As complaints about hair chopping incidents pour in from across the national capital, the Delhi Police have roped in a team of mental health experts to help them get to the bottom of the mysterious occurrences that have left the police as well as residents baffled for more than a week now.

On July 30, three women from the Kangan Heri village in southwest Delhi complained that a mysterious being had chopped their hair off. They said they did not see who it was, but had a terrible headache and lost consciousness, waking up to find their braids gone. In the week since, similar complaints came in from several parts of the city, including Palam, Dwarka, Ranhola and Nangloi.

The Delhi Police has commissioned a study by mental health experts from the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences into the incidents. This was the same Institute that had conducted a research on the Monkey Man phenomenon in 2001, when the police had received hundreds of complaints about a monkey-like creature attacking people in the national capital. The team had concluded through its research that the episode was a case of mass hysteria – when a fear or threat, real or imagined, spreads to a large number of people through rumours or narratives, so much so that many of them start reporting similar symptoms.

With regard to the braid-chopping incidents, before the purported attacks reached Delhi, a string of such cases were reported in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan since early July. In Agra, a woman was allegedly lynched by villagers on August 2, who called her a witch and believed she had been cutting off women’s hair.

The police have taken note of at least 200 such cases across the four states, but in a majority of them, there was not enough evidence to file a First Information Report. So far, an FIR has only been filed in the three first three incidents reported Kangan Heri.

While the police in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have dismissed the incidents as an outcome of rumour-mongering and have issued advisories warning people not to fall for hearsay about a hair-cutter on the lose, the Delhi Police is yet to take an official stance on the incidents.

“We could not reach a scientific conclusion [on what was behind these incidents], for which we sought help from the experts,” said a senior Delhi Police official who did not wish to be identified. “We are yet to take a stand on the matter because we cannot convince people that the entire mystery could be born out of rumours unless we have the resources to convince them of that. For now, police officials in the district have been asked to abstain from drawing conclusions or commenting on the issue.”

Former Delhi Police Commissioner Ajay Raj Sharma, who was heading the police force when the Monkey Man phenomenon gripped the National Capital Region, said the Institute’s research helped the police force get to the bottom of the matter. “It has been 16 years now and I don’t remember much about the case details…but yes, we had commissioned a study, which helped us understand the phenomenon and conclude that Monkey Man did not exist,” he said.

Mass hysteria?

If, like the Monkey Man incident, the mystery of the hair chopper turns out to be a case of mass hysteria, it would be more challenging to establish, said Dr Nimesh Desai, Director of Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, who is monitoring the ongoing study and had also headed the 2001 research.

“Mass hysteria is a word used in common parlance in media across the world more liberally than what behavioural science allows,” Desai said. He explained that mass hysteria cases are believed to follow a pattern and spread among people who are bonded together by community, culture or belief systems. But the Monkey Man case contradicted this, as there was no such tangible commonality between those who claimed to be victims, he said. Though most victims and witnesses were from economically weaker sections, they were disconnected in terms of culture and spread out geographically.

In 2001, Desai and his team counselled 55 people who had approached the Delhi Police claiming to be either victims or witnesses of the supposed attacks by Monkey Man. The team, while concluding that it was a case of mass hysteria, found that most victims or witnesses had faced one or more of the following in recent times: extreme emotional stress, sleep deprivation or alcohol and drug abuse (and withdrawal). A few of the people profiled also had a history of schizophrenia.

“If this case [of the hair chopper] turns out to be a case of mass hysteria then it would be a bigger challenge to summarise the entire event as the complainants are far more scattered, disconnected and isolated,” Desai said. “So far, we have only been able to counsel three complainants, that too only in Delhi. I believe such a study should be commissioned by other police departments too.”

A police official in the southwest district investigation unit said that the study, once completed, is likely to be submitted directly to the Delhi police commissioner, who will take a call on the next step.