Lynching of nomads in Maharashtra

Killer message

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Relatives of the five men belonging to the Nath Gosavi community who were lynched at Rainpada village, 75 kilometres from Dhule in Maharashtra. Photo: Pravin Khare

Police on vigil at Rainpada. Photo: Pravin Khare

The gram panchayat office where the men were lynched. Photo: AFP

Members of the Nath Gosavi community taking part in a protest march demanding justice for the five lynched men. Photo: PTI

The dangers of fake news become alarming as five nomads are lynched in Maharashtra after a doctored video of child lifters spreads fear and hate.

RAINPADA in Dhule district is one among the several Adivasi hamlets that dot the hilly region on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. An outpost with a population of just 900, which barely sees any vehicular traffic barring a few motorcycles and the occasional State transport bus, its remoteness is striking. On July 1, this agricultural village shed its obscurity when it witnessed a gruesome incident: a mob lynched five men, suspecting them to be child lifters. The five men belonged to the nomadic Nath Gosavi community, whose members wander in search of food and work from place to place.

An incident such as this, happening that too in a remote and sparsely inhabited village, gave rise to several questions: Why is the number of lynching incidents increasing? What were the victims doing in a remote village, which rarely sees outsiders? How did information about their presence spread so quickly? How did the mob form so quickly and reach Rainpada in less than an hour? Where were the law enforcement authorities?

Since the beginning of this year, Maharashtra and Jharkhand have witnessed nine lynchings each, Tripura three, West Bengal and Assam two each and Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana one each.

The Rainpada incident, like in the other instances elsewhere, exposes the dangers of digital technology, especially misinformation spread via messaging applications such as WhatsApp. The state does not seem to be equipped to handle the speed, growth and spread of fake news on social media. The killings brought out the plight of nomadic tribes who have been victims of violence and the neglect of Adivasi settlements. This correspondent spoke to Rainpada residents, the police and people working with the Adivasi communities to understand an issue that appears to have few answers.

Some of the killings that took place since January have been traced to communal issues. A senior police officer in Mumbai said a disturbing and dangerous trend was that people believed that they could take the law into their own hands. “It is a recent phenomenon, which needs to be ended,” he said.

“Union Minister Jayant Sinha’s recent action of garlanding lynching convicts has sent out a dangerous message. The current government [in the State as well the Centre] tends to sweep lynching incidents under the carpet. This is seen as some sort of encouragement, and is a terrible trend,” he added.

The mob that went on the rampage at Rainpada even slapped Sakharam Pawar, a former sarpanch, and stopped short of beating him when he tried to prevent it from killing the five men. Pawar said the five men, who clearly looked like nomads from the kind of attire they wore, were seen near Kakarpada village near Rainpada. Village residents apparently saw them talking to children and giving them sweets. Some information had been spreading on WhatsApp about suspicious-looking people who kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

“Images of opened up stomachs with kidneys removed or other organs taken out were going around on Whatsapp. I do not know who was sending them but those photos were terrible,” he said.

Pawar did not have the images on his phone but had seen them. They had also heard about the child-lifting cases in Gujarat, so this must have led people to think that the nomads were kidnappers.

Pawar said the people of Kakarpada saw some men sneaking around the village at night. In the morning, they began to question them. They were dragged to Rainpada. “By this time, people began arriving on motorbikes in Rainpada. Some residents took pity on the badly beaten men and kept them in the gram panchayat office, so that they would be safe. Meanwhile, the mob was getting bigger. When I tried to intervene, I was slapped. A constable, who managed to reach the place, was pushed and hit. The mob broke the lock of the gram panchayat office and killed the poor men with sticks and rods,” he said.

The small gram panchayat office, measuring approximately 15 feet by 5 feet, was strewn with damaged furniture, torn clothes and slippers. Dried blood was splattered on the walls. The stench of blood and death hung heavily in the room. “We thought they would be safe here, but the villagers were no match for the mob,” said Gulap Pawar of Rainpada. The nearest police station is 20 kilometres away at Sakre. By the time the police came, the situation had gone out of control. The men were dead.

Video footage of the beating aided in the arrest 27 men, mainly from the neighbouring villages, said S. Ghumre, a senior police officer from the Sakre police station. Gulap Pawar said only two or three persons were from Rainpada. The villagers do not know why the men were brought to Rainpada. Several houses in Rainpada remained locked as their occupants are suspected to be among the culprits. The families are supposedly hiding in nearby forests.

In a classic case of shutting the gates after the horses have bolted, two military and police trucks with a contingent of armed men have been stationed at the village. “We cannot understand what they are doing here. They have no work to do. The culprits will not come back while they are around. If we had a police station, this tragedy would not have happened,” said Sakharam Pawar.

“The incident reveals the plight of Adivasis. Mantralaya [the seat of the Maharashtra government] had assured us a few years ago that we would get a police station. We even have a plot of land ready. But they have not kept their promise,” he said.

Rainpada consists entirely of farmers who grow rice, jowar, bajra and rye. Unlike other Adivasi communities in this region, the people of Rainpada own land ranging from two to 10 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare). Agricultural operations are entirely rain-fed. Unfortunately, the young generation does not want to take up farming, Pawar said.

The village faces an unemployment problem. It has an elementary school and a primary health centre. Electricity supply is limited to an hour every evening. Wells are the main source of water, and the village faces water shortage through the year. “Although electricity supply is for a short time, youngsters manage to have fully charged mobile phones. I do not know how. The phone has been both a blessing and a problem,” Sakharam Pawar said.

He said the police had warned him that if he spoke too much he would also be arrested. “I want them to catch the murderers. Why are they after me? This is the problem. They are unable to crack the crime.”

Ghumre said: “It is a combination of rumours that set off incidents. We are investigating all the threads.”

A. Rafiq Sheikh, who runs a digital media unit called Media Live, has been questioned about a video clip that uses graphics and images showing child lifters on the prowl. The video was uploaded on a Marathi television channel on June 29. The police said according to the clip a group of men dressed in traditional clothes and moving suspiciously near Sakre attempted to abduct an infant. The clip went viral and some of the violence could be attributed to it, Ghumre said.

Sheikh apparently took down the clip but has been detained for interrogation.

Ghumre said unless the police were better equipped, it was almost impossible to control the fury of a mob. “Our constables do not have the experience or weaponry required.”

D.S. Ahire, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly, said he was told that some nomads asked a village woman how many children she had and where they were. She informed the menfolk about the incident and soon an alert was sounded. Ramesh Babu, a farmer from Kakarpada, said he saw images of bodies of children torn open for their organs on social media.

“It is impossible to trace WhatsApp messages. They are encrypted and anyone trying to hack them will only find jumbled codes,” said Abhijeet Mukherji, from Guiding Tech, a website that provides help on technology. “The police would have to work with WhatsApp to get to the root of these messages. But that may interfere with privacy laws,” Mukherjee said.

When WhatsApp came under severe criticism following the lynchings and the role of shared messages in the violent acts, it tried to sort out the mess by providing a “forwarded” label to identify forwarded messages and to help curb fake news. But that would hardly solve the problem.

A similar rumour circulated on WhatsApp led to the lynching of a 40-year-old mother of two in Ahmedabad on June 26. The woman, also from a nomadic community, was accused of child lifting and beaten to death. “Obviously, these incidents are not limited to rural areas, where literacy and awareness are low. Technology is proving to be a dangerous tool,” Ghumre said.

A technology expert said the police cybercrime branch was out of its depth without the tools needed to crack crimes or trace their perpetrators. The more important aspect is to stop the spread of false news. “Pratik Sinha’s Alt News [] exposes fake news. The cybercrime police should be doing something similar: monitor social media for misinformation and prevent the spread of malicious rumours,” he said. The Nath Gosavis travel from place to place seeking work as daily wage labourers on farms or construction sites. The area in which they were seen on July 1 was on one of their regular routes.

The police said the group of men was targeted following the rumours about child lifting in Ahmedabad, which were shared on social media. Dakxin Chhara, who works with denotified tribes in Gujarat, said members of the Nath Gosavi community are found all over rural India. Had it not been for the rumours, the villagers would not have viewed them with suspicion. Rainpada residents confirmed that the lynching happened on the day of the weekly market. It was quite possible that these men had come in search of work, Chhara said.

“When you take away the traditional livelihood of the nomadic community, they are reduced to begging,” he said. For instance, the woman who was lynched in Ahmedabad was a Madari or snake charmer. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, makes snake catching a non-bailable offence. In one stroke the government ruined the lives of this community. “Today, they beg for a living in cities,” said Chhara. These communities have never enjoyed state support and most of their members have remained illiterate. “Already living in subhuman conditions, they are now subjected to persecution and lynching. The government has to acknowledge their existence and give them protection, not brand them criminals,” he said.

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