No Need for Baal Rak­shaks

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - In­dra­jit Hazra

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Bablu-ji, than can be ex­plained by the pol­i­tics of com­mu­nal­ism and sec­u­lar­ism and all such di­etary mat­ters. Even as the fat of the land dices and dis­sects and dis­cusses what it means for the top three con­sti­tu­tional posts now be­ing oc­cu­pied by a clean-shaven man, a man with a mous­tache, and a bearded man — the last time such a holy align­ment took place was when R Venkatara­man (clean shaven) was pres­i­dent, Shankar Dayal Sharma (mous­tache) was vice-pres­i­dent and Chan­dra Shekhar (beard) was prime min­is­ter – a spec­tre is haunt­ing the plains of North In­dia. A spec­tre chop­ping women’s hair off while they are asleep or, as some po­lice re­ports have it, when they are ‘un­con­scious’.

The first re­ac­tion for most of us, of course, is to blame ei­ther rightwing goons or left­wing rad­i­cals. That’s the way we roll these days. So, first the facts — which are fac­tier than most facts trot­ted out by even re­li­able me­dia plat­forms. On July 30, women from four vil­lages on the out­skirts of Delhi first re­ported to the po­lice that they woke up to find their hair cut sev­eral inches and the chopped bit neatly left un­der their pil­lows. Since then, more than 30 cases of mys­te­ri­ous hair­cuts have sprouted from Delhi, Haryana, Ra­jasthan, Pun­jab and Ut­tar Pradesh. This has led to some pan­elists on news chan­nels with very re­ced­ing hair­lines not­ing that all but two states fac­ing this me­nace are BJP-ruled.

Women across the Gangetic plains, who will never have an ap­point­ment at any Jawed Habib Hair and Beauty Salon branch, have been ter­ri­fied since, with no one hav­ing an ex­pla­na­tion. No one, that is, bar vic­tims such as the 45-year-old in Gu­ru­gram (name with­held not be­cause of anonymity but be­cause it doesn’t mat­ter) who has gone on record say­ing that her braid was lopped off “by a black cat that took the shape of a man”. An uniden­ti­fied ‘witch­doc­tor’ on the prowl has also been men­tioned.

In all this hair loss — and the fear is gen­uine — it is heart­en­ing to know that the vic­tims have not been from one re­li­gious com­mu­nity. Or two. Which, un­for­tu­nately, does not mean that things are not on the edge. One can look at the tragedy of the death of 60-year-old Mala Devi on Au­gust 2, who died of a car­diac ar­rest af­ter be­ing beaten up with rods by the vil­lagers of Mut­nai in Agra district, which­ever way one likes.

Mala Devi had, ac­cord­ing to some eye­wit­nesses, lost her way be­cause of poor eye­sight and had gone to the house of some­one she knew, re­quest­ing some­one drop her home. But with the at­mos­phere al­ready be­ing charged, she was sus­pected of be­ing a ‘witch’ who had come to shear the hair off the house­hold’s women’s heads. The fact that she was a Dalit has been noted in some quar­ters.

If you light a match in a field, and you do the same in a room where you’ve kept the gas run­ning for some time, the con­se­quences are likely to be very dif­fer­ent. In 2001, the big­gest news do­ing the rounds in Delhi was the ‘Mon­key Man’. There were many sight­ings of this crea­ture, straight out of Ra­jku­mar Kohli’s 1979 star-stud­ded slasher flick, Jaani Dush­man, which ap­par­ently at­tacked folks ran­domly without com­mu­nity pro­fil­ing. This was in the pre- so­cial me­dia age when Nokia hand­sets were still king. But the ‘Kaala Ban­dar’ (Black Mon­key) was ‘ev­ery­where’ — a sec­u­lar me­nace in those Va­j­payee days.

The best thing to come out of the whole episode was Rakeysh Om­prakash Mehra’s film eight years later, Delhi-6. Apart from the won­der­ful song, Masakali, the film also had a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for the ‘Kala Ban­dar’ phe­nom­e­non: it was the man­i­fes­ta­tion of all the vices that resided in­side the peo­ple liv­ing in Chandni Chowk a.k.a. Delhi 110006.

Some post-Freudian witch doc­tors (read: psy­chi­a­trists) have ex­plained the mys­te­ri­ous hair­cuts as a ‘mass hys­te­ria’. For­mer head of de­part­ment, All In­dia In­sti­tute of Med­i­cal Sciences (AIIMS), Dr Sud­hir Khan­del­wal, told Hin­dus­tan Times that the ‘vic­tims’ are cut­ting their own hair “ei­ther con­sciously or in an al­tered sen­so­rium, likely to seek at­ten­tion” — ‘al­tered sen­so­rium’ be­ing a med­i­cal con­di­tion char­ac­terised by an in­abil­ity to think clearly or con­cen­trate.

In­dia has been in an al­tered sen­so­rium for­ever. I just hope noth­ing more than a good movie — and a hair­style — comes out of this spec­tral hair-chop­per, who is nei­ther a gau rak­shak nor an anti-na­tional, but a safer man­i­fes­ta­tion of a hy­per­at­ten­tion-seek­ing na­tion that has the ten­dency and tal­ent to show far more dan­ger­ous neu­rotic signs of tear­ing its own hair out.

Just an­other news snip­pet

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