Fake messages claiming child kidnappers and thieves are on the prowl in various villages in Palghar were viral among local residents, days before a violent mob lynched three people including two Hindu seers. BOOM was able to access these messages which asked residents to stay alert and also led to villages forming neigbourhood watch groups to patrol the streets at night.
On the night of April 16, a mob of over 300 villagers grew violent and attacked three men - Sushil Giri Maharaj (35), Chikane Maharaj Kalpavrikshgiri (70) and their driver Nilesh Telgane (35) who were passing by the village while on the way to Surat to attend a funeral. The police have arrested 110 people including nine juveniles for the same. BOOM found that following the fake messages, most villages including the village Gadchinchale where the attack happened, had reportedly set up neighbourhood watch groups to patrol around the area and it was one such group that attacked the victims.
Some of the messages were also communal in nature, with most asking people to be wary of child kidnappers. One such viral message, that was sent to BOOM by a local journalist, claimed that on April 12, child kidnappers had been seen in villages of Ranshet, Wadhna, Nikane, Ganjad and Sarani. The message in Marathi said the accused resembled 'Muslims and are well built and attack at night'
The Whatsapp forward, when translated to English, reads, "Friends Be Alert, On the night of April 12, thieves had come to Ranshet, Wadhna, Nikne, Ganjad and Saarni. They look just like Muslims and are tall and well built. They enter homes at night from windows and kidnap young children and also teenage boys and girls. Please share this as much as you can."
(Original message in Marathi: मित्रांनो सावधान दिनांक 12/04/2020; रात्री रानशेत,वधना, निकने,गंजाड,सारणी ला चोर आले होते . दिशायला मुशलिम सारखे दिसतात तसेच हाइटेड आणि तबेतिला जास्त आहेत रात्री घराच्या खिड़कितुन डोकावतात आणि लहान मुले वगैरे तसेच तरुण मुले मूली दिसले की घरात शिरतात आणि घेवून जातात . मित्रांनो जास्तीत जास्त शेर करा ही नम्र विनंती !)
The villages of Ranshet, Nikane, Ganjad and Sarani are located approximately 60 km away from Gadchinchale.
The same message was shared on Facebook on April 15 by a resident of Dahanu, a coastal town in Palghar district. Here is the archive link of the user. The user also shared another message which states that several villages in and around Dahanu taluka had been looted by thieves. Dahanu is located around 50 km away from Gadchinchale. This forwarded Whatsapp message however did not specify the community of the thieves.
An excerpt from the message, when translated to English, reads, "Tonight Dahanu taluk has been badly hit by thieves. Thieves were found in Rankol, Aene, Dabhon, Sakhre, Dabhle, Gargaon, Raytali, Ganjad, Pimpalshet, Vadhna, Ranshet, Aavdhani, Dhanori, Chinchare, Ghol, Bharad, Dhamatne, Sarshi, Mahalxmi Gadh villages tonight. Remain vigilant. There are many other villages where thieves have entered. People should remain alert!"
We looked up local news reports, but no such incident of theft was reported from Dahanu during the same time. BOOM reached out to the Dahanu SDPO office. The article will be updated as and when we get a response.
Nikane village sarpanch complained about suspicious activities
BOOM also accessed a letter that was addressed to the Kasa Police station by the Sarpanch of Nikane Gram Panchayat. The letter raised concerns that unidentified men had been seen loitering in the village on April 12 and this had caused fear in the village residents. Below is the screenshot of the letter that was sent to Kasa Police.
BOOM has reached out to Kasa police station to confirm the letter.
Rumours spread via word of mouth
According to Palghar police and local journalists, the rumours of thieves on the prowl were also shared via word of mouth in Gadchinchale. An officer from the Kasa Police station told BOOM on Sunday, "Digital literacy is inadequate in Gadchinchale village and its adjoining areas. The rumours of villages looted by migrant thieves have been doing the rounds since the lockdown was announced. It mainly spread verbally in Gadchinchale."
BOOM found that Palghar police had been trying to fight the rumours by sending audio messages and graphics in Marathi, asking people to not believe in rumours. A senior police officer sent us two such audio messages made by the Palghar police and circulated among residents days before the attacks, where they ask people to stay away from rumours.
Listen to the audio clips below:
The Palghar police has also been warning residents against spreading rumours related to Coronavirus and other communal messages on their Twitter handle.
अफवांवर विश्वास ठेवुन कोरोना संदर्भात चुकिची माहीती प्रसारीत केल्यास आपल्यावर गुन्हा दाखल होवु शकतो. पालघर पोलीस सायबर सेलची आपल्यावर करडी नजर.. pic.twitter.com/PTw9CVpByw— Palghar Police (@Palghar_Police) April 16, 2020
The attack on the seers were communalised on social media after disturbing videos of the crime emerged two days later. BOOM confirmed with the Palghar police who stated that the victims and perpetrators were from the same religion. The same was reiterated by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray who appealed to netizens to not give a communal turn to the incident.
CM Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray addressing the State https://t.co/IicTWk6t7w— CMO Maharashtra (@CMOMaharashtra) April 20, 2020
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