'Braid chop­ping' claims in Kash­mir spark mass panic and mob vi­o­lence

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Michael Safi in Delhi and Azhar Fa­rooq in Sri­na­gar

A Bri­tish woman and three Aus­tralians have been briefly de­tained by vig­i­lantes amid mass panic in In­dian-ad­min­is­tered Kash­mir over a spate of al­leged “braid chop­pings”.

Po­lice in the Hi­malayan re­gion say they have re­ceived re­ports of at least 40 in­stances of women’s hair be­ing forcibly cut by uniden­ti­fied as­sailants.

Though the ve­rac­ity of the claims has been ques­tioned, they have sparked mob vi­o­lence and mass protests, and some young women say they are too afraid to leave their homes.

The first al­leged in­ci­dents were re­ported on 14 Septem­ber in the restive south­ern dis­tricts of the dis­puted state, and the re­ports have now spread to its cap­i­tal, Sri­na­gar.

Vig­i­lante groups armed with axes and wooden boards have been formed in some neigh­bour­hoods in re­sponse to the al­leged at­tacks. At least 12 peo­ple, in­clud­ing the tourists, have re­quired po­lice to res­cue them from mobs.

The Bri­tish and Aus­tralian trav­ellers, ac­com­pa­nied by an Ir­ish and South Korean national, be­came lost at around 2am on Sun­day while en route to Sri­na­gar.

“They were check­ing their mo­biles ask­ing me to go right and left,” their driver, Abid Hussain, told the Guardian. “At one point they asked me to stop and said they had reached the ho­tel.

“One of them went down to check the ho­tel and shouted to open the door. Within sec­onds a crowd of 1,000 or more peo­ple had gath­ered. It was very scary,” he said.

Con­sular of­fi­cials said the group were quickly set free un­harmed, but po­lice say sev­eral other peo­ple have been “beaten and thrashed se­verely” by the vig­i­lantes.

Po­lice are at a loss to ex­plain the al­leged crimes but have dou­bled the re­ward for in­for­ma­tion about the cul­prits to 600,000 ru­pees (£7,000). The gov­ern­ment has called emer­gency meet­ings and put lo­cal of­fi­cials on high alert.

Pop­u­lar anger cul­mi­nated on Mon­day with protests across Kash­mir, many led by women, that shut busi­nesses and schools and were dis­persed by po­lice in riot gear us­ing smoke shells. A five-year-old boy was se­ri­ously in­jured in the un­rest.

The claims made by some al­leged vic­tims give few clues for po­lice to pur­sue and are more akin to ghost sto­ries than crime re­ports. Bilqees Jan told the Guardian she had been cook­ing cheese in her home when she felt some­one grab hold of her hair.

“I thought it was my son, but then I was dragged and I thought my son can­not do it,” Jan, 35, said. “I could only see that the per­son was wear­ing a black dress. I don’t know whether the per­son was man or woman.

“When I tried to scream, an­other per­son sprayed some­thing on my face and I fell un­con­scious,” she said. “I gained con­scious­ness at a hos­pi­tal. For the next two days I had no idea what was hap­pen­ing around me. Even now I am very scared. I sit un­der a blan­ket and feel scared at ev­ery knock.”

A po­lice of­fi­cial, Parvez Ah­mad, said in­ves­ti­gat­ing Jan’s al­le­ga­tions was chal­leng­ing be­cause she had a his­tory of se­vere men­tal health prob­lems, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions even as she was be­ing in­ter­viewed by of­fi­cers.

An­other al­leged vic­tim, Safoora Ashraf, 13, said she had been study­ing when she felt some­one touch her hair. “I ig­nored it. Then I heard some­one jump out the win­dow and when I went to see, there was no one. When I re­turned to my place I saw my chopped braid there,” she said.

In Kul­gam dis­trict, where 13 braid chop­ping in­ci­dents have been re­ported, the po­lice su­per­in­ten­dent Shrid­har Patil said he was ex­plor­ing sev­eral leads, in­clud­ing per­sonal grudges in­volv­ing vic­tims, “love tri­an­gles” and psy­cho­log­i­cal ill­ness. The ma­jor­ity of the com­plainants in his dis­trict ei­ther had a his­tory of men­tal ill­ness or reg­u­larly vis­ited faith heal­ers, he added.

As with many events in In­di­an­con­trolled Kash­mir, where a bloody in­sur­gency has raged since 1989, the braid chop­ping has taken on po­lit­i­cal di­men­sions. Sep­a­ratist lead­ers have claimed the at­tacks are an In­dian gov­ern­ment con­spir­acy to un­der­mine the in­de­pen­dence move­ment and “the dig­nity of our wom­en­folk”.

Armed mil­i­tants say it is a strat­egy by in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to in­hibit their free move­ment. The fight­ers use sym­pa­thetic vil­lages as hide­outs and stag­ing grounds for at­tacks – a much more dif­fi­cult en­ter­prise when vil­lagers are para­noid of any out­siders.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Kash­mir have been or­dered to keep quiet about the is­sue, but a se­nior psy­chi­a­trist at a pub­lic hos­pi­tal in Sri­na­gar said “un­sci­en­tific” po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions were com­pli­cat­ing the cases and cre­at­ing un­nec­es­sary fear.

“It has reached a level where noth­ing can be con­cluded,” he said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. “Since there is a re­ward now, that means of­fi­cially [po­lice] are search­ing for some­one. This en­tire episode needs multi-di­men­sional as­sess­ment, which in­cludes law en­force­ment agen­cies, foren­sic and men­tal health ex­perts.”

A panic over braid chop­ping swept north­ern India ear­lier this year, with more 100 cases re­ported in Delhi and neigh­bour­ing states. Dr Sud­hir Khan­del­wal, a for­mer head of the psy­chi­a­try depart­ment at the All India In­sti­tute of Med­i­cal Sci­ences, said he had not ex­am­ined the Kash­mir in­ci­dents but was cer­tain the al­leged at­tacks ear­lier in the year were part of a “mass hys­te­ria”.

No sus­pects were iden­ti­fied and the cases did not stand up to thor­ough foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion, he said. “In right-handed in­di­vid­u­als, the braid chop­ping con­formed to their right-hand­ed­ness, and the same with left-handed peo­ple. All these peo­ple were get­ting at­ten­tion, going on TV, be­ing quoted in news­pa­pers. So we be­lieve it was a mass hys­te­ria, an at­ten­tion-seek­ing phe­nom­e­non.”

He said the fam­i­lies of fu­ture vic­tims should seek out doc­tors be­fore going to the po­lice. “In many of these cases peo­ple will be found to have psy­cho­log­i­cal con­flicts,” he said.

Pho­to­graph: Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

A protest in Sri­na­gar this month over al­leged ‘braid chop­pings’.

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