STATE OF FEAR AND SUSPICION

  • Bilal Handoo / Shafat Hussain / Altaf Baba
  • Publish Date: Oct 21 2017 1:07AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 21 2017 1:07AM
STATE OF FEAR AND SUSPICION

Picking up stories and signals on the braid chopping trail

 

On October 9, a protest broke out in the congested Old Srinagar neighbourhood of Karfali Mohalla, Habba Kadal. They were angry that so-called braid choppers, two of them apparently, had set upon a woman, cutting her tresses and knocking her unconscious. The attack has left the people looking over their shoulders. Suspicious eyes follow strangers everywhere.

“These are cursed times,” rues Shafeeqa, mother-in-law of the victim, Asmat. “Kashmiris have started doubting each other.”

Shafeeqa believes the braid choppers surveilled the family before attacking her daughter. “The night before the attack, somebody threw a brick that broke the window and flew in. It seemed the braid choppers were in our courtyard. So, we took turns to keep an eye on the streets outside. That night hardly anyone slept in Karfali Mohalla.”

At dawn, as the patriarch Nazir Khan, who runs a grocery nearby, left for prayers in the mosque, the tired family fell asleep, except Asmat who got up to prepare breakfast.

Sometime after Nazir had returned from the mosque and left to open his shop, Asmat, 26, heard noises outside. “I thought Abbaji had come back for something,” she recalls, referring to her father-in-law. “I called from kitchen, ‘Abbaji, is that you?’ And I heard the most petrifying voice I have ever heard answering, ‘Na, Malkinmout!’ [No, the angle of death]. Before I could call my husband, two tall men, one Kashmiri and the other outsider, barged into the kitchen. The dark-skinned man dragged me by my hair, while the Kashmiri man closed my mouth with his hand. They hit me on the head with a stick.”

A while later, when Shafeeqa came downstairs, she found her daughter-in-law lying unconscious in the lobby, flour all over the place. Asmat’s braid was cut and her kameez torn at the shoulder; the gold chain she wore was gone as was her purse with about Rs 7,000.

After a bucketful of water failed to bring her to consciousness, Asmat was taken to SMHS Hospital. As she was taking time to come back to senses even at the hospital, the locality erupted in protest, demanding the arrest of the unknown culprits.

Asmat is yet to recover from the trauma; three days after the assault, she complains of shooting pain in her head. Even the shadow of a stranger or knock at the door makes her restless.

Her mother-in-law lays the blame for Asamat’s ordeal squarely at the Mehbooba Mufti government. “To hide their mishandling of this menace and their role in it,” she says, “the government is calling braid chopping incidents a case of hysteria. Tell me, where is hysteria in our case? Why would Kashmiri women suddenly become so mad that they would cut their own braids and become objects of pity in everybody’s eyes? Even a lunatic woman wouldn’t do such a thing. If the bloodshed and brutal crackdowns of the nineties didn’t make us women mad or hysterical, how come we have suddenly became so now?”

 

Spreading far and wide

It is over a month since Naira Nazir, 14, fell victim to braid chopping on September 4, but she is still traumatised, and those around her are baffled.

Naira, of Guri Draman in Kulgam, was the first victim of the mysterious phenomenon in Kashmir.

“My aunt Rifat and I were doing laundry that afternoon,” Naira recalls. “After laying the clothes out to dry we went inside to do some chores in the kitchen. I remembered I had forgotten the detergent in the lawn, so I went to get it. I was looking for the bar when I suddenly felt like somebody strangulating me from behind.”

“The scary part was there was nobody there, no hands that were choking me. In desperation I cried out to Rifat’s sister, who was sitting a little away in the lawn, feeding her baby,” she says. “I do not know what happened then because I fell unconscious. I came to in a hospital bed. I was told my braid had been cut.”

Naira’s maternal uncle Majid Khatana was on the far side of the courtyard. “I did not see anybody entering the house or running away,” says Majid. “It is difficult to miss anybody entering or leaving our house given its elevated location on a hillock.”

Rifat’s sister, the only eyewitness, has since returned home in Reasi, and the family says she wasn’t much help. “Moreover, it did not take us more than 30 seconds to reach Naira after she screamed,” recalls Majid, who works with the CRPF. “It would have to be a ghost to have fled in that time.”

Is that who they think chopped Naira’s hair, some ghost or black magician? “Allah knows better. What can we say,” he replies.

Naira has developed an eye infection lately. “I guess it’s because of the spray they used to make her unconscious,” says Majid.

Ten days after Naira’s episode, Ishrat Jan, 16, of Dangerpora in Kulgam’s Malwan was similarly assaulted when she went out in the evening to use the toilet. “It was dark outside so I went out with a solar lamp. I had just stepped into the lawn when I was hit on my head. I remember shouting out to my father before I fell unconscious.”

Ishrat’s chopped braid was found lying in the courtyard. “For three days afterwards, I did nothing but cry,” she says.

Ishrat is one of at least five girls who have fallen prey to braid choppers in Dangerpora in the last month. The villagers claim they had caught a couple the culprits but they were freed by the army. After one incident, they alleged, the army fired into the air to free the alleged braid chopper and in the melee they left behind some helmets. The army has contested the claim.

A short distance from Ishrat’s house, Mohammad Altaf Shah’s two daughter have also lost their braids as has a relative in the adjacent house.

“I was home alone in the afternoon. I was going to the washroom when someone emerged from under the stairs and hit me on the head, and I lost consciousness,” says one of Altaf’s daughters. “When I came to, I found my braid lying beside me.”

“A few days earlier, the braid of my cousin who lives in the next house had been cut off by an unknown man,” she says. “She had just ventured out into the lawn when she felt something wet on her neck. Hearing her screams, her family rushed out and found her her lying on the ground with her braid cut off.”

“The braid of my youngest sister, who is 12, was cut while she was sleeping in the morning a few days after the attack on me,” she says. “My mother was in the kitchen garden and she saw the braid chopper coming out of the house. She tried to hit him with a sickle but he jumped over the boundary wall and ran away. He was wearing a black mask. This shadowy figure had been spotted by several people around our house on more than one occasion, but each time he managed to flee.”

“We are living in fear now and spend most of our time together in the courtyard,” she says.

She claims three days before her cousin’s hair was chopped, the army had raided the village and searched a few houses, including hers.

“I feel it is their men who want to harass us but we are putting up a fight,” says Mehmooda, mother of the sisters. “Next time any such person comes here, he will not leave alive.”

Baramulla town in North Kashmir has reported two cases of braid chopping. Both victims are from Parray Mohalla, Sangri, and related to each other. One is 12 years old girl.

Her father says the attack took place when the 12-year-old was alone in a shed the family are staying in while they rebuild their house. She narrated her ordeal thus: “I went inside the shed and someone hiding there caught hold of my braid. I could see he had a pistol in his hand. He wore a beard and black clothes. He sprayed something which left me unconscious. But I had time to scream and that alerted our neighbours who are also our relatives.”

The relatives ran to the shed. “I saw her lying unconscious with a portion of her braid chopped off,” says her aunt.

The experience has left the child traumatised. Her father says she is now too terrified to stay alone in a room. “If somebody comes behind her she starts screaming and her heart starts to beat rapidly. We have shown her to several doctors and they all said she is suffering from trauma and will need some time to get over it.”

 

Getting out of hand

Frighteningly, the anger against braid chopping is threatening to turn into murderous rage. In some places, in fact, it already has.

Several people suspected of braid chopping have been beaten up mercilessly, and a 70-year-old man was lynched in Danter village in Anantnag district.

All of them have turned out to be innocent passersby, lovers, thieves.

On October 9, a mob in Pampore, Pulwama, caught a mentally challenged man and beat him ruthlessly after somebody called him a braid chopper. “It was a Herculean effort to pacify the angry mob and make them understand the man was mentally unfit,” a resident of Pampore says.

Commenting about these incidents, a senior police officer, who spoke anonymously, said the people are acting out of fear rather than reason. “I do rule out the role of miscreants in these mob attacks. But the miscreants are getting what they want because people are scared as hell,” the officer said.