Last year, rural Maharashtra saw a spate of mob-based murder thanks to WhatsApp forwards. But some important lessons have been learned.
Following a spate of mob violence triggered by rumours or fake videos circulated on social media about child kidnappers in rural Maharashtra last year, the state police undertook an initiative of training several civilians.
These civilian representatives of the police, known as ‘Police Patils’ are responsible for gathering intelligence on the ground and maintain peace in villages.
“With an acute shortage of manpower and a massive jurisdiction, it has become daunting for us to get real-time inputs at the village level,” said Pune (Rural) SP Sandeep Patil, in a conversation with the Times of India.
In the last week of October, the Pune (rural) police trained about 1,600 Police Patils on how to monitor online activity on social media.
Such coordination with civilian operators on the ground seeks to assist the police in initiating not just timely interventions, but also solve crimes. In their free time, these Police Patils detect new faces in the village, usually travelling salesmen, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, artisans and even astrologers, record their names, addresses and contact details in what they call a “musafir register.”
“We have gone back to the basics of policing… Police Patils are required to submit monthly reports of each new musafir (traveller) in the village to the local police station. It wasn’t as though they weren’t reporting in the past, it wasn’t happening with the same diligence,” says Dilip Patil-Bhujbal, SP, Buldhana district, in a conversation with The Indian Express. This is particularly critical in areas where there is only one police station for 50 villages.
Shakil Deshmukh, who runs a provision store during the day in Atali village of Buldhana district, attends to his duties as a Police Patil in his free time. Speaking to The Indian Express, he talks about the role he plays in preventing rumours spread on social media from escalating into mob violence.
“There are five WhatsApp groups in the village and each household is part of them. Last year, people would post rumours of child-lifters they had received from relatives in Nashik and Nagpur. Whenever I saw those messages, I would immediately respond on the group to point out that they were false. Once the group admins were made responsible for keeping rumours in check, they began to remove irresponsible members from the groups,” he tells the national publication.
Beyond these measures, Police Patils have played a key role in helping the police raise awareness about the dangers of fake news in Maharashtra’s villages.
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According to Shakil, it took two months of regular panchayat-level meetings and awareness programmes in his village before people’s fears of fake rumours were doused.
According to a member of the Atali Panchayat Samiti, rumours spread on WhatsApp stopped showing up altogether after these outreach programmes.
In a country, where there is a dire shortage of police personnel, particularly in the hinterlands, the work done by these Police Patils in Maharashtra’s villages has become quite critical.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)