A 32-year-old Indian software engineer is the latest victim of a spate of lynch mobs allegedly triggered by rumors of child abduction spreading through WhatsApp. BBC Telugus Deepthi Bathini reports how the attack unfolded.
"They kept beating us and asking us to know how many children we had kidnapped," says Mohammad Salman, still in shock, squeezing his body and scarring his face.
On July 1
The three men visited relatives in Handikera, a tiny village surrounded by lush fields in the southern state of Karnataka. They lived in Hyderabad, the capital of the neighboring state of Telangana. They had gone to the village with two other friends to spend the weekend there.
- Who can stop the lynching of India WhatsApp?
But all five were labeled kidnappers within hours of their arrival and were attacked by angry villagers. The idyllic weekend soon became deadly. The police have since arrested 22 people, including the administrator of a WhatsApp group. They said they had also deleted 20 WhatsApp groups as a precaution.
"We took videos of eyewitnesses and looked at them individually, we started to analyze the videos to see who was attacking and who defended, and if we find more, we'll arrest them as well," a senior police officer said.
At least 17 more are said to have been killed in India since April 2018 for rumors of child abduction. In all these cases, according to the police, the rumors about WhatsApp were spread.
Investigations into these incidents have shown that people often forward false news or processed video to large groups, some with more than 100 participants. And violent mobs gathered quickly and attacked strangers, leaving police with little time to react.
This also seems to happen in Handikera.
Mr. Salman says that they drove to the lake on the outskirts of the village when they saw a group of children coming home from school. He said one of his friends brought chocolate and decided to give it to the children. But as the car moved quickly, he threw the chocolates out the window.
Mr. Salman says that they never stopped and they drove on until they reached the lake. They laid out foldable chairs and sat down to relax.
"Before we realized what was happening, the villagers gathered and accused us of being child molesters," recalls Mohammad Afroz, who also belonged to Mr. Salman's group.
It is unclear why the villagers suspected them of being a kidnapper.
"We tried to argue with them, but it did not help, they started throwing stones at the car and beating my friends."
Mr. Afroz called his uncle Mohammad Yakub who hurried to the spot, but the villagers did not want it either.
The police later found a video of the altercation on the phone of a man allegedly part of the mob. He shared the video about a WhatsApp group of 200 members. When Mr. Salman, Mr. Azam, and a third friend, Salham Ali, escaped in the car, villagers realized that they were heading for the neighboring village of Murki.
According to the police, someone in the mafia called a friend in Murki and told him to watch out for a red car with kidnappers.
Mr. Afroz and the fifth man, Noor Mohammad, were left near the lake, but they escaped as the mob followed the car.
"We thought the problem was resolved and we would soon meet with the others," says Mr. Afroz. "But within five minutes I got a call that her car had fallen into a ditch in Mukri."
Mr. Salman says the villagers in Murki blocked the road with tree trunks, and because they drove so fast, the car overturned as they tried to dodge.
"They started throwing stones at the car and smashing the windows with sticks and stones, I was dragged out and badly hit," he says.
"They beat us with knives, sickles, and sticks, and there were women in the crowd."
A video leaked to the police by eyewitnesses shows a loud, angry mob surrounding the overturned car. A helpless police officer can beg with the mob to leave the men alone.
Mr. Salman adds that he and his friend, Mr. Ali, survived because the police hid them in the trunk to protect them. But they could not save Mr. Azam. Mr. Salman says some villagers also tried to help them, but the mob was too big to control.
According to some estimates, it consisted of hundreds of people.
"I think there were about 1000 people," says Vijay Patil, an eyewitness who owns a tearoom in Murki.
"We all got the video about the group," he says, adding that he left the group that night after seeing what "a single video about WhatsApp" had done.
Mr. Salman says the crowd did not disband for more than an hour until five police vehicles arrived as reinforcements. Until then, the mob had injured eight officers who had tried to stop them.
Mallikarjun, a police officer who did not want to reveal his last name, broke several bones in his leg that night. He says he has not been able to sleep since then.
"I wake up startled," he says. "The faces of the three men in the car who are begging for their lives, with their hands folded and bleeding faces, are flashing in my head."
The district administration said they had conducted reconnaissance programs in the villages following recent lynch law programs. "Even after all our efforts, this incident is very regrettable," says one official involved in the campaign.
The village seems to be shaken. Murki has a population of 5,000 and is usually quiet. Police say they are unable to fight such a large, violent mob. Usually they deal with domestic quarrels, property rights disputes or one or the other drunken series.
"Everyone is shocked and half of the villagers have fled the fear of arrest," says Rajendar Patil, a village elder.
"We thought the rumors could be true, the way they drove off in the car, we thought guilty of kidnapping children," says the brother of a defendant, who wants to remain anonymous.
"But now we read about who they were and we feel very bad."
Additional coverage by Balla Satish