Centre for Internet & Society

45 persons were killed in 40 cases of mob lynching across nine states between 2014 and 3 March 2018 according to data.

The article was published in the Business Standard on July 9, 2018. Swaraj Paul Barooah was quoted.

Two incidents of mob violence reported from Dima Hasao in Assam and Mangaluru in Karnataka on July 6, 2018, take to 61 the number of sparked by rumours of child-lifting circulated on social media since beginning of the year.

So far this year, 24 persons have been killed in such mob attacks, an IndiaSpend analysis of news reports from across India shows. This is more than 4.5 times rise in attacks and two-fold rise in deaths of this kind over 2017, when 11 persons were killed in eight separate attacks.

Between January 1, 2017, and July 5, 2018, 33 persons have been killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported cases. In the first six days of July alone, there have been nine cases of mob violence over rumours and five deaths, which amounts to more than one attack recorded every day.

In all cases, the victims were assaulted on mere suspicion and no evidence of was found later. So far, police across states have arrested at least 181 persons in connection with 21 cases, according to information from the news reports.

On July 5, 2018, the central home ministry had directed all states and union territories to contain mob-lynchings fuelled by rumours of child-lifting on social media. Nevertheless, two attacks were reported on July 6, 2018–a father travelling with his own son in Karnataka, and three sadhus or ‘holy men’ travelling in Assam.

Prior to 2017, one mob was recorded in August 2012, in which a driver was killed in Patna, Bihar, on suspicion of kidnapping a minor, according to our database.

The spike in these lynchings over the past year follows a rise in bovine-related hate violence, as recorded in IndiaSpend’s database on cow-related hate crime. Incidents of on persons suspected of killing cows have become deadlier during this period, with more deaths reported in attacks.

Social and political commentators have blamed this violence on a rise in socio-political and religious cleavages, a rise of vigilantism and an apparent atmosphere of impunity for attackers.

“The violence started with cow-related vigilantism but it is now building up more violent behaviour–from small to big reasons anything could be the trigger,” psychologist Upneet Lalli, deputy director of the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh, told IndiaSpend.

Videos of people tied and beaten, begging mobs to spare their lives, have been circulating on WhatsApp groups and other social media, affecting people everywhere, she said, adding, “Once set off for any reason, mob hysteria is extremely difficult to control.”

Social media is aiding and abetting the process, criminologist Vijay Raghavan, dean of the social protection office at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, told IndiaSpend, adding that the growing violence is “clearly being orchestrated by vested interests”.

“A rumour starts in one part of the country and travels to other parts like wildfire–first it was beef, now it is child lifting,” he said. In most cases, the victims and the attackers belong to communities historically pitted against each other, he said, “This changing narrative has a clear pattern of violence that is basically preying on traditional insider-outsider perceptions.”

Our analysis

To analyse instances of mob violence related to child-lifting rumours, our team collected, studied and cross-verified print and online news reports in the English media, which tend to have the widest nationwide coverage, since 2010. All reported incidents were cross-referenced to eliminate discrepancies.

The dataset thus created includes the number of mob attacks, the severity of each attack and details of the victims. Most entries include the names of districts, towns and villages.

Since each observation is based on a newspaper report of the crime, availability of details such as the severity of crime, the number of victims and their identities and ethnicities varies.

Before 2017, only one incident was reported in 2012.

Jharkhand, Maharashtra deadliest

Among all states and union territories, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, with seven and five deaths, respectively, reported the highest death toll. The chances of death in such attacks in these states stood at 350% and 167%, respectively, meaning every reported incident led to more than one death.

Odisha, under the Biju Janata Dal government, reported the most number of attacks, 15, which resulted in one death. Tamil Nadu, run by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), followed with nine cases and four deaths.

One-third or 30% of attacks were reported from states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which also runs the central government.

In the 19 months since January 2017, 10 districts across 16 states have reported more than one case of mob violence. Jeypore, Mayurbhanjh and Rayagada in Odisha and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh have reported three separate incidents each.

More than half or 56% of the attacked victims were men, 22% women, 3% transgender, and for the remaining 18%, the gender was not mentioned in the news reports.

Among those killed, 14 were Hindus, 3 Muslims, and in 16 cases the religious/ethnic identity was not reported.

No correlation between rise in reported child kidnappings and spread of mob violence

Except in Maharashtra, these incidents of violence do not reflect an increase in child kidnapping cases recorded in Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2014 to 2016.

In the two years from 2014, India recorded a 41% rise in kidnapping and abduction of children–from 38,555 in 2014 to 54,328 in 2016–primarily in Uttar Pradesh (9,678), Maharashtra (8,260) and Delhi (6,254), NCRB data show.

As of 2016, Maharashtra, the second-most populous state in India, reported the second-highest number of child abductions. It has also reported the second-highest toll from mob lynchings over child-lifting rumours.

However, there was no such correlation in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, which the NCRB ranked first and third for the number of reported child abductions and kidnappings (which are defined differently in law but basically involve seizing by force and against the victim’s will).

Jharkhand, which reported the highest death toll from mob lynchings, ranked 19 across India for reported child abductions in 2016, as per NCRB data. Tripura, where five people were killed, ranked 24.

This may suggest that fears of are unfounded and exaggerated. “There is no correlation because the instigators of this violence are not prompted by a genuine fear of kidnapping,” Raghavan said.

However, the data do not account for cases that go unreported–families are hesitant to approach the police, who are seen to be unsympathetic and intimidating–or cases lost in communication between states and NCRB.

The violence is also indicative of how people have lost faith in law enforcement and criminal justice systems to act decisively against child lifting, Lalli said, adding, “Losing faith in the law of the land is a serious threat to society.”

Mob psyche is different from individual psyche, she said, “When an individual acts, there is a sense of responsibility, but in a mob, there is a dispersion of responsibility and guilt.” The mob justifies its act as heroism to save the community, their identity, their children, themselves.

Of the children kidnapped or abducted in 2016, 73% were female and 27% male, NCRB data show. Of the total child victims, 31% (16,938) were kidnapped or abducted for the purpose of marriage, of which only one victim was male; 3% (1,562 female and 26 male) for illicit intercourse; and 1% each for other unlawful activity and adoption. No purpose was mentioned in fully 62% of cases.

77% attacks attributed to fake news

Of the 69 mob violence cases related to rumours of child lifting that have been reported, 77% were eventually attributed to fake news spread through social media. Mobile messenger application Whatsapp, in particular, featured as the rumour source in 28% or 19 of the cases.

The ministry of electronics and information technology on July 2, 2018, issued a warning to Whatsapp, observing that “instances of of innocent people because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp”.

“Such a platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility especially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence,” the ministry said subsequently in a press release on July 3, 2018, stating clearly that “WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities”.

About 13% or 200 million of WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion users are Indian, The Financial Express reported on February 1, 2018. This is 42% of India’s 481 million internet users recorded as of December 2017.

In a letter to the ministry shared with IndiaSpend, the WhatsApp management said it was “horrified by these terrible acts of violence” and listed out the steps it has taken to curb the spread of fake news but emphasised that the challenge “requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together”.

It maintained, however, that messages would continue to have end-to-end encryption to protect users’ privacy and security, encryption being key to WhatsApp’s messaging service. It added that no more than a quarter of WhatsApp users are part of groups; that the majority of groups are small (with fewer than 10 members); and nine in 10 messages are sent from just one person to another.

Cyber privacy experts caution against overreacting against WhatsApp and other social media platforms, arguing in favour of free speech and privacy.

In June, after two cases of mob lynching in Tripura, the government tried to control the situation by shutting down the internet in the area, reports included in our database said.

This is “a slippery slope to quell dissent”, Swaraj Barooah, director at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit, said, adding, “There are indications that marginalised groups tend to be affected more strongly than others when there are internet shutdowns.”

Lynchings point to a much larger issue than the ubiquitous presence of social media, experts said. “Everyone is focusing on these being rumours–and of course the platform’s ability to exponentially magnify the speed and reach of a message being sent is very relevant–but when and why did we normalise vigilante justice in the first place?” said Barooah. “For instance, would this type of action be okay if these were not rumours, but had actually been true?”

“The root problem is those exploiting historical animosities between communities. We need to properly investigate on a national-level who are the instigators and what are they after–merely arresting people after an incident is not enough,” professor Raghavan said.

Barooah also warned against attempts to force WhatsApp to provide security agencies with decrypted data, as the government had forced the Canadian smartphone maker Blackberry to do in 2013.

“Given that it is already unsure of the extent to which WhatsApp shares metadata with governments, it is important to ensure that its end-to-end encryption facility is not weakened,” Barooah said. “There are certain delicate trade-offs that can be made, but if they are, they should not be made as a knee-jerk reaction to ongoing events but after careful consideration of all the pitfalls. This is especially important in India, given the lack of a privacy law as well as concerns of chilling effects on free speech that are present.”

Some solutions he suggested include making it mandatory that WhatsApp forwards and memes contain originator details, and that a “fact check this” option be inserted at the user end to allow a message to be decrypted. He also suggested that a database of ‘reported hashes’ be created, which all users could download, and which would automatically rate messages on ‘trust’.

It is also important to help people identify fake news and question the information they receive, experts say, pointing out that while India has low literacy and education levels, even highly literate people are not free from confirmation bias.

“We really need to educate people–people naively believe everything they read as true. We’re not doing anything about critical thinking and critical inquiry–we’ve stopped being questioning and that’s a very important part of countering fake news,” Lalli said, adding, “We don’t even respond to information, we’re only reacting.”

How recent attacks tie in with bovine-related vigilantism and violence

IndiaSpend has been maintaining a database of bovine-related violence since 2010, which shows a spurt in violence since the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power in May 2014.

A preponderant majority of bovine-related hate crimes–98% of the 85 incidents–have occurred since May 2014, our database shows. Only one incident each was reported in 2012 and 2013.

Around 56% of the persons attacked by these groups were Muslim, who accounted for 88% of those killed in this violence. In 2018, 100% of victims attacked in these hate crimes were Muslim.

“There is a clear increase in aggression by one group against the other and a growing inability to empathise and understand those different from ourselves,” Lalli said, “This has essentially made us revert to behaving like tribalistic societies with animalistic instincts–where, when for survival, when you perceive an animal to be a threat, you attack it to kill it.”

In more than a third–28 of 85 incidents–mobs or groups of people were spurred into violence on the mere suspicion of cow slaughter.

Our database also shows that the attacks have become deadlier–the percentage chance of such mob-violence resulting in death has more than doubled from 30% in 2017–regarded as the deadliest year since 2010 (11 deaths in 37 cases)–to 66% in 2018 (four deaths in six cases).

“Society has an innate capacity for violence and it’s very easy to encourage this. Right from Twitter trolling–which is basically extreme verbal aggression–we are unleashing and encouraging violence in different ways and contexts,” Lalli said.

What the government says

Many commentators have remarked that the absence of a strict and prompt response from the government has encouraged such violence. “What action is taken when such cases occur has an important bearing on the continuation of such violence,” Raghavan said, “By not taking strong action, the state is complicit in its orchestration.”

“While we hear about more incidents of violence, we are yet to hear full recognition or condemnation of these acts from the important leaders–in a way it sends out a message that does not discourage the mob,” Lalli agreed, “When you don’t speak out about it and come down on it strongly, it sends out a signal to society that it’s alright to resort to violence for these reasons since nobody gets punished.”

The NCRB “does not maintain specific data with respect to mob lynching incidents (involving minorities) in the country”, the home ministry told Parliament on March 13, 2018.

The ministry did furnish some data on mob lynchings recorded by states from 2014 to 2017, but did not provide information on the motive–whether cow vigilantism, communal or caste hatred, or rumours of child-lifting, etc. The data also did not disclose the identity of the victims.

These data said 45 persons were killed in 40 cases of mob lynching across nine states between 2014 and March 3, 2018. At least 217 persons have been arrested.

In contrast, IndiaSpend’s two databases on mob violence–due to child-lifting rumours and bovine-related hate violence–record 80 cases and 41 deaths during the same period. This is without counting other instances of mob violence related to caste, moral policing and so on.

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