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The curious case of the Kashmiri 'braid-choppers' Open in fullscreen

Aijaz Nazir

The curious case of the Kashmiri 'braid-choppers'

Kashmiri women protest the death of a young militant on October 11 [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 October, 2017

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Indepth: Hundreds of women have had their hair cut off while sedated, triggering mysterious claims of both conspiracy and mass hysteria, writes Aijaz Nazir.
At around 10:30 am on September 3, a young woman reported an assault in Chakisherdass village, Indian-administered Kashmir.

The woman, named Mehvish (her name was changed at her request) was attacked by an unknown man, who cut her hair while she was alone at home before running off and totally disappearing.

"I was alone at home when a middle aged man came and asked for water," Mehvish told The New Arab.

Mehvish said she had become scared when he turned up, as she had heard about similar 'hair-chopping' incidents happening in the area.

"I shut the door and tried to bolt it, but he forcefully entered the house," she added.

Mehvish said she doesn't remember what happened after the person entered her house.

"He escaped through the apple orchards to the back of our home," Mohammad Yousef, the victim's father said.

Similar to Mehvish's case, there have been numerous mysterious hair-chopping or 'braid chopping' attacks reported in recent months. The phenomenon is not particular to Kashmir, with incidents reported in several Indian states, including Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab.

Since the attacks started at the beginning of September, nearly 200 cases have been reported from the Kashmir Valley, mostly in South Kashmir. These incidents have created a sense of panic among locals, with many women preferring to stay indoors.

Fear and reprisals

"I have advised my family to keep the door locked when there is no male member at home during the day," Khurshid Ahmad, a local from South Kashmir told The New Arab.

"Women are really scared of the braid choppers. They hardly go to market these days," he added.

Recently another woman, called Jozey, from Batgund in South Kashmir, fell unconscious in her courtyard washroom. She woke up to find that someone had cut her hair.

"In less than 10 minutes, her neighbours had gathered in their courtyard, but till then the perpetrator had disappeared," Maneera, the victim's relative, told The New Arab.

Jozey has now gone to live at her relative's home, for fear of staying in her own house. Her village is sparsely populated in the middle of paddy fields, which makes it easier for anyone to escape.

Most of these mysterious incidents have happened in isolation and female victims are said to temporarily lose consciousness, only to wake up to chopped hair. Victims claim attackers spray some kind of chemical on them which causes them to fall unconscious.

And the number of reported cases is on the rise. As more and more women report being attacked, the mood is becoming more violent.

Mobs of angry young men are now beating anyone under the mere suspicion of being involved. Incidents of mob violence have even been streamed live on social media.

There are many cases outside Kashmir which are the result of mass hysteria, but this region has a history of being a conflict zone

Mob rule

On October 5, an old man was killed after he was mistaken by a group of neighbours for a 'braid-chopper' – the term most widely used by locals.

And in several incidences, even tourists have been attacked by the violent mob. In one such instance, six foreigners were attacked in Srinagar on October 8.

Three non-locals were also beaten up by a group of men in Ganderbal district on October 10, after they were mistaken for braid-choppers.

Communities across Kashmir valley have created groups of vigilantes, armed with axes and iron rods, to keep vigil on the streets against these so-called braid-choppers. These young men start shouting and whistling upon the mere sound of a stone at night time.

The blame

While it is still not clear who is behind these incidents, rumours are circling that professional hair collectors from outside the state, or even the Indian security forces, are responsible. Many also accuse the authorities for supporting the braid choppers.

The local religious body, Jama'at-e-Islami, has labelled the attacks as a part of a "deep rooted conspiracy".

It said in a statement on September 27 that New Delhi is "hell bent" on derailing their struggle for freedom, which has gained momentum since July 2016.

"To put obstacles in the movement, New Delhi has come up with such mean tactics to harass people of Kashmir psychologically," the statement said.

Months will pass without any discussion about bad governance or critical issues

Faisal Hussain, a filmmaker from North Kashmir told The New Arab the state and government was benefitting from the chaos.

"In the future, the authorities will present a few people and label them as the culprits and claim a moral victory," he said.

"In the meantime, months will pass without any discussion about bad governance or critical issues."

Ghosts

The recent hair chopping incidents are a reminder of the so-called 'ghosts phenomenon' from the early 90's, when an armed militancy gained ground in Kashmir.

Locals would form groups to keep vigil for ghost-related activities in their areas. Although in the majority of cases, these people ended up beating each other and not a single incident was reported in which a real 'ghost' was caught.

"There were the cases when local boys used to throw stones at each other for enjoyment, which over-exaggerated the ghost issue in the valley," said  Basharat Ahmad, a local from Anantnag.

"Rumors have started emerging from various places in Kashmir these days about the hair chopping incidents, which actually upon enquiring didn't happen at all," he added.

Mass hysteria

Separatists meanwhile have seized the day. The chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Geelani, said he has suspected the involvement of government forces in these ever increasing incidents.

The Hurriyat Conference called for a complete shutdown in the valley on 9 October, saying that "braid-chopping" was a government conspiracy to divert Kashmiris' attention from their freedom struggle.

Many people in Kashmir have even denied the existence of these braid-chopping incidents - terming it a severe mental disease or a mass hysteria. This group claims the attacks are an imagined or assumed threat that causes physical symptoms among a large group of people.

The symptoms of this disorder are said to include seeing strange objects, fainting and acting as a different personality. Many firmly believe that the victim herself cuts her own hair while she is unconscious.

"There are many cases outside Kashmir which are the result of mass hysteria, but this region has a history of being a conflict zone, so there could be many factors responsible for this," Dr. Iqbal Malik, a psychiatrist, told The New Arab.

"Nobody can comment on the braid chopping incidents in Kashmir because people's sentiments are linked to it, one has to be very cautious while saying anything on Kashmir," he added.

The Jammu and Kashmir police have said they will investigate the attacks by taking blood samples of the victims for investigation.

"The investigation will be carried on a scientific basis," Inspector General of Police, Muneer Ahmad Khan, said.

"The basic thing would be to ascertain the kind of spray that is getting used, which makes a person unconscious in two minutes. For that, we will have to take blood and sweat samples of victims to ascertain the kind of spray used."

The police also said it has doubled the reward money from 3 to 6 lakh Rupees ($4500-$9000) for anyone with information or assistance in catching any person involved in these incidents.

But despite police efforts to nab the culprits, more incidents of hair braiding are happening every day, fuelling further conspiracy theories in Kashmir. 

Aijaz Nazir is a freelance journalist from India. He has been published in Tehelka, Firstpost, Huffington Post and the Asia Times Online.

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