NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian activists fighting to curb the trafficking of women and children condemned on Monday a series of public lynchings in the central state of Jharkhand after rumours spread that child traffickers were on the prowl for victims.
Seven people have been beaten to death by mobs in two separate incidents in south Jharkhand over the last week, after rumours spread on the messaging service WhatsApp claiming gangs were kidnapping and killing children for their body parts.
The lynchings have made headline news in India. Videos and photographs showing one of the victims - beaten and bloodied - claiming innocence and pleading for his life, have been widely distributed on television, in newspapers and via social media.
Police in Jharkhand say 19 people have been arrested, and another seven or eight detained, on suspicion of being part of the mobs involved in the lynchings.
"This is a very unprecedented and unfortunate incident that has taken place," Ashish Batra, Jharkhand's Inspector General of Operations, told the NDTV news channel.
"These messages created a fear psychosis in people's mind where they felt their children's security was at stake."
While they are still investigating the cases, police say there is so far no evidence to suggest those who were murdered were involved in child trafficking.
India has seen a surge in reports of human trafficking in recent years. Almost 20,000 women and children were victims of trafficking in 2016, a rise of 25 percent from the previous year, according to government data.
Around half the victims were children, mainly from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and New Delhi, the data showed.
Activists say the figures are under-reported, especially due to a lack of awareness in rural areas where traffickers dupe poor families into sending their children for work. Many end up sold into slave-like conditions in rich houses, hotels, restaurants and even brothels.
Rishi Kant from the anti-trafficking charity Shakti Vahini which works in Jharkhand, condemned the lynchings, adding that it highlighted the problem of poor law and order, as well as the challenges of controlling rumours spread via new technologies.
"We know there is a problem of missing children and women being trafficked from Jharkhand and people are clearly worried about their children, but this is unacceptable," said Kant.
"This not only shows us that we need better law enforcement and strengthening of the police force, but also that we activists must ensure communities are aware of possibly false information being shared on social media sites, and that they cannot take the law into their own hands."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)