Braid chopping: Mass panic, fear and vigilantism on rise in Kashmir

Photo: Google | Effects by Wande Team

Descent into nineties

Kashmir has descended back into history, more specifically – into nineties. A situation has arisen in Kashmir, which looks more and more like the nineties.

In 1990’s, Kashmir was gripped in mass fear when people claimed to have seen a Bhoot (Ghost) or Num’e dean (Witchas the raging anti-India armed movement was underway. The fear generated by this phenomena enforced people to lock themselves in their homes as soon as dusk fell, it also led people to install iron grills over window frames as additional protection. The whole valley was stricken by this fear. Later on people claimed that the Bhoot was none other than Indian forces in disguise entering Kashmiri homes to strike fear into the hearts of people – as they were failing to contain the raging armed insurgency. Some analysts at that time claimed that the whole thing was a conspiracy of Indian forces to divert the attention of Kashmiri people from their Azadi movement.

Twenty-five years later, Kashmir is yet again in the grip of fear, as Bhoot of nineties seems to have been replaced by the figure of braid cutter.

The incidents of braid cutting were first reported in northern India few months ago. In Kangan Hari village of southwest Delhi, fear gripped the entire village when hair of three women was ‘mysteriously’ cut off. The women victims of the village claimed that some evil power cut their hair, as they did not see anyone. They recounted that they fell unconscious, experiencing terrible headaches, and when they gained their consciousness their braids were gone. The Deputy Superintendent of Police of the concerned village registered a case and started investigating the matter but no logical conclusion was obtained. Police and psychiatrists dismissed the cases of hair cutting as mass hysteria.

In Kashmir the first such case of hair cutting was reported from Kulgam district in early September and since then, the incidents of braid and hair cutting have been reported from many more districts of the valley. At least 120 incidents of braid chopping have been reported in Kashmir valley at the time this report was filed. The victims include women of different age groups and one Imam (the person who leads prayers in a mosque) from Budgam whose beard was cut by unknown persons.

Every day there are at least three to four cases of hair cutting reported from different districts of the Kashmir valley. The summer capital Srinagar has also seen scores of incidents of hair and braid cutting in the last one month.

In Batamaloo area of Srinagar, two cases of braid cutting were reported in SD colony on two consecutive days.

On 11 October, at around 9 a.m. an 11th standard girl Shahida Manzoor (name changed) was readying herself for school in her room on the ground story of her house. After wearing her uniform, she went to get her shoes, which were in the balcony of her room.

“As soon as I opened the window to get my shoes I saw a fat lady wearing a khaki uniform lying on the balcony and a tall man was sitting on the wall next to her. Upon seeing me, within a second the lady sprayed something on me and man rushed to me and began cutting my hair. I screamed before I lost consciousness,” the girl told Wande Magazine.

The balcony where the twin assailants were hiding | Wande Photo by Bisma Bhat

The grandmother of the victim told Wande Magazine that as soon they heard the scream the mother of the victim rushed to the room and caught hold of the lady perpetrator, but she managed to escape. The girl victim claims to have seen both the perpetrators and says she can recognize them.

The incident has left her in trauma and she has stopped going to school. Speaking in a low toned voice she says, “I am afraid of going out of my house because when I am not safe in my house, how can I be safe outside?” The incident triggered a massive protest in the area with people demanding that the administration produce and prosecute the perpetrators.

On the next day, by coincidence or by design – in the same colony and in the same lane, and around the same time another women’s hair was cut. The women, who is pregnant, was busy in doing household chores when a masked man appeared in her room, held her from the back and cut her hair after which she fell unconscious. The victim was immediately rushed to the hospital.

An eyewitness told Wande Magazine that he saw the perpetrator making an escape from the rooftops of the houses and finally disappearing. The incident again sparked protest and people of the area were out on the roads, blaming the state’s chief minster Mehbooba Mufti for the failure to stop the incidents of braid and hair cutting and claiming that the perpetrators were trained assailants backed by the government.

In another incident on 11 September, a braid of a 10th standard student was cut in Fateh Kadal area of downtown Srinagar. At around 2:30 p.m. Kaunsar Ajaz (name changed) was about to leave for her tuition center when her grand mother called her upstairs and offered her an apple. Just then a masked man appeared and pulled her by the hair and hit her with a brick. She screamed and fell unconscious. When her grandmother saw her lying unconscious on the floor and a masked man cutting her long braid, she screamed for help. On her scream, the masked man fled from the spot.

The brother of the victim told Wande Magazine that he ran after the braid cutter but wasn’t successful in catching him. “I followed the braid cutter till a kilometer but he was well trained like a commando as he climbed a 6 feet wall in one jump. It took me 3 jumps to climb that wall and by that time he managed to escape,” he said.

Father of a victim displaying her chopped braid | Wande Photo by Bisma Bhat

The incident has left the young girl in trauma and she is unable to concentrate on her studies. “I am unable to come out of this trauma. I don’t know how I will pass my matriculation exams as I am not able to study well,” Kaunsar told Wande Magazine. The family went to the concerned police station to register a case, but they claim the police didn’t cooperate and instead abused the aunt of the victim. However, next morning a policeman came to their house and assured them of investigating the case.

Growing unrest

The growing number of incidents of braid and hair cutting has sparked unrest in the valley. Almost every day angry protests against braid chopping are held in different parts of the valley, even as fresh cases of braid and hair cutting continue to be reported. Scores of people have been injured in protests against braid chopping, most of which haven taken place in Srinagar and the restive districts south of Srinagar city.

A protest against braid chopping in Srinagar | Photo by Umer Asif

On Wednesday, five persons were injured after Army opened fire following an attempt at braid cutting in Wullerhama village in Anantnag district. The injured people were part of a protest against Army. The villagers claimed that they were chasing a braid chopper who tried to flee in an Army vehicle, sparking protests.

Protests were held in many parts of Srinagar on Friday following a protest call by joint Hurriyat leadership against continuing braid and hair cutting incidents in the valley. The Hurriyat leadership has called for a statewide shutdown today and a civil curfew against the phenomena. Government authorities have responded to the protest by imposing restrictions in seven restive police stations of the city. The growing unrest has also affected educational activities with major colleges of the city remaining closed for consecutive days last week following a protest call by the joint Hurriyat leadership.

Police clueless, as investigations break no ground

The Jammu and Kashmir police have been unable to make any breakthrough in investigating the braid and hair chopping incidents. In late September, the police formed a Special Investigating Team (SIT) but there has been no headway so far. Apart from raising the cash reward from Rs three lakh to Rs six lakh for anyone providing information about braid and hair cutting incidents in the valley, the police have been clueless about the incidents.

In a recent press conference the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Muneer Khan told media that the ‘victim families are not cooperating with the police due to which the cases remain unsolved.’ “We will now investigate the matter through scientific methods which may need blood samples of the victim to ascertain what kind of spray is used to leave them unconscious,” he said.

The police have also dismissed some cases of braid chopping as case of ‘psychological illness’ of the victims, leading people to question the veracity of these incidents.

In a live-streaming video interaction on Facebook on Friday IGP Muneer Khan said that the daily incidents of braid and hair cutting in the valley have hit the police’s anti-militancy operations and accused the joint Hurriyat leadership of taking advantage of the situation.

The police have made 8 arrests so far in Srinagar, the IGP said. The people arrested are those the police identified from videos who can be seen ‘manhandling innocents.’ The IGP maintained that the arrested persons have some sort of criminal background.

On Saturday police in Baramulla arrested forty-five people for ‘instigating violence over braid chopping incidents.’ The Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Baramulla said that most of the arrested persons are those ‘who were involved in last year’s uprising.’

Mass panic and ‘violent’ vigilantism

With the rise in braid and hair cutting incidents, vigilante groups of people have turned violent against anyone they suspect to be a braid chopper. On Friday, an angry mob thrashed a man in Sopore area of Kashmir as they mistakenly suspected him to be a braid chopper and tried to set him on fire before police took him away. The Sopore police said that the man was mentally challenged and they have registered an FIR against people who are seen thrashing the man in a video circulating on social media.

In another incident on Thursday, a mob in Hazratbal area of Srinagar attempted to drown a man suspected of being a braid chopper after thrashing him. A video capturing the chaotic scene was circulating on social media. Police later said that the man had come to offer Fajr prayers at the Hazratbal mosque and was mistaken by people to be a braid chopper and they started beating him and attempted to drown him in the lake, Kashmir Life reported.

Mass panic and fear among people has resulted in a situation where anyone suspected to be a braid chopper receives the wrath of people. Many strangers were beaten to pulp by angry mobs after they were suspected of being braid choppers. On 3 October in Delina area of Baramulla district, a young boy was beaten to pulp by an angry mob that mistook him for a braid chopper. The police said that the boy had gone to meet his girlfriend and the boy declared on video to police, that 'he is a lover, not a hair cutter.' On the same day people in Babadem area of Srinagar beat two burqa-clad women, mistaken as braid cutters, when they gatecrashed a wedding ceremony.

Angry protestors attack police vehicle in Srinagar | Photo by Umer Asif

On 6 October, a 70-year-old man from Danter village in Anantnag, who had gone to relieve himself in the late hours of the night, was killed by a mob after neighbours mistook him for a braid chopper.

A few foreign tourists also came under the radar of vigilantes when groups of people ‘briefly detained them’ on their way to Srinagar on 8 October. The foreigners, who included one British woman and two Australians, however were left unhurt.  

The rise in public anger against police and government has mainly to do with one thing: government’s dismissal of the phenomena as mass hysteria. The people Wande Magazine talked not only recounted how the incident happened but also talked about their fears, which are real and rising. They said that the government has failed to address their fears and is not doing anything to stop this phenomenon.

Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, Chairman of the State Commission for Women told Wande Magazine that that two or three cases can be deemed to be called as resultant of mass hysteria but all together 120 incidents cannot be called as mass hysteria among people. “There definitely seems some criminal activity behind these cases and police must thoroughly investigate each case and find the motive and cause behind these incidents,” she said. Mrs. Mehjoor however agreed with IGP Kashmir’s statement that people are not cooperating with the police in investigating the cases of braid and hair cutting.

“I have talked to police officials. They said that they are monitoring the situation but people are not cooperative with them,” she said while adding, “In this situation, I want to advise people not take law in their own hands and if they suspect any person to be a hair cutter they must handover the person to the Mohalla or Masjid committee or the civil society or to the Commission if they don’t trust the police.”

Rising demand for CCTV cameras and video-door-intercom

The rapid rise in the incidents of braid and hair chopping have left people worried and in search for methods for the protection and security of their families. There is a rising demand among people for safety appliances like Close Circuit Televisions Cameras (CCTV) and video-door-intercom. People are installing these gadgets at their houses to examine movement of any stranger who visits them. People are also seen installing CCTV cameras inside their houses to capture the perpetrator on camera in eventuality of an attack on their house.

Mukhtar Khan, a resident of downtown area in Srinagar has installed CCTV in six rooms of his house in order to ensure security of his family. While the safety appliances may not necessarily offer immediate security but it can deter the attacker from visiting the house if they come to know or the attackers movement and identity can be ascertained, believes Mukhtar.

A professional worker Amir Ahmad who installs CCTV on daily basis in different areas of Srinagar told Wande Magazine that people are installing security cameras for different reasons now. “People used CCTV and VDI for security of their offices, shops, banks and educational institutions but now people are installing such devices in their houses for security purposes following the rise in incidents of braid chopping,” he said.

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