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In Assam, a Myth, WhatsApp and Lack of Faith in Justice System Have Fuelled Lynchings

Guwahati: Assam in 2018 seems to be engulfed by a noxious miasma hanging in the air. This miasma is the result of the violent lynching of two young boys, combined with the return to medieval folk myths, rumours, the violent image of death and the methods of killing which have been employed.

On June 8, two young boys from Guwahati, Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Nath, were lynched in the remote Panjuri Kachari village under the Dokmoka police station in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. The youth were lynched on suspicions of being xopadhora or child-lifters, a popular myth among various communities in Assam. The exact circumstances leading to their death are not very clear at the moment, with different narratives emerging, but what is true is that rumours around child-lifters were circulating through social media and WhatsApp forwards for some months now.

Karbi Anglong is not the only district in Assam where such rumours have been floating. In February, two Sikh men from Punjab were mistaken to be child-lifters and beaten by a mob in the Kamrup district. The video of the two men begging for mercy was widely circulated on social media in March.

Within 24 hours after the death of Das and Nath, regional media had reported more such lynchings in different parts of the state. Amar Asom reported on Sunday that two youth were nearly lynched to death in Hojai because they were mistaken to be child-lifters. Meanwhile in Biswanath Chariali, an elderly man of 65 years, Khelan Sengnar, was lynched to death because he was thought to be a witch. This fear has been seen in the past too; the state witnessed horrific killings in different districts in 2016, where people were brutally beaten or lynched to death because they were assumed to be xopadhora.

The myth

The xopadhora is not just an urban myth in Assam but is prevalent across the urban-rural divide and across class divisions. The moot question, however, is why it is still such a persistent belief in the state.

“The xopadhora was a myth to control children in Assam. The xopadhora was an alien and the fear of this alien was basically to discipline a naughty child,” explains Professor Pradip Acharya, retired head of the department of English at Cotton University.

Child rights activist Miguel Das Queah adds, “The xopadhora myth has been a traditional child protection narrative in society. This is a myth that we, including our parents, have heard. And this is one reason why we as children were always scared to approach strangers. So we must keep in mind that this did not always carry a negative connotation.”

The xopadhora has generally been described as someone with long hair, carrying a jhola, who kidnaps children. One important characteristic of this child-lifter is that he does not belong to the community and is always male. It is no wonder that the WhatsApp rumours which were spread in Karbi Anglong district mentioned the entry of a large gang of child-lifters from Bihar who were dressed as woman or were transgender, and had long hair.

This is the main point of difference between the myths of witches and child-lifters. The witch is always from the community and witch-hunting has also led to many mob lynchings in Assam. Because the child-lifter is not from the community, this has led to attacks on individuals which have been based on pure xenophobia. In the gruesome videos that released post the lynching in Karbi Anglong, one of the victims could be seen pleading with bloodied hands and face that he is an Assamese. In the videos where the Sikh men were attacked, the two men could be seen begging with folded hands that they are not child-lifters. The mob had thrown off the turbans of the two men and their long hair was hanging to their shoulders. Is it really a wonder then that Das, the young artist who was killed, also had long dread-locked hair?

Kidnapping, trafficking in Assam

The situation, now compounded by various rumours circulating on social media, needs to be viewed with some perspective. The fear of the child-lifter is not completely baseless in contemporary Assam. The state has one of the highest number of child trafficking cases. In a 2017 news report, senior journalist from the region Rajiv Bhattacharya wrote, “Assam has topped the list among the states in 2015 with as many as 1,494 cases out of a total of 1,539 in the entire country. In the same year, only eight were convicted although 1,552 persons were arrested and chargesheets filed in 365 cases. Clearly, Assam has a long way to go to check the menace in spite of the existence of 14 anti-human trafficking units in the state including one attached to the Government Railway Police (GRP).”

From the data released by the National Crime Records Bureau for the year 2015, Assam “accounts for 22% of the total reported cases of trafficking across India. Assam also has the highest number of child trafficking – 1317 cases, which account for 38% of the national figure”.

“The geographical hotspots from where children are trafficked in Assam are conflict-stricken areas, the hill areas, the Char areas, Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD), from the tea communities, from flood-affected communities and from relief camps,” elaborates Queah. “Basically, the whole state. And from communities where children are vulnerable due to marginalisation and the subsequent underdevelopment.”

Data from the NCRB analysed by the Universal Team for Social Action & Help (UTSAH), a Guwahati-based NGO, show a substantial increase in crimes associated with trafficking. The organisation analysed data from 2012 to 2015.

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