A woman was lynched in Vadaj on June 27 after a mob labelled her a ‘child-lifter’ and overturned the auto she and two other women were travelling in. It was neither the first nor the last gruesome assault of this nature in Gujarat. While a man with mental problems was beaten up near Waghodia in Vadodara district on Saturday, 14 cases had been recorded earlier in the vicinity of Surat, Rajkot, and Vadodara.
This spate of violence does not represent the first instance of mass hysteria in Gujarat in the recent past. The state has buzzed with rumours of thieves with supernatural powers and braid or hair chopping in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
Why do rumours haunt society periodically and take lives? According to experts, the key lies in the concoction of public perception and fear psychosis. The cases in the recent past have had the pan-India reach and impact. Indeed, ‘child-lifting’ rumours have claimed lives from Assam to Tamil Nadu, thanks to social media platforms such as WhatsApp.
Mahesh Tripathi, assistant professor of psychology with Raksha Shakti University (RSU), said that stopping the deadly spread of rumours requires dispelling myths and determining the roots of rumours. Tripathi was part of a team formed by the state police’s CID (crime) to probe the braid-chopping claims and had documented all the seven incidents that were reported to police.
“Visuals stay with us longer than the written word and videos circulated on different platforms are seen by thousands without fully understanding their implications,” he said. “When something matching the description happens in the viewer’s vicinity, the fear psychosis is projected onto strangers. In such a scenario, it is important to probe the very first incident thoroughly and dispel the myth. It can weaken similar claims.”
Social media plays a major role in controlling an individual’s emotions, said Dr Hansal Bhachech, an Ahmedabad psychiatrist. “A person is under a lot of duress these days. When a person is insecure, the suggestability is amplified and the usual independent thinking is clouded,” he said. “The repressed aggression gets manifested in mob action.”
Ashutosh Parmar, ACP, B Division, said that it is still being probed whether the main attackers in the Vadaj incident were motivated by any video or local rumours. “We are creating awareness about false claims to prevent any untoward incident,” he said. “When the rumours were at their peak in Gandhinagar district in 2015, we kept vigil alongside villagers and assured them of their safety.”