After causing panic in Delhi and adjoining states, braid chopping has reached Kashmir. Only here, the resultant “mass hysteria”, as psychologists have described such episodes, has given fresh ammunition to separatists and militants to corner the security agencies.

The Valley reported its first braid chopping in September, about a month after Jammu had reported several similar incidents. Promptly, the separatists blamed the Indian security agencies.

In all, according to the police, 35 cases of braid chopping have been reported from Kashmir so far and 192 from Jammu division.

On October 2, Riyaz Naikoo, field operational commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahedeen, released an audio statement saying the chopping of women’s braids was aimed at “weakening” the separatist movement.

As to motive, Naikoo claimed that security forces wanted to keep “people away from” the militants, who had curtailed their movement in the last two months, making it difficult for the security forces to trace them. “To trace the mujahideen, [security] agencies have started this new propaganda,” Naikoo said. “Agencies know that now when mujahideen enter people’s homes at night, the people will raise a cry out of fear, exposing the mujahideen.”

Naikoo went further, alleging a grand conspiracy behind braid chopping. “You all know that hair of our mothers and sisters being cut is an Indian conspiracy involving [security] forces and senior officers of the police, the RSS, and the government,” he said, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Their aim is enmity with Islam and Kashmir. You all know that when a braid chopper was caught in Kulgam, forces fired on people [to free him]. It’s clear who is involved in this conspiracy.”

Naikoo urged the people to catch and interrogate the suspected braid choppers themselves rather than leave the job to the police. “If he is found involved, hand him over to us [militants],” he said. “If that is not possible, get information from him about which agency is behind this and what is their motive. Then punish him yourself so that it is a lesson to others.”

Naikoo declared that he was willing to die defending women against braid chopping. “If I attain martyrdom protecting the hair of a mother or sister, that deal is acceptable to me,” he said.

The militant leader concluded his statement by advising women to wear “Islamic dress” that provides “complete protection” and to not go out unaccompanied. He also asked the people to remain steadfast to “foil Indian conspiracies”.

After braid choppers hit Delhi in July, the police commissioned experts from the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences to study the phenomenon. The same institute had researched complaints about a monkey-like creature attacking people in the national Capital in 2001 and concluded that the entire episode was a case of mass hysteria.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the police said there were no suspects in any of the reported cases of braid chopping in the state. “The incidents involve conservative families and mostly women in rural areas, and there are no suspects or witnesses,” said a police officer said who asked not to be identified. “Which means it’s self-inflicted.”

On the government’s part, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, on September 30, directed Director General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid to form special teams in every district to track down the culprits. On October 1, the police doubled the reward for information on braid choppers to Rs 6,00,000.

Vaid told Hindustan Times that “the incidents seem similar to what was happening in the rest of the country but here there is a chance that separatists and terrorists might use the incidents to their benefit.’’

On social media, though, the majority opinion aligns with that of the separatists rather than the police – that braid chopping is the handiwork of Indian security agencies.

The day Naikoo released his statement, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads his faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, countered Vaid, saying the outbreak of braid chopping was a “deliberate attempt to cover their failure” by the state. Geelani spoke of the government’s “sinister designs” and accused it of “executing the pernicious plan of RSS”.

In the same vein, the socio-religious organisation Jamaat-e-Islami called braid chopping a “deep rooted conspiracy”. In a statement to the press, it alleged that “New Delhi is hell bent on derailing the pace of the freedom struggle, which has gained momentum after July 2016 as people from all walks of life are contributing to get freedom from occupational forces”.

‘Mob frenzy’

Vaid dismissed such allegations, saying “truth is the biggest casualty in Kashmir”. “Why would the security forces do this?” he asked.

Vaid pointed out that an alleged braid chopper “caught redhanded” in Baramulla, North Kashmir, on Tuesday turned out to be a resident of the nearby Sopore town who “had been in love with the girl”.

The boy was beaten mercilessly by the local people before the police rescued him. “Large number of miscreants attacked police party as well but somehow the boy was rescued from their clutches by firing tear smoke shells to disperse them,” the police said in a statement, adding that a preliminary investigation found the boy “was in a relationship with a local girl from Delina village and had gone to meet her when he was spotted and beaten up by locals there accusing him of being braid chopper.”

In South Kashmir, at least two men accused of being braid choppers have been thrashed by mobs. On September 28, a non-Kashmiri man was beaten up in Qaimoh in Kulgam district. He was freed by the Army, the residents alleged, adding that the soldiers resorted to aerial firing to disperse the crowd. The police, however, denied the allegations.

In neighbouring Anantnag district, an alleged drug peddler was caught by a mob in Sherpora, accused of being a braid chopper and beaten up. On Monday evening, villagers in Hajin reported that “a group of burqa-clad women” had attempted to cut the braid of a minor girl.

On Tuesday, villagers iof Mazhama in Budgam district chased and caught a man, accusing him of being a thief and braid chopper. He has since been detained by the police.

Vaid termed civilians apprehending and thrashing suspects as “mob frenzy”.

The Valley has long been fertile ground for rumours and conspiracy theories. The “Indian agencies” are blamed for almost every untoward incident, so they have acquired a larger than life image.

In January 2016, a rumour, spread through WhatsApp, that infants were dying after being vaccinated for polio led to Valley-wide chaos. Roads were clogged with vehicles as anxious parents took their children to hospitals. “There were cases [of braid chopping] reported from Jammu and other parts of the country as well, but it is only in the Valley that the blame was put on the government,” said the police officer. “We haven’t learned anything from the polio chaos.”