On the morning of October 13, a lane in Srinagar’s Firdausabad Colony seemed to be deserted. It was being carefully watched, however, by residents who poured out moments after strangers who had entered the colony reached the last house in the lane.

It was in this house that Gulshan Akhtar claimed, on October 10, that unidentified strangers had chopped off her braid. Akhtar had dismissed a clinking of the gates, thinking it was her husband who had returned from the bakery. It was around 8 am. “I looked back briefly and saw two masked men. I tried to run back inside but they pulled me by my braid and sprayed something on my face,” she said, claiming she had fallen unconscious shortly afterwards. “It was as if someone had sprayed chilli over my eyes.”

Akhtar’s sister-in-law, Nayeema Akthar, had been at home with her that. Nayeema said that Akhtar had lain motionless on the floor. “Her gold earrings were also missing,” she said. “We did complain to the police but they have not come to us yet.”

Akhtar still has dark circles under her eyes. In the days after the incident, a fresh worry has emerged. The attackers had not managed to get all of her braid. “It is said that they come after women whose braids weren’t fully cut,” she said. “I get nervous every time there is a knock on the gates. We call our neighbours immediately if someone comes to our doorsteps.”

Akhtar is one of many frightened women. In Srinagar’s Karfali Mohalla, Asmat Khan was in the kitchen around 7 am on October 10, preparing breakfast. Her father-in-law had left for early morning prayers and was expected to return any time. That is when two masked men wearing black clothes attacked her, she says.

One of the alleged attackers, she said, was masked but she could tell his eyes had a slant to them and he “was very dark”. Khan had initially mistaken the intruders for her father-in-law. “The other said to me in Kashmiri that he wasn’t Abuji,” she said. “They held me by my braid and placed a cloth over my face. I heard the click of the scissors.” Khan has no memory of what happened after that.

The previous night, a brick had been hurled at their house, the family claimed. Khan’s husband, Shabir Ahmad, said the flour had been spilt all over the kitchen floor and a strange stench lingered in the kitchen till the afternoon of the incident. The police have taken Khan’s clothes for investigation.

‘Outside agencies’

Neither Akhtar nor Khan’s family believe the incident was self inflicted. Both blame the incidents on masked men in black clothes. In both incidents, the only witnesses were the two women concerned. Muneer Khan, inspector general, Kashmir, told Greater Kashmir that 100 alleged incidents of braid chopping had occurred but “not a single victim has approached any police station with her hair sample”.

However, panic has taken over the Valley’s streets, fuelled by rumours and updates on social media. On October 12 and 13, schools across the Valley remained shut and on Friday, restrictions were imposed in Srinagar after separatist leaders called for protests against braid chopping. Mobile internet speed was also slowed down to impede rumours.

Meanwhile, women venture out of their houses in fear. A teacher at Kashmir University said attendance rates among female students had fallen in the last two weeks. “I would say that there is a 30% drop, at least,” he said.

Doors are padlocked during the day and strangers make residents uneasy. In Firdausabad, neighbours keep watch of strangers entering the locality. Messages are relayed over the phone, tracking the progress of strangers. By evening, crowds are thin on the streets as vigilante groups take over. Vigilante groups armed with sticks and knives patrol the streets, sometimes using whistles to coordinate.

One such group in Bemina, on the outskirts of Srinagar, is led by 35-year-old Waqas Malik. Incidents of braid chopping in nearby localities had prompted them to patrol the streets, Malik said. “We patrol our side of the main road. On the other side there are boys from that mohalla, who patrol their end,” he said. “We have a plan: to capture the braid chopper quietly and tie him up, not beat him, and investigate who sent him.”

Just a day before, Malik said, the locality’s baker reported intruders at his home before sunrise. Malik believes whoever is behind the incidents is “well trained” and not “an ordinary person”. Another member of the patrol group, Abid Bhat, said they suspected “the army or outside agencies” were behind the attacks.

Bhat went on to say that braid chopping in other states had been engineered so that it would not “raise suspicions” when it finally entered the Valley. The ultimate aim, he said, was to plunge the Valley into chaos. But the fear and panic also had a “positive outcome”, Bhat said: “women have now started to cover up and are not going out unaccompanied”.

Over the last two weeks, vigilante groups have manhandled and beaten up men, women, and in one case, a transgendered person, accusing them of being braid choppers. Videos of men and vehicles being attacked have been circulating over WhatsApp. On October 13, the police rescued three women in Srinagar after they were accused of being braid choppers.

In South Kashmir, a 70-year-old was killed by his own nephew, who allegedly mistook him for a braid chopper. Another man accused of being a braid chopper was abducted and had his head and beard shaved by vigilantes in north Kashmir. The incident was filmed and circulated it online. Three vigilantes were arrested.

Tourists have not escaped suspicion either. Six foreign tourists were rescued by the police after vigilantes attacked them in Srinagar on October 8. Two days later, in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, three tourists were attacked by a mob which accused them of being braid choppers. In both instances, the tourists were in cars.

‘Fear psychosis’

Psychologists in the Valley feel the police’s handling of the cases have added to the problem. “They should have ordered psychological examination of the women and made the results public so that things would be clearer. Instead they let the situation get aggravated,” said Arif Khan, a psychologist based in the Valley.

Though he has not examined any victim of braid chopping, he said the cases appeared to stem from “fear psychosis”. The nature of the victim’s claims, he said, depended directly on their cultural and societal contexts. “Earlier, it would be djinns or ghosts, but over the last three decades the conditioning has been that the [state forces] are behind everything that goes wrong,” Khan speculated.

In the 1990s, soon after militancy broke out in Kashmir, the Valley was gripped by the fear of “dayan” or witches and ghosts who roamed the streets or entered houses to beat up inhabitants. Residents would hit tin sheets to make a noise and scare away the mysterious creatures.

Three decades of armed violence have taken a severe psychological toll on Kashmir. According to a 2015 report by Medicin Sans Frontiers, 93% of Kashmir’s population has experienced or witnessed conflict-related trauma and 1.8 million, or 45%, of adults show significant symptoms of mental distress.

‘Mass hysteria’ or motivated attack?

According to the state police, while there have been more than 100 alleged incidents of braid chopping, only half of these were reported to the police. The government, for its part, oscillates between “mass hysteria” and motivated attacks to explain the recent phenomenon.

State Education Minister Altaf Bukhari said on October 11 that in “90% of cases, it is more of a hysteria”. “Let me be very clear, it is a phobia. When there is no culprit, whom to arrest? There are few cases where braid has been chopped. It is not that true the way it is circulated,” the minister said at a college for women in Srinagar. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, meanwhile, took to social media: “Government will ensure steps are taken to find the motives behind these attacks,” she wrote on Twitter.

When incidents of braid chopping first broke out, the police had announced a reward of Rs 3 lakh, later doubled to Rs 6 lakh, for information on braid choppers. Now, it has directed its attention to alleged rumour mongers. Police officials say more than three dozen arrests have been made for rumour mongering across Kashmir and several more first information reports have been filed.

A senior police official pointed out that braid chopping incidents have occurred across north India but remain unsolved. The incidents stopped, he said, after people were made aware of psychological distress. “It stopped there because the civil society including doctors and psychologists voiced their opinions but here in Kashmir, the civil society won’t speak a word,” he said.

Civil society was too intimidated to speak up, the officer continued, and the police could not take a stand as it was “in the dock for its inability to solve a ‘mental crime’”. “No police can solve a crime which has not even happened,” he rued.