3 years

Dispatch

The Age of Suspicion

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In the aftermath of WhatsApp rumours of child kidnappers on the prowl, Hyderabad turns a hostile gaze on outsiders and vagabonds

A CLEAN-SHAVEN, close-cropped man in his mid-thirties, Majju Singh wears a light shirt, dark pants and an inscrutable expression. He didn’t always look like this. Hobbling along the streets of Toopranpet, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, on a fractured leg, his unkempt hair and beard mirroring the shadows of his mind, he must have cut an odious figure. Under normal circumstances, passersby would have given him a wide berth or dropped a coin in his lap. On May 23rd, however, Majju was cornered and thrashed by a mob that felt ‘threatened’ by his presence. The city was in the grip of a rhetoric of fear and any non-normative behaviour was grist for the monster-making mill. The echoey canyons of Facebook and WhatsApp had, for the past few weeks, reverberated with grisly fake videos of child-kidnappers on the prowl, cannibals feasting on human brains, organ harvesting and other imagined cruelties. Fact and fiction had become indistinguishable, rising up like bile through Indian society, dissolving the voice of reason. It didn’t help that Majju couldn’t explain why he was lurking near the bus stop. Talk to him today and he is likely to identify himself as one Shaktul of Tarapur, Maharashtra, even while speaking in a north Indian accent.

In the age of Aadhaar, a man of amorphous identity is by default a social enemy. When Gattu Giri, the president of Amma Nanna, a shelter for the homeless in Choutuppal about 20 km away, got word of the lynching, he showed no surprise. “I went to the spot and alerted local police,” he says, at the Ashram that currently houses 430 inmates, at least 30 of whom are victims of mob attacks. Men in various states of mental distress sit hunched on the floor in a large shed after their mid-day meal. The younger ones among them look expectantly at the speakers that blare Hindi film songs for an hour every afternoon. Next to a dripping tap, a rumpled old man is having his head sheared as several others wait in line behind him. They are part of a batch of 80 destitute men who arrived yesterday from Vijayawada, where the city police, fearing lynchings, rounded them up and carted them off to the Ashram.

Upon Giri’s insistence, Choutuppal police registered a case of ‘simple hurt’ under Section 324 of the IPC against eight locals, including three minors, from Toopranpet who had attacked Majju. There had been many vicious assaults on mentally disturbed and homeless men, but this incident, where the mob was caught red-handed and armed with sticks, presented a rare opportunity to register a police case. “Most instances go unreported for lack of evidence. But the only way to stop people from taking the law into their hands is to show them that the police will not let them off lightly,” Giri says. “In some cases, the mobs got angrier when they found blades and knives on the beggars—but the fact is that we routinely recover these items from the possession of people we rescue, and they do not point to an intent to cause harm.” In the same week that Majju was lashed, a cross-dresser from Mahbubnagar and an autodriver were killed in separate incidents of lynching in and around Hyderabad. Police have since conducted a massive awareness drive in every neighbourhood, asking people not to believe rumours spreading through social media and to report suspicious persons to them instead of beating them up. Over dozen arrests have been made, a social media campaign against fake news launched, stray cases of kidnappings solved in record time, and beggars sent to government and NGO-run shelters to be cleaned up. The attacks have ceased, but an uncomfortable calm has descended over a city that is home to millions of ‘outsiders’, vagabonds and migrant workers.

The mob killing of five nomadic beggars in Rainpada, Maharashtra, on July 1st, on unfounded suspicions of child trafficking was the latest in a series of lynchings to have swept India since May, claiming over 20 lives and wounding dozens. Incidents in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, Kolar in Karnataka, and in two of India’s largest metros, Hyderabad and Bengaluru—where, in the heart of the old city, a man from Rajasthan was beaten to death—have shown that urban areas with higher literacy are not immune to social media-driven fear psychoses. In Hyderabad, the lynchings have reinforced the state’s policy of treating beggars and people living on the fringes of society as outcasts best quarantined in shelters. Ironically, it wasn’t just the homeless who found themselves indoors during Hyderabad’s summer of anxiety. In a city watched over by 230,000 CCTV cameras, women rolled up the straw mats in their front yards to sleep in stuffy little rooms and children moped grumpily through a tedious vacation.

Majju Singh, a victim of lynching at Toopranpet, at Amma Nanna ashram, a shelter for the homeless in Choutuppal. The ashram houses 430 inmates, 30 of them victims of mob attacks over the past few months and 80 from Vijayawada who were deemed at risk and admitted here by police

“Social media rumours are like an earthquake, and the epicentre this time seems to be Telangana-Andhra Pradesh,” says Chetana Mylabathula, ACP, Sultanbazar division, Hyderabad city. Mylabathula’s team demonstrated Hyderabad’s quake-preparedness when a six-day-old infant was kidnapped from the government maternity hospital in Koti on July 2nd. “We had to act swiftly, and we traced the child within hours—mostly because we were worried when we saw footage of the woman boarding a bus to Bidar which is considered a centre for black magic, but perhaps at the back of our minds, there was extra pressure from all the rumours and lynchings the city had witnessed over the past few weeks. We had to prove that even if there was a kidnap, we were equipped to handle it,” says Mylabathula, who personally went to Bidar in Karnataka where the infant was found, alive and well, and beamed pictures of her to the worried parents in Hyderabad. The couple, S Nari, 30, and his wife Vijaya, 25, who live in a Lambada thanda near Ibrahimpatnam, spent a breathless night at the hospital after their second child, whom they had waited six long years for, went missing from the ward, taken by a woman in a green sari posing as hospital staff. At Vijaya’s maternal home, a one-room house in a thanda near Pipalpahad, an idyllic paddy-growing village about 10 km from Choutuppal, the couple recount the horror of the episode—the brief moment of alarm when Nari, a CNG truck driver, played back in his mind the gruesome videos of child-snatchers he had watched on WhatsApp just days ago. “I knew better than to believe them,” he says. Vijaya, who nurses her child—named Chetana after the IPS officer who rescued her—on a single bed pushed against the wall, was aware of the rumours, thanks to her friend at the neighbouring anganwadi who had a “big phone” and had warned her not to let her son, Anand, out of sight. The panic set off by the rumours was reflected in the eyes of the 40 or so relatives who came to the hospital to enquire after the baby, Nari says. “Chetana gave doctors and police officers sleepless nights—so she must become one, a doctor or an officer, someone who can make a difference to people’s lives.”

THE SPATE OF RUMOURS and the subsequent focus on vagabonds and migrants may have fomented what could potentially be an inextinguishable fire. “We receive at least three calls a day about suspicious people lurking on the streets,” says Sub- Inspector Ch Sailu of Choutuppal, adding that he has saved over 30 people from mob attacks since May. The area has 80-odd factories employing over 3,000 migrant workers; locals here have never been known to be territorialists. “Attitudes towards beggars, stragglers and strangers in general have definitely changed overnight. Those who cannot defend themselves in Telugu or who are of unsound mind are the most vulnerable,” Sailu says. Just four days ago, a bill collector from Lakkaram called him about a ‘madman’ in the village, who has since been moved to the ashram.

S Vijaya, whose six-day-old baby was kidnapped from the government maternity hospital in Koti on July 2nd, thought she would never see the infant again, but police acted swiftly to save the child and to help quell rumours of a kidnapping gang at work

While cyber police say the original source of the WhatsApp rumours is nearly impossible to pin down, there are theories pointing to an entanglement of monetary, political and social motivations. Dog-rearers, for instance, could profit from such scare- mongering. Videos of the lynchings are systematically shared on social media, partly to reaffirm the public’s faith in vigilante justice, but also towards a pre-existing political or business vendetta. In Mamidipally, near the Hyderabad airport, a councillor was among those booked for assaulting Jannathul Nayeem Riyazul, a homeless man who was walking past a bar. “He seemed to be following a young girl, and he flung a crumpled ball of paper at her. When locals asked him why, all he said was, ‘It was Allah’s wish.’ A crowd had gathered and they would have beaten him up badly if I hadn’t intervened. I gave the suspicious-looking man a few knocks and dispersed the crowd. It was a mistake, an error of judgment, but it could have been worse,” says 30-year-old Eranki Venu Goud, the TRS councillor from Badangpet. Goud owns Rans Bar and Restaurant, a seedy-looking establishment off the highway, with broken plateglass windows and a new wing under construction, where the incident occurred. He alleges that his rivals in the Congress uploaded a video of the assault to defame him. “What we did was wrong, but they are milking it for political gain,” he says. “I don’t condone attacks on strangers. Just days before the incident, a north Indian man, possibly from Bihar, was sitting alone outside the bar talking into his phone. It was past 8 in the night and I advised him to get home safely—on account of the rumours targeting Bihari gangs,” Goud says.

At Ananda Ashram, the state-run facility for beggars at the Chanchalguda prison campus set up last year ahead of Ivanka Trump’s visit to the city, inmates who are able to identify themselves are enrolled for Aadhaar in a bid to bring them within the system’s so-called safety net. A blue t-shirt and shorts are a mark of belonging in this interstitial space between freedom and incarceration. Bunk beds, Samsung LCD TVs, counselling and learning sessions, an evening game of volleyball, normalise life in a dun-coloured building. In the past year, over 4,500 inmates have walked the long corridor between the two dormitories, the overpowering smell of disinfectant clinging to them like fear itself. The staff remember Jannathul Nayeem, admission No 4824, as a man of few words who rose at 6 am every day and never forgot to say his prayers, loudly reciting passages from the Qur’an. Brought here on May 24th, he spent a few weeks in peace, away from the jeering noises, before signing himself out a few days ago, looking cleaner and in control of his senses. “If they want to go, we don’t hold them back. If they want a job, we help them find work, or train them vocationally,” says D Thirumal Yadav, the Ashram in-charge. “In my experience, they seem calmer and clear-headed after some time here. We try to make them look presentable and to equip them for social life.”

N Balamani’s brother-in-law Nimmala Balakrishna Goud, a 34-year-old autorickshaw driver from Korremula near Hyderabad, was beaten to death by a mob while on a visit to Jiyapally, a nearby village

The galvanising vigilantism of the past couple of months has not just targeted people who wound up on the streets, but also individuals who exhibited transgressive behaviour. P Chandraiah, a 52-year-old crossdresser from Mahbubnagar who was thrashed to death by a mob of over a thousand men in Chandrayanagutta, was part of a group of beggars from the Buduga community who dress up as women to seek alms during Ramzan. Sixteen arrests were made in the case. Among the accused are two self-styled journalists who were found to have circulated fake reports on child-kidnapping gangs from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

For Nimmala Balakrishna Goud, a 34-year-old auto driver from Korremula near Hyderabad, death came in a state of boozy torpor. “He was a good man who cared deeply for a large family,” says N Balamani, 45, his sister-in-law. “My husband has 11 siblings. Most of them married late. We had been looking for a match for Balakrishna,” she says. “We were very close. He lived and ate with us, always sitting next to me.” When Balakrishna got drunk, Balamani’s younger daughter N Ashwini, 24, would chide him for being irresponsible and he would laugh it off. The family’s traditional occupation was, after all, toddy-tapping. But on May 24th, he would wish he had taken his young niece seriously. After visiting a cousin in Jiyapally, a village about 20 km away, he had had a drink too many when he found himself surrounded by a mob and in no state to defend himself. The phantom limb of suspicion struck the inebriated stranger, almost in a reflex action, and left him on the street to die. His genitals were found crushed, and though he wasn’t bleeding visibly, Balakrishna had sustained grievous internal injuries. Help from his village arrived late, and he died on the way, sandwiched between two men on a motorbike. “We were enraged. We wanted to cremate him in the house of the sarpanch of the village that killed him,” says Balamani. In the shy evening light, Balamani finds herself listening for the reassuring sound of his autorickshaw. The world of the internet, of which she knows nothing, is blotched with shadows, and sometimes, they leap into the real world. What she does know now is that you could swat at them all you want—the darkness was not going away.

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