Police on Friday imposed restrictions in Srinagar to prevent a protest called by separatists against the growing incidents of braid-chopping in the Valley. Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was placed under house arrest while JKLF chief Yasin Malik was arrested from his residence to prevent them from leading protests. Mobile internet was snapped across Kashmir for a few hours on Friday to prevent rumour-mongering over braid-chopping.
Protests, however, did erupt at various places in Srinagar with people demanding an end to what they alleged was a conspiracy by security agencies behind the braid-chopping incidents. Dozens of incidents of braid-chopping have been reported in the state in the last few weeks, but nobody has been arrested. Officials said that residents were beating and harassing innocent people to prevent such attacks. So while the braid-chopping scare has petered out in other north Indian states, in Jammu and Kashmir it has given rise to vigilantism and violence.
In one such incident, residents of north Kashmir’s Delina village beat up a youth on Tuesday. Police rescued the youth and said that he was not a braid-chopper but had gone to meet a friend in the village. On Wednesday, residents of Nundreshi Colony in Srinagar found two boys moving “suspiciously” and beat them up. Locals helped the duo escape after finding they were militant overground workers.
Two burqa-clad women were beaten on the suspicion of being braid-choppers when they entered a wedding reception in Srinagar without invitation. In Pattan, two labourers from a village in Kupwara were beaten when someone shouted that they were braid choppers.
Baramulla SSP Imtiyaz Hussain said, “ There are apprehensions that people could be killed by mobs. In the last two days, four cases were reported in my district, all of them were baseless.” The SSP has registered several cases against people for spreading rumours.
In one such incident in Baramulla, the “victim”, a teenage girl, reported that her hair was chopped at night. Her parents were sleeping in the same room and there was no possibility of an outsider coming in. The girl claimed the braid chopper entered through a wall. According to the police statement, a shaving blade was found at the spot. The statement also detailed that the girl was “suffering from a psychiatric ailment”.
The police have issued several statements underscoring that the complaints are baseless. They have asked people not to believe rumours and warned that “strict action will be taken against attention seekers in the garb of braid chopping”.
In the 1990s, the Valley was gripped by similar rumours of “bhooth” — mysterious figures that everyone had heard about but no one had seen. A belief spread that the ghosts were men from security agencies trying to scare people. Now, the hair chopping incidents have again given rise to a belief that security agencies could be behind the incidents.
“Several times we came close to catching the culprit. Every time, the Army came to the rescue,” said Ghulam Nabi, a resident of D H Pora in Kulgam, the south Kashmir district that first reported braid-chopping incidents in the state. “It cannot be a coincidence that the Army is present wherever a braid-chopping incident happens”.
In other north Indian states where braid chopping was reported, the incidents petered out after the police found that the victim was often responsible for the chopping. With the phenomenon taking on a new dimension in J&K, the state government has constituted a Special Investigation Team, set up helplines in every district and announced a reward for information leading to the arrest of braid choppers. The reward money was recently doubled from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 6 lakh.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the government was trying its best to identify culprits and those involved would be dealt with sternly.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani said, “The silence of the government speaks volumes about the grave situation. Despite attacks on women by these mysterious elements, the authorities are not ashamed of their failure.”
The Opposition NC said there should be no compromise on the honour of women. “Mass hysteria has gripped the state and it is frustrating how the government is not able to identify and arrest those responsible,” NC general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar said.