Viral WhatsApp messages spreading rumours have been blamed for a spate of recent lynchings across India. But police in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh used the platform to track down a rape suspect, reports BBC Hindi’s Nitin Srivastava.
The victim, a seven-year-old girl, was reported missing on 26 June by her parents when she didn’t return home from school in the town of Mandsaur.
The following morning, a vegetable seller found the girl bleeding and unconscious behind a bus stop in a quieter part of the town.
She was rushed to a local hospital where doctors confirmed that she had been raped. She is still recovering from grievous injuries, including stab wounds.
As news of the brutal attack spread quickly in the small town of some 200,000 people, hundreds of them poured onto the streets demanding justice for the girl.
But the police had no leads because the CCTV cameras at the school were not working and there were no witnesses either. The victim was not in a position to give any statement.
Desperate in the face of mounting public anger, police reached out to people who ran businesses near the girl’s school to obtain CCTV footage.
After scanning 400 hours of footage, the police finally ended up with three different clips, which showed a girl in a school uniform walking with a frail, young man. She appeared to have walked away with him after he offered her sweets.
The victim’s parents identified the girl in the video as their daughter but the man’s face was not clearly visible. But police were able to recognise the brand of his sports shoes.
That’s when the police decided to share the three video clips from the CCTV footage widely on social media, hoping someone would recognise the suspect. They realised the risk – rumours of child kidnappings, spread over WhatsApp, had led mobs to lynch strangers across India in the past few months. What if these messages were manipulated to incite people?
Mandsaur was no stranger to communal frenzy either. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have flared up here in the past over issues related to cow-slaughter and religious processions.
Police admitted that rumours had already begun spreading on WhatsApp and via text messages about the victim’s and the suspect’s religious identity. “Pictures of her along with fake messages of her being dead began circulating,” Manoj Singh, the town’s police chief, said.
So, they informed community leaders, local politicians and local residents’ associations before they began circulating the video on various WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
Police said, much to their relief, both communities worked together to help identify the suspect.
“We felt this was a criminal case and should not be given a religious colour. It could happen to anyone’s daughter,” Jitendra Rathore, local chief of the right-wing Hindu organisation Bajrang Dal, said.
The police control room received more than a dozen tips in response, based on which they narrowed their search down to seven suspects.
And they began searching Facebook for accounts that matched one of them.
Three days later, police zeroed in on one main suspect based on his Facebook profile. One of the major clues was the shoes which they had already identified in the CCTV footage.
They have arrested two men in connection with the case. Families of both the accused have said they are innocent.
The police said circulating the video clips was a calculated risk which eventually paid off.
“I didn’t sleep the whole night after we began circulating the CCTV footage on WhatsApp groups”, Mr Singh said.