them the tools. They need to understand there is something called clickbait, they need to ask for a source on news, check if the source is mainstream media or ‘zigzagnews’," says Ali.

Mohammad Azam Usmansab, an IT engineer at Accenture in Hyderabad, was beaten to death by the mob. Photo: The News Minute
Mohammad Azam Usmansab, an IT engineer at Accenture in Hyderabad, was beaten to death by the mob. Photo: The News Minute

Interior Tamil Nadu

The reedy sound blaring out of loudspeakers in interior Tamil Nadu is no longer from devotional songs alone, but of strict police warnings against anyone spreading fake news on social media. The superintendents of police in districts such as Tiruvannamalai, Kanchipuram, Tiruvallur, Viluppuram and Vellore have taken to making public announcements using loudspeakers to dispel rumours.

This follows a wave of lynchings, unrelated except for originating on WhatsApp, the latest in May when a 65 year-old female tourist was lynched by a 200-strong mob after she was found distributing chocolates to children in Tiruvannamalai.

Since then, police have started travelling in auto-rickshaws with loudspeakers, asking people not to believe in rumours. These public campaigns are being conducted, especially across towns and villages primarily in the northern districts where a spate of lynchings were reported.

In such campaigns, police direct the people to tell them if they find someone suspicious, instead of going after him themselves. There’s even a helpline. The police are also sending bulk text messages asking people not to attack innocent people.

In the capital city, Chennai, commissioner of police A.K. Viswanathan has warned of stern action against mob violence, including detention under the Goondas Act. News channels in Tamil Nadu have also started broadcasting a message video on fake news before their programmes.

North Maharashtra

In less than two months, 14 incidents of mob lynching and vigilantism have taken nine lives across Maharashtra. The most egregious of these took place in Dhule in North Maharashtra when a rampaging mob lynched five members of a nomadic tribe on the suspicion that they were child lifters.

The rumour was spread by videos on WhatsApp and the police investigation has revealed that all the videos were fake.

Soon after the Dhule incident, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who holds the home portfolio, asked the state’s police administration to crack down on rumour mongering through social media and launched a public awareness campaign, following which anti-fake news billboards have cropped up on some of Mumbai’s roads.

Fadnavis said 240 prominent public locations have been identified where posters and banners would be put by the government, cautioning people against believing WhatsApp forwards, rumours and videos. They ask people to not fall for rumours, to be responsible citizens, to inform the police if they come across suspicious forwards or are aware of those who forward rumours and ask people to not take the law in their own hands.

“All police commissionerates and district superintendents of police have been asked to develop their own modules to contain this menace of rumour mongering via social media. The police officials are also holding community-level meetings across the state to spread awareness. We have also reached out to WhatsApp authorities to seek technical guidance and cooperation from them," a police official, who is part of the team set up by the government to carry out this campaign, said on condition of anonymity.

Clearly, technology is feeding sectarian divides, posing real and immediate threats to the hinterlands, and local administrators are struggling. The extent to which they could contain conflicts is debatable, but some have realized that it is not a choice any longer to be inert.

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil and Dharani Thangavelu contributed to this story.