ON A day when police in Delhi and UP made it clear that the reports of women’s hair being chopped were just baseless rumours, with no arrests and no evidence, the five sons of a 60-year-old Dalit woman were struggling to come to terms with their mother’s death near Agra. On Wednesday, Mala Devi died of a cardiac arrest in Mutnai hours after she was beaten with sticks and rods by two men whose house she had stumbled into, after she got lost while returning home from the fields where she had gone to relieve herself.
Residents of Mutnai told The Indian Express that Mala Devi had pleaded with the accused — Manish (30) and Sonu (23) — that they knew her, and her sons. She had also asked them to drop her home, trying to explain that her eyesight was weak and she had lost her way. It did not matter. No one listened. By then, rumours about “braid-choppers” had travelled across neighbouring states and reached Mutnai, 19 km east of Agra city. “Her post mortem report states cardiac arrest as the cause of death. She had contusions on her forearm and abrasions on her forehead,” said Nitya Nand Rai, SP (East), Agra.
“I was sleeping here with my daughter-in-law when I felt someone hit the bed and fall on us. We raised an alarm and all of us were very scared. I do not remember what happened after that. With all these cases of hair being chopped, wouldn’t you get scared if such a thing happens while you are sleeping?” says Prakash Devi, mother of the accused from the OBC Baghela community. “But if they thought that my mother was a ghost or a witch, why did they beat her mercilessly? Why did they not bring her to our home or take her to the police?” asks Manoj Kumar, one of Mala Devi’s five sons.
But Prakash Devi claims that she and her sister-in-law, who lives in another part of Agra, were victims in a “braid-chopping case”. “This happened early Monday morning to my sister-in-law who lives in Dhauki area. She saw a ghost and her braid was chopped off. She has been going in and out of consciousness since that day. A day later, the same thing happened to us. We thought we had seen a ghost. I do not remember much of what happened but when I gained consciousness, a portion of my hair had been chopped off,” she says, sitting on a charpoy and holding a transparent polythene bag with a fistful of “chopped hair” inside.
“There is no basis to this case having any relation with braid chopping. The accused have been charged under IPC section 302 (murder) and section 3 (2) (5) of the SC ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. They are still absconding,” says SP Rai. Located around 2 km from Dhauki police station, most houses in Mutnai have five brown palm prints on the walls next to the main doors. Residents say these impressions were made by them “a couple of days ago” using “henna and turmeric”. “A lot of children fall sick during this time of the year, suffering from fever and cold. This has been done to prevent this kind of illness,” says Pooja, a 21-year-old who lives in the Dalit section of the village.
Less than 500m away, in the Baghela locality, Malti Devi has a different story. “We have been hearing about ghosts chopping braids and cutting hair for the last few days. They have been put up to ward off evil, ghosts and witches,” says the 28-year-old. “Everyone is talking about it, saying these things have been said on TV and in newspapers. This has been happening for 8 to 10 days,” says Malti Devi, a mother of two, whose husband passed away in 2015, four years after their marriage.
“I help my mother-in-law in household chores. I don’t know how to read and write. I can’t read the newspaper. We don’t have a television at home. I heard about the braid chopping cases from people in the village,” she says. The sons of Mala Devi claim that their mother narrated the turn of events on Wednesday morning to them after the beating.
“She left the house at 3.45 am. Due to old age, her eyesight was weak and she also had to relieve herself every 2-3 hours. She would usually come back in 15-20 minutes. Around 4.30 am, our neighbours came to our house and told us that my mother was lying unconscious near a hand-pump in our part of the village,” says Gulab Singh, who works as a halwai. “We rushed over and gave her some water. We called the police and they asked us to come to the Dhauki station. After drinking water, my mother gained consciousness. She was not bleeding but her face was swollen and her eye was injured. She told us at the station that Sonu and Manish had beat her up,” he says, adding that his father passed away six years ago.
An hour later, Mala Devi was taken to the district hospital in Agra — 30 km from the police station — on a motorcycle driven by Gulab Singh. “The doctors conducted some tests and then discharged her within 45 minutes. We were on our way back to our village when she passed away,” he says. On Thursday, rumours of “braid chopping” spread across western UP, with at least three such cases being reported from Firozabad. Police have found no evidence, so far.
In Delhi, five incidents were reported from across the city, with a Deputy Commissioner of Police saying that he was shocked to hear his eight-year-old daughter asking him to close the doors and windows of their house in fear. Says DCP (outer district) Mahendra Nath Tiwari, “When she heard that even I had received such a complaint, she was scared that her hair could be chopped off, too. I took almost 30 minutes to explain to my daughter that there are no supernatural elements like ghosts and witches in the world.”
Tiwari said the complaint reported from his jurisdiction turned out to be false, and appealed to people to desist from spreading “such lies and rumours”. One Delhi Police unit is trying to resolve the situation with the help of psychiatrists from the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IBHAS) who have met the complainants.
(With Mahender Singh Manral in Delhi)