Report

How fear, suspicion and WhatsApp rumours led to the Palghar lynching

ByPrateek Goyal

“It was 10.30 pm. I was inside my house. Suddenly, a man opened the door. He was tall and well-built, dressed in black with his face covered with a cloth. He began running towards me but when I screamed, he ran away.”

This is Renuka Deshak’s story from the night of April 12. She lives in Nikne village of Palghar’s Dahanu tehsil in Maharashtra. She screamed, Renuka, 34, said, and the villagers came running towards her house.

“He was a thief,” Renuka said. The villagers combed the area, but found nobody. That night, several of them telephoned friends and relatives in the neighbouring village of Sarni, telling them not to climb the hill nearby since “thieves have entered the hills, and they may come to Sarni”.

Over the next four days, rumours of tall, well-built thieves rapidly spread on phone calls and WhatsApp messages, from Dahanu and Talsari to even Vikramgad tehsil in Palghar district. Fear ran high, fuelled by hysteria. It culminated in the gruesome murder of two sadhus and their driver by villagers of Gadchinchale in Dahanu on the night of April 16.

All the villages are between 50 and 70 km from Gadchinchale.

The sadhus, Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri, 70, and Sushilgiri Maharaj, 35, had been staying in an ashram in Kandivali. On April 16, they hired a car to attend a funeral in Surat for their guru, Mahant Shri Ram Giri. The car was driven by Nilesh Yelgade, 30.

They were stopped by a forest department official near Gadchinchale in Palghar. Soon after, the car was accosted by a group of villagers armed with stones, rods and axes. The three men were attacked even as police officials began gathering. All three were killed.

The murders inflamed passions across India. Prominent voices on social media added a communal angle because the victims included Hindu sadhus, even though the Maharashtra home minister categorically stated that none of the 101 arrested were Muslim. Arnab Goswami, editor of Republic TV, took it a step further, accusing Congress chief Sonia Gandhi of “getting sadhus killed” after conspiring with people in Italy.

But what exactly happened over the week leading up to the lynching?

Chain of rumours

Renuka was alone at home when the “thief” barged in on April 12. “When I screamed, he ran away and disappeared,” she told Newslaundry. The villagers searched the area for half an hour but found no one.

The next day, SM Deshak, sarpanch of the Nikne gram panchayat, went to the Kasa police station and reported the incident. “On the night of April 12, an unknown person was seen roaming in Nikne village,” he stated in his report. “The villagers tried to nab him but he fled. An atmosphere of fear has developed in the village. Therefore, I request that you conduct an inquiry into the matter.”

Newslaundry accessed a copy of this report.

Two hours later, the police visited the village to make inquiries. They returned on April 14.

“No outsiders were seen in our village after that, but people kept vigil at night,” said Deshak, the sarpanch. “On April 15, the police conducted a meeting of gram panchayats and told us that if we got hold of the thief we should not beat him, we should hand him over to the police.”

At night, the fear peaked. Several villagers would wander the periphery of the village until dawn, armed with sticks and torches. As Deshak put it, the rumours “engulfed” villages across Dahanu and Talasari.

Shantaram Dagla, the sarpanch of Sarni village, said the rumours reached Sarni on April 12, leaving the villagers “fear-stricken and violent”.

“On the night of April 12, villagers received calls from their friends in Nikne, saying thieves had escaped from Nikne and might enter Sarni next through the hills,” Shantaram said. “Some villagers said they saw thieves but couldn’t catch them. Some said they chased thieves but the thieves disappeared. The rumours spread in many villages of Palghar. All the rumours said the thieves were robust, tall, well-built, and cover their faces with a cloth.”

These things happen in villages, Shantaram added. “Villagers tend to call their relatives in other villages, and rumours spread.”

Violence preceding the lynching

Before the killings on April 16, two incidents of violence had taken place in the area.

In Sarni, a doctor named Vishwas Valvi, who had come to distribute rations, was attacked by the villagers on suspicion of being a thief.

“It was around 8.45 pm and the doctor and two associates were driving by in his car,” Shantaram said. “Our villagers were patrolling the road near Sarni, and they stopped the car and blocked the road.”

Shantaram was present at the time, he said, and checked Vishwas’s ID card.

“I came to know that he was a doctor but many villagers were not ready to believe it,” Shantaram said. “They repeatedly said the three people in the car were thieves. Such was the effect of rumours that our villagers refused to believe them...The villagers were very suspicious and asked why rations were being distributed at night.”

Finally, Shantaram said, the police were called. They lathicharged the villagers, prompting the latter to pelt stones.

Vishwas told Newslaundry he himself had a “narrow escape”. He had been visiting Urse village to distribute ration kits when his car was stopped by a large group of villagers.

“Luckily the village sarpanch knew me and identified me but the crowd of over 200 people was not ready to listen,” he said. “They were drunk and some of them were shouting to hit me. I reasoned with them but they weren’t listening.”

Vishwas said the police were patrolling nearby and he called them. “The police explained to the villagers they would take me to the police station but the mob wasn’t backing off,” he said. “The police resorted to lathi-charge after which the villagers began pelting stones at us. Somehow we had a narrow escape.”

Vishwas said he was “horrified” when he read about the three murders in Gadchinchale. “They were brutally killed,” he said. “We were just lucky that we escaped: it wasn’t just an escape, it was a big escape.”

The second incident of violence had taken place at a roadside dhaba at Dhanivari village.

Kanshiram Handwa, the village sarpanch, said the rumours reached Dhanivari on April 13. The residents began patrolling in and around the village, often staying awake all night to “catch thieves”.

“People from my village even mistook some migrants working at a dhaba as thieves,” Kanshiram said. “Eight of them were living in the dhaba, which is closed because of the lockdown. The villagers said some thieves are hiding in the dhaba and attacked them. Somehow we managed to stop them, and called the police. When the police came, the villagers ran away.”

“The information about so-called thieves was shared without any confirmation,” he added. “Those poor sadhus were not killed because of religion or political conflict: they were killed because of rumours and fake messages.”

‘Rumours have made this place very dangerous’

Sarpanches of the villages of Rankol, Ganjad and Kasa had similar stories.

Rumours of “thieves” prowling the area started rippling through Rankol on April 13. At 10 pm that day, Dilip Gadag, Rankol’s sarpanch, was asleep when his phone began to ring.

“I received a call from a villager who had received a call from a relative in Ganjad,” Dilip said. “He told me thieves went to Ganjad but escaped and were now heading to Raitali, which is not far from Rankol. He said we should be cautious. Five minutes later, someone I know well called me from Raitali, saying thieves are coming to our village.”

Dilip received a third phone call a few minutes later. This time, he was told the thieves were near the village’s ashramshala, or school. “Then two minutes later, I got phone calls from villagers saying they had chased the thief but he disappeared suddenly.”

Dilip said these rumours made the atmosphere “very tense”. “On April 14, a police complaint was filed as some villagers threatened two people from Nalasopara, asking them to leave,” he said. “Officials from the Kasa police station asked me to come to the station over the complaint. But I asked them to come to the village instead; it had become too risky to go out with all these rumours.”

Residents were patrolling the village, Dilip said, wielding weapons and sticks. “They could have attacked me if they mistook me for a thief,” he pointed out.

The police arrived at Rankol that night to investigate the complaint. But since their vehicle did not have a police light, 15-16 villagers ran towards it, suspecting it was carrying thieves, Dilip said. “They only backed off when the police came out.”

Dilip added that no one had actually seen a thief: they just heard about their presence or read messages about it. “The rumours have made this place very dangerous,” he said. “It started with Nikne and engulfed many villages.”

Niwas Vartha, the sarpanch of Ganjad, agreed. In Ganjad, he said, the rumours were more specific. “Rumours did the rounds that thieves were coming at night and taking away small children to harvest their kidneys,” he said. “Villagers went berserk and searched relentlessly for these ‘thieves’ for three or four days, patrolling the village at night with lathis and torches. If someone casually shouts, the villagers would run towards this person, screaming ‘chor, chor’.”

Raghunath Gaikwad, the sarpanch of Kasa gram panchayat, said the rumours made it dangerous to travel through Dahanu, Talsari, and other rural areas of Palghar, especially at night. He also began receiving phone calls about thieves from April 13.

“Kasa is a big gram panchayat, comprising four villages. I received calls from the panchayat officials from other villages,” Raghunath said. “A panchayat official from Ghol told me he was very worried; he said villagers are roaming with lathis and if they catch someone, it could lead to a dangerous situation.”

Yet, even the murders in Gadchinchale haven’t laid the rumours to rest.

Several sarpanches told Newslaundry that the atmosphere of fear and suspicion persists. Just one day after the murders, a man from Tamil Nadu was assaulted by 17 people in Dahanu’s Gholwad village on suspicions of being a thief. The police intervened and took him to a hospital.

How WhatsApp messages boosted the rumours

Newslaundry accessed messages of a pair of WhatsApp groups formed by people in Dahanu. Both groups had messages warning of “child thieves” roaming the villages.

In a group of Palghar’s residents called “Batami Adivasi Samajateel”, or “News of an Adivasi society”, a user named Kamlesh Katela posted on April 14:

“Friends, beware. On the night of April 12, 2020, thieves came to the villages of Ranshet, Vadhna, Nikne, Ganjad and Sarni. The thieves are tall and well-built, and they look like Muslims. They peep through the windows of houses and barge in if they see small children or teenagers. Friends, I request you to share this message in large numbers.”

Some of the WhatsApp messages circulated.

A second message by Kamlesh in the same group said: “Child thieves are roaming in and around Nagjhari and Ambesari villages. They are roaming in all villages. So, my tribal brothers, please stay cautious. I am saying it again, thieves who steal children are roaming in villages. They have reached Ambesari and Nagjhari. Please stay cautious.”

A group member questioned the credibility of the information, saying it should only be shared if it was true.

Kamlesh responded: “Yes, the news is correct. People were saying a thief who had been roaming in Dhanviri, Chinchale, Nagjhari and Ambesari came to our Saansvad village from Chinchale, and ran away along the riverside. Five people were there. Three of them ran to tailor...I have posted this message to warn tribal brothers.”

The messages were posted between 9.40 am and 11.50 am on April 14.

In the same group, someone named Rama Urade responded to one of Kamlesh’s posts saying: “It’s true that thieves came in the night and thefts do take place. But as of now, they have not taken anything from anyone’s house. I have been informed today that thieves entered the house of a panchayat member in Ganjad.”

On the same day, Ramdas Katale, who lives in Ambesari, shared Kamlesh’s messages in another group called “Batami Dahanu Talukyachi”, or “News of Dahanu Block”.

Newslaundry tried to contact Kamlesh but his phone was switched off.

Newslaundry also reached out to Ramdas Takale and Rama Urade to ask why they had spread rumours on WhatsApp.

“I received this message in a group and then forwarded it to two groups, including a family group. I just shared it as usual. Since villagers were keeping vigil at night, I thought it was genuine,” Ramdas said.

He added that he had seen a letter circulating on WhatsApp groups, purportedly from the Nikane gram panchayat about an “unknown person” roaming in villages.

“I also heard from some people in our villages that some thieves steal children and sell their kidneys. I just shared it once but later I deleted it,” he claimed. “It was my mistake to share it. I really felt bad about the killings of those sadhus. The villagers killed them without any reason.”

Rama Urade, a resident of Vevji in Talasari tehsil, is the group administrator of “Batami Adivasi Samajteel”. He was reluctant to explain why he circulated had Kamlesh’s claims without verification. “I was not aware that it was fake,” he said.

Dahanu residents also posted some of these WhatsApp messages on Facebook. On April 15, for example, Mahesh Tandel shared Kamlesh’s message on “thieves” who “peep through windows” looking for children and teenagers.

Mahesh shared another post stating that thieves have “terrified” Dahanu tehsil. “Thieves were observed in villages such as Rankol, Aine Dabhon, Dabhale, Gargaanv, Raitali, Ganjad, Pimpleshet, Vadhna,Ranshet, Aavdhani, Dhaniviri, Dapchari, Sarni, Saaye, Urshe, Amboli, Chinchare, Ghol, Bharad, Dhamtane, Sarshi, Mahalaxmi,” he wrote. “Please beware. There are many more villages, but thieves were seen in these villages. People should beware.”

When someone on Facebook asked Mahesh if he had "seen the thieves with his own eyes", he said yes.

Newslaundry send queries to Mahesh but he did not respond.

Gaurav Singh, the superintendent of police, Palghar, told Newslaundry that the main reason for the Gadchinchale killings was rumours.

“It was rumours related to thieves, that thieves come, commit theft, steal children, sell their kidneys,” Gaurav said. “Rumours are spread by WhatsApp and word of mouth. WhatsApp messages played a major role since all these incidents took place at different places which are far from each other. It’s otherwise not possible to spread rumours to far-off places by word of mouth.”

He added: “How these rumours became so strong is a matter of investigation, and we are doing it.”

No politics played on the ground

Senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have been pointing fingers at each other in the aftermath of the Gadchinchale incident. The Congress had accused the BJP of politicising the incident while the BJP has alleged that there was a “NCP-CPI(M) nexus” at play.

Local leaders, however, told Newslaundry they all worked in tandem, regardless of political affiliations, to handle the mob.

Kashinath Choudhary is a local NCP leader from Kasa village. At 10 pm on April 16, he said, the police told him that villagers at Gadchinchale had stopped a vehicle and were attacking its passengers.

“The police asked me to accompany them. We reached the spot in four vehicles,” Kashinath said. “We saw thousands of people who were drunk. The passengers were beaten up and their vehicle had toppled.”

The toppled car.

After reaching there, the police moved one of the sadhus and the driver into the police vehicle, Kashinath said. When they tried to move the older sadhu, Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri, the crowd attacked them.

“The crowd was uncontrollable. They attacked the police and led an attack on us,” Kashinath said. “After killing the sadhus and their driver, the mob fled.”

Kashinath said senior political leaders might engage in “mudslinging” but all the parties worked together on the ground.

“BJP leader Chitra Chaudhari, who is the sarpanch of the Gadchinchale gram panchayat, was there with her husband,” he said. “She was doing her best to pacify the mob but they weren’t listening. After the mob fled, we all stayed there until morning. There were no politics behind this attack. This happened because of fake news and rumours.”

He added: “We were all working together. What some senior leaders across party lines are doing is not correct. This ghastly incident should not be politicised.”

Newslaundry tried to contact Chitra Chaudhari, sarpanch of Gadchinchale, but could not reach her.

Police action, or inaction

Hemant Katkar, the public relations officer of the Palghar police, told Newslaundry the mob at Gadchinchale comprised 700-800 people as against just 12 policemen.

“The police tried their best to save them but they were also attacked,” he said. “Four of our men are in the hospital. It was an unfortunate incident.”

Hemant added they could not fire in the air to control the mob because it was “too big”. “It could have led to severe retaliation against the cops,” he claimed.

Two policemen from the Kasa police station – assistant inspector Anandrao Kale and sub inspector Sudhir Katare – were suspended after the incident for alleged dereliction of duty, and an inquiry was ordered.

In all, 110 people, including nine minors, were arrested by the Palghar police in connection with the three murders. The minors have been sent to a correction home while the others are in police custody. On April 20, the case was transferred to the Maharashtra State Criminal Investigation Department for further investigation.

Atulchandra Kulkarni, the assistant director general of the Criminal Investigation Department, told Newslaundry: “We have taken over the investigation. As of now, we don’t have much to say on the investigation as it has just started.”

***

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