People in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district—like in most parts of the state—have grown up hearing stories about the ‘xopadhora’, the Assamese word to describe a child-lifter. ‘Xopa’ means both a gag and to gag someone and ‘dhora’ is to catch. In remote Assam, where superstition has a firm grip on the populace, the telling and re-telling of xopadhora horror tales has given birth to a ghastly creature in imagination—described variously as having long, braided hair and flashing eyes which hypnotise little children before he catches hold of them and devours them.
On June 8, when Nilotpal Das, a 29-year-old sound engineer, and his friend Abhijeet Nath, 30, a businessman, set out to visit a popular tourist spot in Karbi Anglong’s Dokmoka—about 180 km from state capital Guwahati—they had no idea that the area was in grip of virtually generated paranoia: messages claiming that a group of child-lifters had entered the area from Bihar had gone viral on social media and WhatsApp.
Even if they had known, would they have thought anything of it? It was just an online rumour after all. But as other examples from the last two months have shown us, hysteria has rendered the absurd as hard fact, bringing out the worst manifestation of fear—brutal violence. The ‘child-abductor’ lynchings have come almost like a wave: a 52-year-old transgender in Hyderabad, a 26-year-old youth in Bangalore, a 55-five-year-old woman in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu, all lynched by mobs gone paranoid over social media and WhatsApp rumours in the month of May itself. In all these places, the victim fell into an ‘outsider’ category.
Nath and Das, the latter with his Rastafarian dreadlocks, were fitted into the image of the ‘xopadhora’ by a mob of around 200 people when they stopped their car to ask for directions in a village. They had no chance. Even their pleadings, “I’m Assamese...My father’s name is...my mother’s name is…” failed to deter the murderous rage of the mob, comprising mostly of Karbi and Bodo people.
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The next day, Assam woke up to one of the most shocking news in recent times. There are no convenient explanations. This cannot just be pinned as a one off incident of a superstitious, ‘remote’ people. This had happened in the heart of urban India too. Increasingly, it appears to be a barbarity aided directly by the technology of the times.
“Superstition was behind the attack,” Mukesh Agarwal, Additional DGP (law and order), Assam, tells Outlook.
“It was not conspiracy of one section of the tribal community against the mainstream Assamese as has been projected in dozens of reports,” he adds, referring to a sentiment that is seeing this as a tribal vs non-tribal issue. Another police officer, who does not want to be named, describes the potency of the rumour: “Since a fortnight before the tragic incident, locals were taking turns and staying up at nights and keeping vigils out of fear”.
The police were criticised for not doing anything to stop the spread of rumours and allay fears. Pictures and video clips purportedly showing a police official shooting the assault on his mobile phone have also added to the public’s anger.
At least twenty four people have been arrested so far in the case and a few other have also been rounded up for posting rumours and hate messages on social media after the lynching.
“We are also in the process of pinpointing other culprits who were present during the attack by the mob on that fateful day. There was a core group of attackers, then there were those who were egging them on and also bystanders who were witnessing the incident. Individuals are being booked as per the degree of their offense. But we want to ensure that not a single innocent person is arrested,” says Agarwal.
Shocked people took to the streets of Assam to demand justice for Nilotpal and Abhijit. Protests have rocked the state since the incident. The local media has also been highlighting the issue, with print, digital and electronic media covering little else over the past week.
Afrida Hussain, founder and editor-in-chief of the online portal ‘Inside NE’ (North East), which has extensively reported on the incident, tells Outlook: “The public outrage is unprecedented. The area where the double murder took place is a tourist spot, visited by thousands of people from all over. The exact location of the lynching is just 12 km from the local police station. When two Assamese youth are beaten to death for visiting a part of their own state, the kind of fear and insecurity that it can generate has to be felt to be believed.” She too questions the police. “When the rumours were circulating, what was the police doing? Why didn’t their cyber crime cell swing into action?” she says.
The police of the state now have another set of problems to deal with. Post the murders, some reports of Bodos and Karbis facing retaliatory violence has come to the fore.
“Here too, social media is being used to fan fears. The administration and police have launched a two-pronged attack to check these rumours,” says Sabir Nisad, the state’s Information and Public Relations Officer. “The first step is to prevent rumour-mongering and the next step is to stop the vicious cycle of counter attacks by cracking down on the spread of online hate.”
The Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisation of Assam (CCTOA)—an umbrella body of groups representing different tribes—rushed to hold a press conference to both condemn the incident and appeal to the people of Assam to not indulge in vengeful violence. Other Northeastern states, such as Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, saw largescale protests too, both against the lynching and the stray incidents of attacks on Bodos and Karbi.
According to a source, Abhijit Nath, his parents’ only child, was asked by them to return to Guwahati from another part of the country where he had been living for sometime. “Now his parents cannot forgive themselves for calling him back,” says the source. The family of Nilotpal Das has said that the police could have done their bit to dispel rumours.
A police officer, as procedure demands, puts together the minute details—the timing of the attacks, drunk people in the mob. “The duo entered the area after dusk, around 6 pm, when, usually, tourists return from there,” he says. “One of them was an avid collector of exotic fish, maybe they were hoping to reach at night for a good catch.” He also mentions alcohol, that evening is usually drinking time for locals and that some in the mob may have been drunk.
It was a potent, fatal mixture. The childhood stories of the ‘xopadhora’, rumours bombarding inboxes, the fading daylight filtering in through the dense forest against which two strange men in a car were silhouetted.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta