Chennai: “Go away,” screams Neela, an old woman seated on a pavement in Athimoor village in Polur, 25 kilometres from Tiruvannamalai district. The village is deserted, the shops shuttered, and the houses locked. A week ago, a 65 year-old tourist Rukmini was lynched by a 200-strong mob after she was found distributing chocolates to children in the area. Men from Athimoor and surrounding villages suspected her to be a child trafficker. Their source of information –WhatsApp. “She was giving them Malaysian chocolates,” says Neela, a resident of the village, adding, “of course, we had to suspect her. She came in a car, like it was shown in that WhatsApp video. What if she had taken those children away?”
According to reports, there have so far been three lynching deaths in less than a fortnight. Locals, police and journalists who have been receiving these messages on their smartphones, say the deluge of false information began in early April. Along with the messages of fear mongering around child abduction is a video of two men riding a bike, picking up a child playing cricket on the road and speeding away, which again, sources have debunked as “old and fake.”
Similarly, messages such as – “Don’t allow your children to leave the house alone. Over 52 children have been abducted in the district and police are hiding complaints from us,” are floating around, and another one that hits closer to Tiruvannamalai, reads that a man from Rajasthan has been arrested at Vandavasi for abducting a child.
A Ghost Village
Tiruvannamalai, the sleepy temple town, has since then been gripped with fear. Police have gone door to door, distributed pamphlets and travelling in rickshaws with megaphones urging people not to believe in rumours on WhatsApp.
Over 42 people have been remanded in custody and have not been released in the past 10 days. Most of them, the villagers believe, are spectators.
In the surrounding villages, especially in Athimoor, which are populated with daily wage labourers, there is anger and helplessness. Saraswati, 29, has three children aged 2, 5 and 9, and has forbidden them, like many other mothers, from going out and playing during their vacations despite the rumours being debunked by the authorities. Her constant interaction with the police, who picked up her husband, has ended up in the same answer: “Don’t worry, this is just a formality, but he might be remanded for more than 15 days.”
“We barely make ends meet, and we never knew about WhatsApp or smartphones until now. My husband has a simple phone with no camera. The police also suggested that he surrender and then apply for bail, which we all know he will never get. We don’t even have the money to go to court,” she says.
Those taken into custody have been slapped with charges ranging from murder, damage to public property, rioting and wrongful confinement.
Vijayalakshmi had to sell her two chickens five days after she knew her husband wasn’t coming back. “All because of a piece of plastic with a screen, our lives have changed,” she says, adding that “he (her husband) may have seen the video, but I would never peg him as a violent man.” At this point, Saraswathi interrupts: “Maybe we don’t even know our husbands well enough.”
The Superintendent of Police of Tiruvannamalai, Nilavazhagan, sifts through the awareness pamphlets, circling the parts that seem irrelevant to him. “We’ve never had a case like this before and even we are slowly learning the way to deal with it,” he says. Asked if the bystanders in the video were guilty as well, he says, “They are all lying, they all have WhatsApp. Of course, they are not bystanders. Everyone there has seen the video, and everyone has rioted,” he says, wiping the sweat off his forehead. His personal assistant adds, “We have to make arrests. Otherwise the government will get involved and people across Tamil Nadu will be affected,” he says.
K.S Kandasamy, the district collector is dumbstruck. “Even I got the message and got scared,” he says. “We were ready to send out teams to verify these claims. There were photos of missing children in Facebook with the same message,” he says, checking his phone for the messages. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know half the people in the WhatsApp groups he is in. “I never reply. I never entertain them. But when you see something so disturbing, you start questioning your own role in keeping the district safe,” he says.
Vellore, the Victim of a Fake Message
The latest message that is being circulated is an audio recording, purportedly by a man from Vellore. In this audio, the man alleges that 400 people had come to Tamil Nadu to abduct children. “I live in Vellore and two kilometres from my house, a child was abducted by a Hindi speaker,” the audio from an unknown person says.
Scattered around the villages in Vellore are groups of boys and men aged between 18 and 30 fiddling with their smartphones. They call themselves the night watchers.
“After this WhatsApp message, we went on rounds to find anyone suspicious. There was one man who did not answer our questions and only spoke in Hindi. We had to take action,” one of the boys said.
The Hindi-speaking man is currently fighting for his life in CMC, Vellore.
Mathivanan, a 22 year-old boy studying in a city college, said when he saw the video of the woam giving chocolates t children, he felt like “breaking her bones”. “Of course I was angry, it seemed so real,” he says.
The overbearing fear of North Indian migrants committing crimes in Vellore is palpable. “They come to CMC for some treatment and then take our jobs and abuse our people,” said a local boy.
Raju, 18, said: “We wake up to WhatsApp messages. We sleep after reading WhatsApp messages. For us WhatsApp is our life, our Facebook, our Twitter,” he says, adding that “No matter which politician or police official says that the videos and messages are not true, we have to believe what is for our own good. They will not come to our help. We have to take things in our hands.”
The media, too, has a role in creating a sense of paranoia in the area. A reporter from a leading daily, who refused to be identified, said he had to follow up the story after the WhatsApp messages were circulated in the area. “We are always under the pressure to send one story a day, so when everyone from Tiruvannamalai to Chennai saw that video, we were forced to do a story on it” , he said.
After it was revealed that the video was fake, media houses in Tamil Nadu covered the police awareness campaigns but only lightly touched upon why such rumour-mongering was undertaken in the first place and who was behind it. The murder of Rukmini was treated by the media as separate case of crime.
While the Vellore authorities were quick to respond and quell the situation with the police acting swiftly by launching an awareness campaign before further damage was done, the Tiruvannamalai collector said, “In this case, you can take the man out of the fear, but you can’t take the fear out of the man.”
Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist based in Chennai.