Authorities in north-eastern India have cut internet access after crazed mobs beat three people to death in the latest cases of lynchings sparked by false rumors spread on smartphones, officials said Friday.
The killings are just the latest in India to be sparked by false rumors of gangs of child kidnappers spreading like wildfire on smartphone messaging service WhatsApp in recent months. The victims are usually not locals. People have also been beaten to death on suspicion of stealing cattle.
“The administration has decided to cut off the internet and mobile messaging services for next 48 hours... to stop rumor mongering,” said Smriti Ranjan Das, a police spokesman in the tribal-dominated state of Tripura.
The victims, one of whom was tasked by authorities with warning people against hoaxes, perished in three separate incidents on Thursday. Locals in Sabroom, some 130 kilometers from state capital Agartala, attacked “rumour buster” Sukanta Chakraborty with sticks and bricks as he was warning people on a megaphone against fake information.
Tripura police said it was unclear what sparked the attack. Das, the spokesman, told AFP that the man died on the spot and that his driver was injured in a frenzied attack that lasted nearly an hour.
“It was a sudden and vicious attack and they didn’t get time to escape. Our teams reached on the spot and could only rescue the driver,” Das said. Hours before in West Tripura district south of Agartala, a nearly 1,000 strong mob attacked four traders from northern Uttar Pradesh state, killing one and leaving the others critically injured.
The four took refuge inside a paramilitary camp after hundreds of people believing them to be child kidnappers chased their vehicle after they stopped for a tea break on a road. But the mob entered the base and dragged all four from the car, attacking them with sticks and rods as soldiers unsuccessfully tried to break up the crowd by firing warning shots.
Spokesman Das identified the victim as Zahir Khan. A soldier was also critically injured. Photos of the aftermath showed the men’s badly dented minibus with its windows smashed. Hours before in the same area, a mob set upon an unidentified woman after she was spotted by residents walking around their village, Das said.
The woman in her 40s was beaten with batons and dragged across the village as tribal residents chanted “death to child lifters”, police said. No arrests have been made in the cases but authorities said they were questioning suspects.
Police and authorities have put out alerts and issued warnings to the public not to pay attention to such messages and Chakraborty was one of dozens of “rumor busters” sent out by the authorities in Tripura.
The India authorities regularly block internet or mobile services in volatile situations such as religious or caste riots to avoid the spread of information that can stir further trouble.
India has a whopping billion plus mobile phone users, the largest anywhere in the world, with an estimated 478 million mobile phone internet users.