Braid chopping: Mass hysteria or planned conspiracy?

Last month, when mysterious braid chopping incidents started making news in New Delhi, it was hard to believe at first as who the perpetrators could be - as the victims were blaming supernatural powers. While some victims said the perpetrator was a “monkey man”, others claimed that they saw a cat and that was all, and several others were clueless. The police of the three Indian states, Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana - where the incidents took place were equally clueless too. However, in almost all the incidents, the victim women claimed that they felt some pain in the head, became unconscious and woke up to find their braids chopped off.

As the incidents sparked public curiosity, psychologists came forward and gave their theories and analogies. The consensus, whether consciously or unconsciously, was built on “mass hysteria”. Mass hysteria is defined as a phenomenon that transmits collective illusion of threats, real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear. The basic feature of hysteria is a consistent tendency to make one important and produce an impression.

A former head of the department of Psychiatry at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) reportedly told a news-daily, “From all available evidence it seems that the women are cutting their own hair, either consciously or in an altered sensorium, likely to seek attention.” While one of the doctors went ahead and said that such incidents were commonly seen in women and the reason mostly was domestic stress. He even referred to the black monkey (kala bander) incidents, when many people in Delhi claimed that they had seen a black monkey, as mass hysteria.

The psychiatrists also offered a solution. As per them, if the victims are left alone by media and police, the braid chopping incidents will stop to occur. The police closed the case and the frequency of the braid chopping incidents started to slow down but didn’t completely vanish. In fact, most of the incidents were not reported at all. Moreover, the incidents started occurring in other places of India until it reached Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir. All the incidents though had one thing in common: mystery.

The theory of 'mystery', however, is problematic. If we assume that there is something called mass hysteria, then there should be collective mind as well. The psychiatrists usually criticize Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud - they were the ones who propounded the mass hysteria theory, but when these very psychiatrists are short of explaining a bewildering phenomena - they borrow explanations from Frued and Jung's work but they do it without context. Like they did with the case of braid chopping. The other missing fact which shows the futility of their claims is that if all the women were chopping their hair by themselves, why wasn’t even a single scissors recovered by police from any site of incident? And if police really believed that the victims were chopping their own hair, why didn’t they investigate them and made even a single person confess?

There also is a major contradiction in the explanation that psychiatrists have provided. If all the victims of braid chopping have cut their own hair because of anxiety and depression, does that mean that all of these depressed patients overpowered the entire intelligence apparatus of the Indian state? It doesn’t seem plausible that they didn’t commit any error while chopping their hair and turned it into a mystery for society and police? Is this a sort of expression of collective intelligence from the victims?

By this time, the braid chopping incidents reached Chenab valley and Pir Panjal region, and then to Kashmir. There is an interesting pattern surrounding the reporting of braid chopping incidents: when the case was closed in Delhi, the incidents were reported to be decreasing there; when it reached other Indian states, Delhi wasn’t in the picture; when it reached Kathua, there were no reports of braid chopping from other Indian states; when it reached Chenab valley and Pir Panjal region, there were no reports of braid chopping from Jammu province; and; when the phenomena finally reached Kashmir valley, the reports of braid chopping incidents from Chenab valley and Pir Panjal region almost evaporated.

A Kashmiri economics graduates from Aligarh Muslim University questioned this pattern, “Why does the occurrence of events have such a pattern? Did they pre-plan all this to bring it to Kashmir with all the mystery attached to it? Now that braid-chopping incidents have occurred in Kashmir, why hasn’t been a single such case been reported from from the places where this phenomena originated first?”

Before the phenomena reached Kashmir valley, the answers provided by the victims of braid-chopping were mostly and abundantly superstitious. In the beginning also, Kashmiris had built superstitions around the phenomena as most of the cases were reported from country side, where people generally are more superstitious than people living in urban environs. When the phenomena of braid chopping appeared in the urban area, or the villages with lesser rural influence, the stories changed.

Earlier this week, an incident of braid-chopping occurred in my village Bon Dialgam in Islamabad. The victim whose hair was chopped said that she only saw a splash of a spray shot at her and she became unconscious. "But there was someone behind that splash, a person. I lost my vision first and then my other senses. They (Indian government) are playing politics with our asmat.”

The person who had picked her up substantiated her version of events, “When I picked her up, there was an awful smell coming out of her body. The awful smell gave me an headache till evening." A relative of the victim added, “It could be their (political parties’) internal tussle and we are paying the price.” A close relative of the victim, a teacher by profession, mentioned that that the outdoor lock of the house was broken. She added, "It is only to divert attention of Kashmiris from their struggle for freedom.”

After the Dialgam braid chopping incident, another failed attempt of braid chopping  took place on the very next day. The victim, a young girl said that she saw two women trying to attack her but she managed to escape. She had been in shock for several minutes even after reaching her home. It was at her home that she shouted for help and narrated what had happened. By then, the whole village was at her home and several of them substantiated her claim that they had seen too burka-clad women walking briskly from the spot.

A few more reports of braid chopping were reported from the town and all the women there also stated that they saw some person who splashed spray onto them because of which they became unconscious and when they came back to their senses, they found out that their braid was not in one piece. In the past two weeks, nearly two dozen incidents of braid chopping have been reported from Kashmir, most of them from Kulgam and Islamabad (Anantnag) districts of the valley.  

The state and district administration is clueless and so are the Jammu and Kashmir police. In order to tackle the growing phenomena, the J&K police announced a cash reward of Rs 3 Lakh for credible information to nab people behind the braid chopping incidents. I think psychiatrists stand a better chance of winning that reward for all they need is to borrow a theory from their textbooks to explain the phenomena. Consequently, while police would close the case like it did in Delhi, the victims will be treated as a crazy lot. And I don’t need to explain the social stigma for mental illness in Kashmir.

People, by and large, however have interesting theories and explanations to offer while explaining the braid chopping phenomena. Most of the people that I talked to believe that it is the Indian state trying to recreate its old tactic - of diversion and panic. “Whenever India felt helpless in Kashmir, they would divert Kashmiris to some paranoia. Earlier there were Ratt’choor (blood suckers) in 1965, then came Naarchoor in 1990s, then bhoot (Bhoot is a supernatural creature, usually the ghost of a deceased person) in 2000s”, said one Ghulam Nabi, aged 70, from Bon Dialgam, who is the next door neighbor of the young girl, on whom the second attempt was made.

Wherever such incidents have taken place in Kashmir, people have accused Indian apparatus of playing a vital role in it. The reasons being that no one can travel in night without Army’s watch, who are stationed everywhere in Kashmir. Every single Kashmiri knows how dangerous it is to travel in the dark in Kashmir. One thing is clear though: Kashmiri victims haven’t given any supernatural reasons. Majority of them have seen humans attacking them.

There are tens of questions in Kashmiri braid chopping incidents like there were in the Indian capital. The questions people are asking to the administration are equally rational. A shopkeeper, who wished anonymity, enquired, “If they can cordon off tens of villages when they want to apprehend militant, why don’t they just try to nab one braid chopper with the same method? Are they keeping Kashmiris busy in thinking whatever they dictate to them?” Another question that can be asked is why haven’t the state’s surveillance camera’s been put to use to nab the braid-choppers.

Another person, name withheld, who works in state health department told me, and “There is no such thing as hysteria. That is not the case here. They (Indian Government) are trying to create three things out of this for their benefit: one is people will have soft corner for administration especially police department, which Police have lost since they came forward to oppress Kashmiris since 2008, as they are the ones people report the incidents to; second is that politicians have started coming to their constituencies who were barred entry by the people since 2016, the example of which is Sakeena Ittoo; third is to restrict militants from taking shelter in the villages since most of the activities have taken place in villages.”

A 35-year-old businessman from Dialgam is of the view that the braid chopping incidents are nothing short of attempt by the state to create distrust in our society. “It’s a diversion, an attempt to create distrust among people. The Kashmiri struggle is all based on trust but this is ploy against that sentiment.”

People have also taken to social media to question the timing of the braid chopping incidents in the valley. Shabir Ali, an independent journalist posted on social media, “Forget NIA harassment, torture, bother about hair chopping… this is how people are made to forget the horrible experience of their lives.”

A post-graduate student of Peace and Conflict studies at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora, posted on Facebook, “How come in a place of such pervasive state surveillance is the state unable to apprehend the ‘braid choppers’, whose mischief has now spread across valley? Or is this the classic ploy to create fear psychosis within the populace so they run in the arms of an entity (State) that yields massive power in the form of unrestricted surveillance and punitive control? Or is the ploy being used to make locals paranoid about every stranger, that, in a sense, includes rebels?”

What is clear is that from any explanation that one can offer, the phenomena of braid-chopping has certainly left people befuddled and fear also is creeping in. This phenomena too will go down in history of this place as another diversion and the mystery attached to it will only feed legends. 

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