Rumours of child kidnappings on the internet rise time and time again. They are easy fodder on social media and messaging applications, featuring audiovisual media or text warning of child kidnappings at mass. With content that is often alarming, depicting a scary tale of children in danger, they prey on the concerns of parents and teachers.
Mumbai is not immune to this. This past September, viral messages and social media posts of child kidnappings rumours led to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in many pockets of the city, including Kanjurmarg, Ghatkopar, Andheri, Jogeshwari, etc. In one instance, two suspected women were assaulted in Malad.
More often than not, these messages turn out to be false. And sharing them, says deputy commissioner of police (cybercrime) Balsing Rajput, is against the law. Section 505 of the IPC, relating to “Statements conducing to public mischief,” is as follows:
(1) Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report,
(b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility; or
(c) with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community,
shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
Debunking the child kidnapping rumours
“Rumors of child kidnappings are immediately investigated by the local police station,” says Balsing. “Messages spread through online or peer-to-peer social media or messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, are investigated by the cyber crime branch. They are difficult to track, but the branch issues immediate advisories about the true facts.”
In Mumbai, the rumours were propelled by three main viral posts: a circular about two missing children from HDIL Premier Exotica Housing Society in Kurla, an audio message of three children kidnapped from Kala Vidya Mandir High School in Andheri, and a near-kidnapping of eleven-year-old boy Nishant from a street in Andheri East, which also claimed 800 children between the ages of 5 to 15 were kidnapped for human trafficking.
Apart from these, other localised-but-lesser-shared messages did the rounds too.
“A friend sent me a message on Whatsapp about a teenage girl who went missing on the way from her tuition classes,” said Wajda Hassan, a Mira Road resident and mother to two daughters. “But even before it, there was a lot of news of children being picked up. These type of messages stop for a while, but then they come back.”
Police investigations revealed the viral rumours to be on shaky grounds. The school kidnappings rumour originated from a private tuition teacher misled by students. The circular was also not backed up by an FIR or missing persons report. The only message with some grounding was that of the kidnapping of Nishant, which CCTV footage revealed to be based on a lie by the boy for unclear reasons.
“The main reasons people share these messages is out of fear and concern for children,” says Balsing. “But some miscreants may share them to create panic.”
Not only local
“Messages of child kidnapping rumours have floated around since 2017, and affect every region of the country,” says Kalim Ahmed, fact checker and journalist with Altnews.
While Mumbai contended with its own city-specific rumours, other location-agnostic messages also entered the fray, plaguing other parts of the country too, including UP, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra. They led to 27 instances of attacks on people, particularly sadhus, mentally challenged persons and outsiders.
In an investigation for Altnews, Kalim found that the inciting message was a video or audio clip, often depicting graphic scenes involving children. “Many of them are scripted videos from the country, while the ones from other countries are usually graphic. Some are quite old and have gone viral previously too,” he says.
“They’re positioned as public service announcements, but the disclaimer will be in another language or cropped out. Or the videos are very scary, depicting a doomsday scenario for all the children in an area. These then get picked up by other people, downloaded and copy-pasted on other platforms.”
While the motive behind originating the rumours is not always clear, a police capture in Assam of a culprit who posted similar video messages on Facebook admitted he was motivated by fame and publicity.
Balsing adds that the rise of social media and Whatsapp use is to blame for the spread of the rumours. “The means through which messages spread have increased. Social media networking sites and messaging apps are mainly used, which broadcast a message to many people in one go.”
A natural reaction to child kidnapping rumours is heightened precaution on the part of parents, teachers children.
“I’ve given my kids strict instruction not to leave school without me or family, and not to accept sweets from strangers. Teachers from their school told us to come personally to drop and pick the children off,” says Farzana Sayyed, mother to 4 children between the ages of 13 and 8. “Whether a rumour is true or false, it’s the responsibility of the parent to take care of their children,” she adds.
But on the other side of the spectrum, child kidnapping rumours can lead to panic, extra legwork for the police, and hurt innocent people. Messages about child kidnappings that are true are also not helpful in most cases, says Balsing, as they can lead to the same results.
Amid the heightened fear and suspicions, the actual number of cases of missing children is often ignored. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the number of child kidnappings in Mumbai has reduced in the past two years.
After three years of staying in the low 2,000s, the pandemic year 2020 took the number of children kidnapped down to 1,150. As things have returned to normalcy, 2021 has seen an increase but is yet to touch old heights.
Number of children kidnapped in Mumbai in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Data: NCRB
Overwhelmingly, the children kidnapped tend to be over the age of 12 and female. Of the 1,597 kidnapped, majority of them were girls (1,148), with boys kidnapped at around half the number (449). Only 136 children kidnapped were 12 years old and under. Some reasons for the kidnappings are begging, ransom, revenge, marriage and drug smuggling. In the same year, however, only 42 incidents of human trafficking with 130 victims were reported.
While numbers for the current year of 2022 are not out yet, some indication that there may be a marginal increase can be found in the monthly statistics on crime by the Mumbai police, which includes kidnappings of minor women under crimes against women. The number of girls kidnapped till October this year is 935, up from 908 this time last year.
|Minor women kidnapped in Mumbai||99||91||113|
Minor women kidnapped in Mumbai in the past few months in 2022. Data: Mumbai Police
With time, the incidence of posts on social media about child kidnappings in Mumbai have dialled down. After the spate of rumours in September, several police officers went on record decrying the rumours. In some cases, as with the alleged school kidnappings, the tuition teacher who sent the viral audio message apologised for the harm caused. News publications, TV news and fact checkers amplify the facts.
But because the issue is cyclic, Balsing claims the police are always ready to investigate and act against a rumour. “If anyone comes across a message that is hard to believe, they should contact the police. We immediately spread the true facts through newspapers, TV and social media,” says Balsing.
“As far as I’m aware, the messages never stop,” says Kalim. “Child kidnapping rumours are always prevalent in society, but they have a high point after which they vanish from the news cycle, but they are still present. And that affects people subconsciously.”
It is also this very reason caution is necessary. Both Wajda and Farzana admitted to not verifying the messages they received with officials or official sources. And as it is far unlikelier for an unsensational police statement to reach the levels of popularity of the rumours, they and many others like them are left in the dark about their reality.
How to verify a child kidnapping rumour:
“We request people to check the veracity of a message before taking any action on it. Only if necessary should they share it, otherwise, they should restrain themselves and report to police immediately,” says Balsing Rajput, DCP (cybercrime), Mumbai police.
- Check with official sources on the internet, such as the Mumbai police’s official social media and news websites
- Check with your local police station
- Call 100
- Call 1930
- Through the government’s cybercrime website.
If you are a child in need of any aid and assistance/who suspects they may be in danger, please call the CHILDLINE helpline 1098.