At around 8 am, the presence of an outsider triggered panic, and within minutes, an overwhelming crowd of more than 500 people, consisting of men and children, gathered and began assaulting a man, who could barely put up a fight.
"He was carrying a polythene bag with scraps of paper, Hajmola, toffees, and some torn handkerchiefs. The locals assumed he uses toffees to lure the children and later abducts them by using sedatives on a handkerchief," personnel at the Bhojpur police station told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
For most people in the village, any outsider who doesn't fit the "conventional" description of a "normal" person in terms of their appearance and their activity is a "baccha chor" (child lifter).
After this incident, the police registered an FIR and arrested three of the villagers for assaulting the person, who was falsely accused of child lifting. Since then, the residents have been talking in hushed tones about their children fearing to go out alone. Some say that the kids have stopped going to school.
'RUMOURS HAVE CREATED PANIC AMONG CHILDREN'
Sixty-year-old Kailash Singh, who is a farmer and a resident of the village, told The Quint that these rumours have instilled fear in the minds of children.
"The video of this incident that happened in our village has been circulated all over social media. This has created panic among children as well as parents. The other day, my granddaughter refused to go to school alone."Kailash Singh, Resident, Sehal Village
In at least 30 districts of Uttar Pradesh, since the first week of September, there have been at least 30 incidents of attacks on people, who were alleged to be child lifters or 'appeared to be child lifters'.
The police have issued advisories, appealed to the public and filed FIRs to quell these rumours, but little has been achieved so far.
'LURING WITH A CANDY', 'TRIED SNATCHING THE BABY' – NO TWO VERSIONS MATCH
On the same day, another person in Sardar Nagar – which is barely five kilometres from Sehal village – another person was assaulted on the suspicion of being a child lifter.
The only difference is that this incident occurred after a woman raised the alarm. The man was heckled and beaten before the local police could intervene.
The Quint spoke to several residents of the village, but no two versions of the incident matched.
"A woman holding a child in her arms had come to see a doctor. A man tried to cuddle the child. The woman felt that he was trying to abduct the kid. She raised the alarm."
"The man was trying to give candy to the child. The woman raised the alarm. He ran towards the forested area. He was caught and brought back. He didn't reveal his name despite asking him several times. He was then beaten up."
"The woman had come to make a purchase at a grocery shop. Her husband had stepped ahead to buy fruits when the incident happened."
"Tapasya kar ke pagal sa ho gaya (He is not of a sound mind due to tapasya, a form of meditation). He tried taking money from the woman. She felt that he was trying to snatch the kid."
Interestingly, the woman, in her statement to the police, claimed that she was standing outside a hospital with her child in her arms when the incident took place.
"The man lifted his hand to ask for something which triggered the child. The mother raised the alarm of the man being a child lifter," a cop investigating the incident said.
The police further said that the man was a resident of Moradabad and was sent back with his uncle after a medical examination.
"He used to do jobs at brass polishing units before he was drawn to drugs. He was most likely loitering around for some money," the cop added.
RESURGENCE OF CHILD LIFTING RUMOURS
This is not the first time that these rumours have gone viral. In 2018, unverified forwarded messages about child kidnappers led to lynchings and mob violence. And once again, they have triggered panic and chaos.
On being questioned about the reason behind the possible trigger for the resurgence of these rumours, a senior police officer pointed us towards one particular video in which men can be seen haggling over money in a discreet forested area, where three visibly unconscious children were lying on the ground.
Another person, who is recording the video, claims that the children were kidnapped and will now be traded.
While this video went viral, it was not a real incident. Our fact-checking team, WebQoof, found out that the video was scripted, and it carried a disclaimer, which mentioned that it was "completely fictional." Several such scripted videos have gone viral in the last few weeks and they have only made an already bad situation worse.
But amid this rumour-mongering and panic, there are people who can see through the same. "Khoon nikalne wale, choti katne wale, baccha chori karne wale- aise afwahe gaon me aati rahti hai. Lekin ye sachh nhi hote hai. (In villages, rumours about people who steal blood, chop braid, and lift children resurface every now and then. But these are not true)," Om Prakash, a grocery shop owner in Sehal village said.
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