On Sunday night, rumour spread in the sleepy Charari Sharief town of central Kashmir that two ‘braid choppers’ had ‘almost’ gained entry into a house but for the vigilant house-owner who was roused in the nick of time, prompting the alleged perpetrators to flee.
Criminals were on the run in the locality, so they were to be taught a lesson. In no time, a large crowd gathered to comb the area for the intruders. But the ‘search operation’ was anti-climactic. “They have probably run away,” one of the men quipped when no one was found. Soon enough, the anxious crowd lost interest and decided to retire to their homes.
Kashmiris have spared none in their quest to solve the mystery of ‘braid choppers’ that has terrorised them for the last month.
The phenomenon was first reported from Kokernag area of South Kashmir after gathering steam in north Indian states like Himachal and Haryana, but while it fizzled out there, braid chopping is now taking an ugly turn that poses danger to life and property of commoners in the Valley.
Theatre of the Absurd
The terror that struck Charari Sharief three days ago may not have inflicted harm on anyone, but the acts of vigilantism against braid choppers have played out horribly. In at least a dozen cases, innocent people were subjected to brutal mob justice on the streets.
Victims rescued by the elders or police from the murderous clutches of vigilante groups range from a drug addict to a labourer from Bihar, a transgender person to a group of foreign tourists who had lost their way in Srinagar!
For the last month, nearly 200 incidents of foiled and successful ‘braid chopping’ incidents have been reported across the Valley, prompting the J&K police to register nearly 40 cases. However, the lack of any arrests has fanned conspiracy theories and vitiated the fragile peace in Kashmir.
One such conspiracy theory blames the incidents on a group of people trained in mainland Indian who have been sent with the sole mission of chopping braids of girls in Kashmir. Another sees the involvement of ‘agencies’ who are trying to distract attention of people from the simmering political crisis in the Valley. The list goes on and on!
Flawed Investigations, Selective Justice
Investigations into these incidents, tragically, have been flawed from the beginning. It took J&K Police nearly two weeks and more than two dozen cases that already had spread fear and panic across the Valley, to appoint lady police officers as investigation officers of braid-chopping cases.
However, very few victims have recorded their statements before the police for various reasons. Officially, police has solved only one case, from North Kashmir, where it claimed that the victim was a psychiatric patient – yet such enthusiasm is missing from investigations into other ‘braid chopping’ cases.
In a rare instance, while most of the victims in Kashmir were targeted inside their residences, a young girl on way to tuitions was attacked barely 50 metres away from her home in Shangri area of Baramulla. The case remains unsolved.
“With a vast intelligence network in place, it is unfathomable to believe that the police isn’t able to make any headway in these cases. When they can kill militants hiding in the jungles, why have they failed to nab the culprits and give justice to the victims?” a resident of Kulgam district where nearly dozen cases have been reported, said on condition of anonymity.
In their clichéd ways, separatists have turned to shutdown politics to protest the “assault on Kashmiri women”. During one such shutdown call on Monday, a five-year-old was hit with a stone hurled by the hartal-enforcement-squad of stone-pelters. Now, students are being told to protest, prompting the government to shut down all educational institutions. The pleasantly cool autumn in the Valley is generating the intolerable heat of summer.
At the centre of the crisis are Kashmiri girls and women, traumatised and scarred in the process of growing up under the shadow of relentless violence of the last three decades. They have given up their small freedoms to stay safe but the looming threat of braid-choppers refuses to go away. They want to know when their harassment and humiliation will stop, or if it will stop at all.
The scare is now also posing a significant security risk as investigators grope in the dark for clues and the situation goes from bad to worse. In an attempt to douse the flames, a crackdown has been launched against ‘rumour-mongers’ who are spreading false information on social media and elsewhere. Six cases have been filed by J&K Police so far.
“Police can proceed with investigations only as long as the victims are ready to talk. Besides, the lack of resources and skills in the police force, which has been hardened by years of dealing with counter-insurgency violence, to investigate normal criminal cases has only added to the confusion,” a senior police officer admitted, requesting anonymity.
Many Layers of Truth
The ‘lack of skills and resources’ within the police, however, reflects poorly, and gravely, on the state of affairs in Kashmir, where the situation is on the verge of sliding into full-blown crisis.
Anguished people have now started painting all the incidents of braid chopping with the brush of the clichéd ‘centri’ch chaal’ (‘New Delhi’s doing’). Nothing can be further from the truth.
“A violence-wracked place with nearly two-thirds of the population suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder makes Kashmir a fertile ground for psychological disorders to manifest into physical symptoms,” a psychiatrist at Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital said.
The psychiatrist insisted on remaining anonymous because “I don’t want to blamed for character assassination of Kashmiri women, that the society is turning mad. That is one part of the story. But in this situation, vested interests will certainly like to play with fire and keep the pot boiling,” he said.
In Kashmir, truth has many layers. The fear of braid choppers has made anxieties shoot up, but no answers are forthcoming, no assurances to diffuse the anger. The situation is ripe for another breakdown, and the danger is that no one knows the way to normalcy anymore.