Kashmir is witnessing new mass unrest and insecurity. Scores of incidents of “braid-chopping” have led to tensions of a kind not seen before. There are no obvious culprits; indeed, there is a question mark over whether braid-choppers even exist. The government and police appear helpless to stop the incidents in which women, mostly young, have reported seeing a male intruder in their homes, usually at night, who cuts off their hair and escapes. It has spawned unprecedented vigilantism in the villages, in which innocent men have been set upon and thrashed badly. A 70-year-old man died after one such incident and, on Friday, in a horrific incident in Sopore, villagers tried to set on fire a mentally deranged man. Daily police rescues of victims of vigilantism have given rise to sinister suspicions about the complicity of law enforcers with the braid-choppers.
Hair-chopping incidents were also reported from Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, UP, and even Jammu some two months ago. While these incidents petered out, in Kashmir, they have taken on a life of their own. On Saturday, fear and panic fused with political alienation, and a protest against braid-chopping metamorphosed into a pro-azadi demonstration.
What is unfolding in the Valley bears an uncanny similarity — in fact, an almost exact correspondence — with an episode that occurred in Sri Lanka in the summer of 2011, in social conditions that were in several ways similar.
It was two years after the LTTE’s defeat and the end of the war. Amid high Sinhala triumphalism, a traumatised Tamil people were trying to rebuild shattered lives in highly militarised Northern Sri Lanka. The fighting had displaced people, and destroyed their homes and belongings. They had experienced artillery fire, bombings, conscription and hostage taking by the LTTE, killings, deaths, and disappearance of family members. In the upheaval, traditional relationships within communities had broken down. Many women had suddenly found themselves heading their families. On the ground, there was a saturation presence of Sri Lankan Army and Navy personnel. The alienation from the Mahinda Rajapakse government in Colombo was total, and there was, little empathy from the government for the Tamils.
As with the braid-chopping, the first of the so-called “grease devil” incidents were reported far from the minority Tamil-dominated North, in the tea growing central highlands, and in the Sinhalese South, known for its rich demon folklore. It then spread East and North.
The grease yakka/bootham (Sinhalese/Tamil for demon or devil) attacked only women. The victims reported seeing a muscular man in a loincloth, his body and face covered in black grease; sometimes wearing a mask, and with metal talon extensions on his fingers. The women reported being held in a vice like grip from behind, and being scratched on their arms or breasts.
Soon, the incidents were being reported only in the Tamil North and in the East, where there is an even mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations. But even in the East, it was only women from the two minority communities, Tamil and Muslim, who reported being attacked. Increasingly, the phenomenon started to reflect the acute ethnic polarisation of that period.
Sinhala Buddhist religious leaders, the Sri Lankan government and security forces denounced the grease devil phenomenon as “malicious rumours” floated by “evil forces in the Tamil diaspora” — a reference to remnants of the LTTE settled in western countries — with the aim of destablising Sri Lanka.
In the Tamil view, on the other hand, there was no question that the grease devil was for real, as were his victims. He was also seen as a new instrument unleashed by the military on the Tamil people.
“The grease devil incidents in Jaffna were attributed mainly to Military Intelligence. We thought that the intention was deliberately to create insecurity, perhaps to prolong the maintenance of high levels of military deployments,” said activist Rajan Hoole, founder member of the well known University Teachers’ Human Rights (Jaffna).
As women from Batticaloa to Mannar, from Vavuniya to Jaffna, lived in fear of being attacked by the grease devil, on the streets, as in Kashmir today, vigilantes took over. Suspects were attacked, at least two people were killed, and there were accidental deaths relating to vigilantes and the grease devil. The more the security forces tried to intervene in the vigilantism, the more they were seen as complicit. In villages close to military camps, people alleged the grease devil ran into the camps after being confronted and chased by villagers.
Sritharan Thirunavakkarasu, a member of the formerly militant Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) who has lived in Jaffna since the end of the war, told The Indian Express: “After the war, the grease devil appeared like a plan to keep the enfeebled Tamil community from getting up on their feet, to prevent them from regaining their self-confidence. It seemed like an attempt to make an entire community look absurd and clownish, as if a prisoner of irrational fears, to keep us dependent.”
The grease devil incidents stopped as suddenly and as mysteriously as they had begun. By October 2011, there were no more incidents. In its report, Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East, published in December 2011, the International Crisis Group said the grease devil incidents were a manifestation of the vulnerability of women in a highly militarised environment.
The grease devil episode and braid-chopping in Kashmir say much about the challenges that face communities in situations of extreme and chronic conflict: beyond death and destruction, the social breakdown; the high emotional cost conflict extracts from women; and how militarisation, by state security forces, and non-state groups, affects perceptions of security and entrenches distrust.
In a paper on the grease devil crisis (‘Demonic Violence and Moral Panic in Post-War Sri Lanka’, Journal of Asian Studies 74(4) August 2015), London School of Economics political scientist Rajesh Venugopal advanced three possible interpretations of the episode: one, that it was the outcome of the “unresolved collective trauma” of the Tamils; two, an expression of otherwise suppressed discussions of gender and ethnic violence and oppression in the post-war environment in which soldiers embodied the “totalising encroachment of the military in the North-East into the public, material sphere, and even beyond, into the more private and intimate sphere of the Tamil and Muslim home…”; and finally, an interpretation favoured by the author, as “hegemony undone”, a chink in the state’s total post-war control over the ethnic minorities, a period, however brief, in which “the state lost or had diminished control”.
In Kashmir, the J&K state government has been more responsive than in Sri Lanka but still appears to be not in control. The police have carried out investigations; the government has constituted committees of officials, doctors, and psychiatrists to investigate all cases. It is likely that the incidents will soon die down as they did in Sri Lanka. But until then, it should be no surprise if they are used by a range of actors to pursue their own agendas.