For nearly two months, Ratana Ram, 36, sprinkled “holy water” given by a tantrik around the periphery of his land, holding his farms and home. The daily ritual was part of the measures he took to ward off a ‘spirit’ “troubling” his 13-year-old daughter Leela Devi.
Sometimes Leela would see a woman, sometimes a man, and other times a cat. Never would she see a face. Once, a relative says, they found wheat dough on her chest with needles stuck on it while she slept, “despite a dozen men guarding her”. After every such “vision”, the girl would get red marks all over her body. Often, she would find her hair “cut”.
Leela’s family, of village Ladiya in Nagaur, claims this happened for the first time on May 10, making the girl perhaps the first case of the hair-chopping scare. Over the next three months, it spread to Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, leaving at least one woman (in Agra) and a cat (in Mewat) dead. Leela suffered till July 4, the family says, when her hair was found “chopped” for the last time. By then, other villagers in Rajasthan had started reporting similar cases.
Purnmal Meena, SHO of Shri Balaji Police Station under which Ladiya falls, says he hasn’t heard of Leela’s case. “There have been plenty of rumours but we didn’t receive this complaint,” he says. What he did investigate was a case of a ear being chopped off and a tooth being pulled out. “In the first case, the person’s ear had just been operated upon, while the other person pulled out his own tooth and blamed a mysterious being,” he says.
Leela reported her first “attack” days after the summer vacations began on May 10. After the school reopened on June 19, a “scared” Leela never went back. She would have entered Class 8, when the no-detention policy ends.
Her father, who used to work in Pali, dyeing clothes for about Rs 250 daily, hasn’t returned to work either. He claims to have spent over Rs 1 lakh on “bhopas (tantriks)” to “treat” Leela.
When asked if Leela was good at studies, Ram says he can’t say, but Rameshwar Lal, a neighbour and an elementary schoolteacher, says she got first division in Class 7.
As her family brings out “some of her chopped hair” to show, Leela, sporting a long, thick ponytail, explains why she is still afraid. “Once I was inside at daytime and it (the being) threatened to kill me.” Now she spends her day either playing or helping her sisters in household chores.
Ram, who has five other children besides Leela, says he studied till “Class 1 or two”. Wife Parma Devi has received no formal education. Neighbour Rameshwar Lal butts in, “We are educated, I am educated, but you had to see it to believe it.”
As to why they didn’t complain to police, Lal says, “The village is cut off. Not even the local media reported it.”
By the first week of June, successive hair-chopping incidents were being reported in Mainsar in Bikaner, a few kilometres from Ladiya. Raju Ram, 25, a truck driver, says he couldn’t go back to work till late July. He claims the family of nine was sleeping adjacent to each other when “a woman in black clothes” tried to drag his cot away. “I kept yelling but no one could hear me,” Raju, who studied up to Class 8, says.
Father Roopa Ram says Raju’s hair was cut, and he was unconscious for 45 minutes. “The next morning we got him amulets. The entire village was here, it was like a fair.”
On June 6, a resident of the village, Hafiza, claimed to have seen a “big dog” at night, when sleeping on the roof with husband Ramzan. “In the morning she realised her hair had been cut, and a good length. We found it near the cot later,” says Peer Baksh, 35, who runs a grocery store below the house. They tied an amulet too.
Ramzan, a farmer, has studied up to Class 8, while Hafiza is illiterate.
Around June 10, Nathmal Meghwal, 55, of the same village, claimed to have fallen off bed while trying to wriggle out of the hold of “the woman in black clothes who cut my hair”. Meghwal, a Class 10 pass, is a former up-sarpanch of Mainsar. He says a maulvi helped him get better.
Tiloka Ram Meghwal’s son as well as daughter — Ram Ratan, 22, and Sangeeta, 15 — claimed to have had their hair chopped on consecutive nights. Ratan works as a labourer in the Middle East while Sangeeta, a Class 5 pass, helps out in the family farms.
In Rupa Ram Kumar’s case, it was his goats. “One of them was sheared from one side. We sold it later for Rs 500 while it could have got us Rs 3,000 otherwise,” says Kumar’s son Nainu Ram, 24, who runs their grocery store and has studied till Class 10.
There were more cases, of Anil Soni and Mahesh Kumar feeling “a heaviness on their chest”, of Shobha “hearing a tarpaulin sheet rustling noisily”, of Ajay Ram’s goat too “being shorn a little”.
None of the Mainsar “victims” went to police. All say they thought that police would not believe them, that they had read news reports of police dismissing such cases as “afwah (rumours)”.
About 130 km from Mainsar, Chimana village of Jodhpur reported its first “case” around mid-June. “The woman had part of her hair chopped and a trident ‘appeared’ on her stomach. Her family didn’t submit a complaint but we questioned her. We couldn’t find anything substantial,” says Chakhu SHO Gopal Singh.
The SHO also spoke to the local tantriks. “They said they don’t know anything either.”
On June 13, two Nagaur youths publicly beat up a woman on suspicion of her being a “witch” behind hair-chopping incidents. Purnmal Meena, the SHO of Shri Balaji Police Station, says they haven’t started legal proceedings as the woman is missing. “Seeing the video, her daughter contacted us. But we are still looking for the mother,” Meena says.
By early July, neighbouring Sikar was reporting “cases”. While Sikar Sadar Police Station SHO Mustaq Khan says they didn’t receive any complaints, ASI Bhana Ram says there was a case each in Puran Chhoti and Nathawatpura villages, and “it was concluded that the women cut their own hair”. “Nobody entered their homes; the hair won’t cut itself. And what do we charge them under? Anyone can cut their own hair, any time. And why conduct a medical? A person can’t be crazy for cutting their own hair,” he says.
Dr V K Jain at Sikar’s K M Memorial Heart and General Hospital says he checked one such patient. “She was a girl of about 20 and her family brought her after she complained of uneasiness. All her clinical tests, blood pressure, temperature, etc, returned normal. We suspect she cut her own hair as families may not want girls to keep short hair,” Jain says.
By mid-July, dozens of cases were being reported around Jaipur, in Shahpura, Chomu, Bhabru, Kotputli, etc. Most weren’t taken to police or remain “unsolved”, but three cases in Chomu were “solved” within a day.
Says Govindgarh DSP Mahaveer Chotia, “The women confessed they had cut their own hair. We even found a pair of scissors with hair on it from one of the houses. Perhaps they wanted a break from work… they may have cut hair to seek attention too.”
Jaipur’s Kotputli SDM Suresh Choudhary agrees, “Naturally, a woman can get tired cooking. They would cut their hair, pretend to be unwell and shocked, and get at least a week’s rest from chores. In the cases here, we conducted medical examination and the results were normal.”
After four-five “incidents”, he constituted a committee to investigate, Choudhary adds. “The cases abruptly stopped.”