Armed with sticks, knives and small axes, groups of men have mushroomed in the past month across Kashmir that has seen at least 100 incidents of ‘braid chopping’ – mysterious instances in which women wake up to find their braids cut off.
It is around 9:30pm. A dozen young men, armed with sticks, knives and small axes have gathered at a small four-way intersection in a congested locality on the outskirts of Srinagar. The autumn night is chilly and the men light a bonfire before turning to their phones for their task – protecting the locality from the scourge of what they call “braid choppers”.
Providing them live updates is a group on instant messaging platform WhatsApp titled ‘Anti-Braid-Chopping Squad’, comprising 35 local people who have volunteered to keep vigil against the mass panic and hysteria sweeping Kashmir that have sparked violence and pushed law and order to the brink of collapse.
“Every night we are hearing about braid-chopping incidents. Our sisters and mothers are being targeted – they are not safe even inside our homes. We can’t let this happen. We have taken it upon ourselves to safeguard their honour,” says Mohammad Hakim* (30), one of the leaders of the vigilante group.
He continues, “Social media, especially WhatsApp has helped us connect a lot to youth who want to work against braid-choppers. For the last four days, no one in our group has slept for a minute till 4am. It’s a routine — there will be an attack attempted at one house or the other. And we have to run.”
Such vigilante groups of local men have mushroomed in the past month across Kashmir that has seen at least 100 incidents of “braid chopping”, where women allege unknown assailants have sprayed a chemical to knock them unconscious and then, cut their braid.
The hysteria around the bizarre phenomenon swept north India earlier this year but didn’t stoke tensions as much as it has done in the Valley. With complaints mounting, the police are under increasing pressure but have not arrested a single suspect, instead blaming alleged victims for not cooperating.
The frustration has given way to vigilante groups that have thrashed, maimed and harassed people — foreigners, tourists, soldiers — who are deemed suspicious. Even on Diwali, mobs in Srinagar tried to drown a man it suspected of braid chopping. A day later, vigilante groups tried to set on fire a mentally-challenged person.
“I believe criminal and anti-social elements have joined the fray, or some men are settling personal scores with women, and they are ensuring that confusion and mayhem continue in Kashmir,” said Nayeema Mehjoor, former journalist and chairperson of the state commission for women.
Back at Zakura, the night is young and the men have taken their positions. A few kilometers from Hakim, a section of the area’s vigilante group – six men armed with sticks – is keeping a check on the traffic. Every car or motorbike coming into the locality was stopped and identity of travelers verified.
With a grimace, Hakim adds, “Last night, at 2:30am, we missed the culprit by a few minutes. Today or tomorrow he will come in our hands. And, we will not beat him up. We will ask him what is his motive and who has sent him to do this.”
The men closely coordinate their activists on WhatsApp. The group has four administrators and representatives from four areas of the locality.”Whenever suspicious movement is reported from any area or a woman shouts from some house, the particular representative puts an alert on the group and we run towards the spot,” said Tariq* (25), one of the vigilantes.
He is holding in his hand a stick, onto which he has fitted heavy, rusty nails. “This won’t kill the braid-chopper, but injure him. He can’t run after I hit him with this,” he says.
Protests over braid chopping have paralysed the state with shutdowns, stone pelting and road blockades. Many, including the opposition, blame chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for not doing enough to protect women. But state police, who this month doubled the bounty for information on braid chopping to six lakh rupees, say they are helpless.
“None of the victims or their family members, talk clearly about what happened. There is immense hullabaloo but cooperation to take investigation forward is lacking,” inspector general of police, Kashmir, Muneer Khan, told reporters on Monday.
“We are trying to establish what the motive is. We will start a process of scientific investigation in these incidents,” added Khan.
In the middle of all this, the common Kashmiri, especially women, are gripped by fear. “It appears like a diversionary tactic by the state to keep Kashmiris busy with something trivial, away from the pressing political issues. Even my three-old daughter keeps saying ki ‘choti kaatne waala aaega’(braid chopper will come),’ said a woman, who did not want to be named.
Back at Zakura, Hakim and his friends have spent five hours patrolling the narrow maze of streets that make up the locality but to no avail. But around 2.30am, the lull breaks. An alert rings on the group that a suspected braid-chopper has been spotted at a home in the vicinity. The men run towards the house, their whistles meant to alert people reverberating in the air.
“The woman in the house said the braid-chopper, whom she could not clearly see in the dark, had climbed through the veranda and attempted to come inside the bedroom. But the woman saw him first and started screaming,” says Suhaib*, one of the vigilantes.
A pick-up truck is spotted chugging along on an adjacent road and the vigilantes, in the heat of the moment, decided to chase it on foot – believing that the alleged assaulter escaped in it. One of them even throws his axe at the vehicle, missing it by inches. They fail but are confident about the next challenge. “We missed him even today. Let’s see tomorrow,” Hakim says.