A journalist in north Maharashtra who created a fake video. Local stringers in Jharkhand and Hyderabad who sent out alarmist messages. A 'lone wolf' in Assam who summoned a mob. These are some of the individuals who may have been responsible for spreading fake rumours of child abduction that have killed over 30 people this year, an NDTV investigation has found.
Spread over four states, our reporters relied on police records and local accounts to piece together a profile of the instigators of the messages that triggered a series of mob attacks across India.
In at least three instances, in Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Jharkhand, the police have narrowed down on local media for manufacturing or amplifying dubious claims of child snatching.
In Dhule, north Maharashtra, five people were killed by a violent mob on July 1. Amongst the reasons, the police claimed, was a video news report that went viral from a YouTube channel called MediaLive run by a local journalist called Rafeeq Sheikh.
The report said that burqa-clad men were out on the prowl to abduct children from a local mosque, creating panic.
Mr Sheikh claims the video was taken down within 10 minutes of it being put up. "My adversaries downloaded the video and made it go viral after I took it down," he said.
He told NDTV that he was only reporting an incident that occurred in his village. "A lady in my village told me that she saw two men in a burqa trying to kidnap a girl, but failed when she spotted them from the kitchen and raised an alarm," he said.
Police have denied any such incident.
Curiously, police have not taken action against him, letting him off after questioning.
The role of the media has also surfaced in Telangana, where a transgender was beaten to death and two others badly injured in a mob attack on May 27 in Hyderabad.
Police claim that among those who spread rumours of child abduction in the run-up to the attack are two local journalists, Subhan and Syed Saleem.
Subhan allegedly shared a post of a video on his Facebook page called 'Reporter Subhan', claiming that child lifters were on the prowl in Mahbubnagar, nearly 100 kilometers from Hyderabad. The post blamed the police for rescuing the abductors. The video, in fact, was of the police rescuing a group of men who were wrongly targeted as child abductors.
Among the 221 people who shared the post was Saleem, who allegedly has a track record of posting inflammatory messages on social media.
Both were arrested on charges of abetment to murder. "They heard rumours from other areas and spread it without understanding the consequences. The transgender was attacked because of them," said V.Satyanarayana, Deputy Commissioner of Police, South Zone, Hyderabad.
Subhan, however, claims he did nothing wrong, and that the police have been unduly harsh.
In Jharkhand, which witnessed the first instance of such mob attacks in May last year, the role of the media has been called into question.
In Assam, however, police investigations have revealed how old-fashioned tools of communication, like phone calls and word of mouth have triggered a mob attack.
For playing a role in spreading rumours that led to the murder of two men in June 8 in Assam's Karbi Anglong district, police have filed a case against a local man, Alfajos Timung.
On the evening of June 8, the victims were finding their way to a waterfall when they encountered Timung.
According to the police, Timung claimed the victims were child abductors, and got into an altercation with them. A crowd gathered and began to throw stones but the victims drove off.
Timung then called ahead to a nearby village, and alerted them about the arrival of the two men, amplifying the story to allege that the car contained five child abductors, as well as abducted children. By the time the men reached the village, a crowd had gathered which beat them to death.
"Not only did he give false information, but also propagated it and took part in the lynching," Dr GV Siva Prasad, Senior Superintendent of Police of Karbi Anglong district told NDTV.
Timung was a school dropout but was an influential voice in the district as a member of the Karbi Student Union, say locals.
His relatives claim that he was only trying to warn people against child abductors. "Alfajoz has told us that he believed that they were really child lifters thus he alerted the villagers and the villagers had to check because these people exist," Timung's relative, Basanti Tehronpi, said. She said the area was rife with rumours about child abduction in the run up to the deadly event.
Currently, Timung is in jail with his father and brother for instigating the crowd.