Braid Chopping claims in Kashmir spark mass panic and mob violence

Briton and Australians among several people briefly detained by vigilantes in unrest over alleged attacks on women’s hair

A British woman and three Australians have been briefly detained by vigilantes amid mass panic in Indian-administered Kashmir over a spate of alleged “braid choppings”.

Police in the Himalayan region say they have received reports of at least 40 instances of women’s hair being forcibly cut by unidentified assailants.

Though the veracity of the claims has been questioned, they have sparked mob violence and mass protests, and some young women say they are too afraid to leave their homes.

The first alleged incidents were reported on 14 September in the restive southern districts of the disputed state, and the reports have now spread to its capital, Srinagar.

Vigilante groups armed with axes and wooden boards have been formed in some neighbourhoods in response to the alleged attacks. At least 12 people, including the tourists, have required police to rescue them from mobs.

The British and Australian travellers, accompanied by an Irish and South Korean national, became lost at around 2am on Sunday while en route to Srinagar.

“They were checking their mobiles asking me to go right and left,” their driver, Abid Hussain, told the Guardian. “At one point they asked me to stop and said they had reached the hotel.

“One of them went down to check the hotel and shouted to open the door. Within seconds a crowd of 1,000 or more people had gathered. It was very scary,” he said.

Consular officials said the group were quickly set free unharmed, but police say several other people have been “beaten and thrashed severely” by the vigilantes.

Police are at a loss to explain the alleged crimes but have doubled the reward for information about the culprits to 600,000 rupees (£7,000). The government has called emergency meetings and put local officials on high alert.

Popular anger culminated on Monday with protests across Kashmir, many led by women, that shut businesses and schools and were dispersed by police in riot gear using smoke shells. A five-year-old boy was seriously injured in the unrest.

The claims made by some alleged victims give few clues for police to pursue and are more akin to ghost stories than crime reports. Bilqees Jan told the Guardian she had been cooking cheese in her home when she felt someone grab hold of her hair.

“I thought it was my son, but then I was dragged and I thought my son cannot do it,” Jan, 35, said. “I could only see that the person was wearing a black dress. I don’t know whether the person was man or woman.

“When I tried to scream, another person sprayed something on my face and I fell unconscious,” she said. “I gained consciousness at a hospital. For the next two days I had no idea what was happening around me. Even now I am very scared. I sit under a blanket and feel scared at every knock.”

A police official, Parvez Ahmad, said investigating Jan’s allegations was challenging because she had a history of severe mental health problems, experiencing hallucinations even as she was being interviewed by officers.

Another alleged victim, Safoora Ashraf, 13, said she had been studying when she felt someone touch her hair. “I ignored it. Then I heard someone jump out the window and when I went to see, there was no one. When I returned to my place I saw my chopped braid there,” she said.

In Kulgam district, where 13 braid chopping incidents have been reported, the police superintendent Shridhar Patil said he was exploring several leads, including personal grudges involving victims, “love triangles” and psychological illness. The majority of the complainants in his district either had a history of mental illness or regularly visited faith healers, he added.

As with many events in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where a bloody insurgency has raged since 1989, the braid chopping has taken on political dimensions. Separatist leaders have claimed the attacks are an Indian government conspiracy to undermine the independence movement and “the dignity of our womenfolk”.

Armed militants say it is a strategy by intelligence agencies to inhibit their free movement. The fighters use sympathetic villages as hideouts and staging grounds for attacks – a much more difficult enterprise when villagers are paranoid of any outsiders.

Government officials in Kashmir have been ordered to keep quiet about the issue, but a senior psychiatrist at a public hospital in Srinagar said “unscientific” police investigations were complicating the cases and creating unnecessary fear.

“It has reached a level where nothing can be concluded,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Since there is a reward now, that means officially [police] are searching for someone. This entire episode needs multi-dimensional assessment, which includes law enforcement agencies, forensic and mental health experts.”

A panic over braid chopping swept northern India earlier this year, with more 100 cases reported in Delhi and neighbouring states. Dr Sudhir Khandelwal, a former head of the psychiatry department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said he had not examined the Kashmir incidents but was certain the alleged attacks earlier in the year were part of a “mass hysteria”.

No suspects were identified and the cases did not stand up to thorough forensic examination, he said. “In right-handed individuals, the braid chopping conformed to their right-handedness, and the same with left-handed people. All these people were getting attention, going on TV, being quoted in newspapers. So we believe it was a mass hysteria, an attention-seeking phenomenon.”

He said the families of future victims should seek out doctors before going to the police. “In many of these cases people will be found to have psychological conflicts,” he said.