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For several months now, rumours of traveling child snatchers have been floating around the country, spreading fear through Whatsapp messages and Facebook posts.Recently, the consequences of these rumours was the lynching and killing of two men from Guwahati who ventured into the tribal region of Karbi Anglong in Assam, and, of a group of five people in Dhule district in Maharashtra.

On June 8th, Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das had travelled to this region, visiting waterfalls and looking for exotic fish. As they passed by villages, in the evening, they stopped their car to ask the locals for directions. These locals had just heard rumours about child snatchers from Bihar in the region, who had taken a child with them in their car. The rumour apparently even said that one of them had long hair. The physical appearances and characteristics of the men, one having long hair like the rumour indicated, planted doubts in the minds of the villagers. This led them to suspect that these men might be the child lifters that they had heard rumours about. The situation soon escalated, with over two hundred men attacking the duo with sticks. This was even recorded. The men were heard screaming and begging for their lives to be spared. Even cries of ‘please don’t hit me, I am Assamese, let me go, please,’ did not stop the mob.

This incident comes at a time when there are several such cases being reported across the country. In Tamil Nadu, an elderly woman was beaten to death after she offered chocolates to few village children as she too was suspected of being a child lifter. In Karnataka, a Rajasthani man was attacked on the same suspicions. As recently as July 2018, there have been several lynchings in Maharashtra. On July 1st, in the Dhule district of the state, five people were lynched, again, on the suspicion that they were child snatchers. The lynchers were from a tribal village where Whatsapp messages of child snatchers had gone viral, leading to mass hysteria. When the police arrived and tried to pacify the mob, they too were attacked. It left two policemen injured. There have been several other such instances where people have been lynched on religious and casteist lines, and even for transporting or eating beef.

Assam has a history with its children being trafficked away to big cities, where they are made to work for little to no wages or sold into sex slavery and trafficked. This makes it a fertile environment for false rumours to spread and cause panic in people. The situation in Karbi Anglong, is a result of fear mongering and incorrect information, which is dangerous and requires the state administration to combat this with urgency. With tensions brewing with the presence of ‘outsiders’ in the state, it serves as a precarious setting. There is also heightened pressure because of the recent Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which is being opposed for the fear that it would prove threatening to the identity of the Assamese people and also harm the indigenous population in the state.

There are no specific penal laws criminalizing mob lynchings. Those who partake in such activities and murder people, are held accountable under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. This could range from provisions such as Section 302 for murder, Section 304 for culpable homicide, Section 307 for attempt to murder, Section 323 for voluntarily causing hurt, Section 325 for voluntarily causing grievous hurt, and when it comes to crimes committed by a larger number of people, Section 34 for common intention, Section 141 for unlawful assembly and Section 120 B for criminal conspiracy, as well as the relevant sections criminalizing rioting.

There has been considerable debate regarding where there should be specific legal provisions or a legislation to deal with such crimes. These incidents are not new or rare occurrences, and therefore there is need for better prevention, laws and redressal. On the non-governmental front, there has been a campaign by civil society for penal laws for mob lynching under the banner of National Campaign Against Mob Lynching. It is also known the Manav Suraksha Kanoon (Law to protect mankind) or ‘MASUKA for short. It calls for stringent measures against the guilty, making the offence non-bailable, with life imprisonment mandated for the offence.

With reports stating that the entire incident in Assam was filmed by a policeman, the slow reaction of the enforcement agencies is plain to see. The lynchings are a result of the failure of the police in preventing these attacks and in failing to tackle the issues of child snatching and trafficking, unable to instill confidence in the people. The breakdown of trust in our police is all too apparent, with their failure to act swiftly when an incident occurs only reiterating this.

According to recent, news reports, the Director General of Police of the area has stated that prime accused allegedly had an argument with the two men, following which he spread the rumour that they were child lifters, in order to instigate the villagers. Protests against the lynching have rocked the state since, with the state government and local police promising swift action against the culprits. As of now, the current toll of those arrested in connection to the lynching has risen to sixty-four. However, locals have been advised against the divisive politics of hate and the same has been echoed even by the parents of the deceased persons. People across the country have been asked not to pay heed to such baseless rumours that are being spread.

The Asian Human Rights Commission strongly condemns these senseless acts of violence in Assam, Maharashtra and other parts of the country. The rage of a mob has no place in a free and democratic society, governed by the rule of law. AHRC urges the Government of India to take necessary steps towards prevention of such violence in the future, through the necessary actions required to combat mob violence. State governments and local administrations must take steps to create awareness regarding the falsity of such rumours, as well have an action plan in place to protect children and prevent mob lynching. A multi-pronged strategy is required to re-build the trust of the people in the police and tackle the issue of mob lynching by examining and tackling its root causes.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

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