(Lock)down in Kashmir

A crime against women takes on political hue against a larger conflict

In Kashmir everything assumes political colour. A problem that has not even the slightest connection with politics turns so. The reason is simple: the place is riddled with political conflict and anything that goes wrong opens up a space for political wrestling on the ground. The latest example is this phenomenon is braid chopping that is leaving deep psychological scars on the minds of young women. Fear has gripped them and conspiracy theories about this crime has put Kashmir on edge.

The braid chopping started from South Kashmir’s Kulgam district on September 6. And it soon spread like a wildfire to almost every part of the valley. Police, as usual, swung into action and put a price on it, which is how they have been reacting in Kashmir since 1990. There is a price for doing the job even if you are already paid. Killing militants is incentivised in this way. There are gradations. And much in the same way, with these cases, the bounty was first set at Rs300,000 and then doubled to Rs600,000. Obviously, this kind of “bounty” makes it a business. Police also started updating the numbers almost daily to hit 100. So the scare was genuine. The psychological impact of the problem was registering in society. No “real culprit” had been caught by the time we went to press, but the dignity of women had already been compromised given how the crime was being handled.

For now though, neither the police nor those who jumped on the political bandwagon to call a strike for two days have a clue about who is behind this. What is difficult for even a reporter like me who has covered Kashmir for 27 years to fathom as how we came to this and how women became a pawn. Theories are circulating. Some people say it is being caused by hallucinations, others hysteria, and yet others peg it to the work of the Indian agencies. Going by accounts of some of the women and interviews by psychiatrists (who wished not to be named) it is a juggle to reach a conclusion. One woman said she saw the culprit running away through a wall after he cut her braid. In some cases, the parents said they were in their rooms and the braid-cutter came to the other room and vanished.  While it is clear this is an organized crime, many people on social media reacted sarcastically to these explanations, referencing the famous Bollywood movie ‘Mr India’ in which actor Anil Kapoor plays an invisible hero.

The braid chopping started from South Kashmir’s Kulgam district on September 6. The stories traveled from Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana to reach Jammu where over 200 such cases were reported. It started in June from Nagaur district in Rajasthan

But something has to be accounted for. With the police now on the back-foot, saying that out of 100 cases only 10 were real and the rest rumour, the matter has been compounded even though there has been a decline in the number of cases. “There have been different versions of each victim with some saying the assailant had spring in their shoes, others saying they were sporting black jackets,” Inspector General of Police Kashmir zone Munir Khan said in an interview. “There is a likelihood that some women might have cut off their hair themselves.”

Earlier, when the government described these statements as hysteria people reacted strongly. The narco analysis theory also drew flak. The joint resistance leadership of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik joined the fray against braid chopping and called for a strike on two occasions. This widened the scope of a problem that could have been resolved locally if addressed at the right time. Now it has become political. Not only has the amount of attention it is attracting gone up, the levels of fear have too. The polarisation has set in as the State vs. the Rest. Obviously, in a place where the state and its institutions have scant credibility and the chasm is ever increasing the braid chopping was seen by most people as the handiwork of the agencies to spread fear. What an “opportunity” the braid chopping represented for the Hurriyat leaders who could have cracked the whip back at Delhi that had continuously hounded them through the National Investigation Agency. The Hurriyat was a demoralized lot after the Centre tightened its noose around them irrespective of whether the government can prove anything in the court of law. But the Hurriyat will have to do serious introspection about strategy to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

The stories of braid chopping traveled from Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana to reach Jammu where over 200 such cases were reported. It started in June from Nagaur district in Rajasthan. But in the case of Kashmir they had the odd effect of turning people against each other. One elderly man was killed in South Kashmir after being mistaken as a braid chopper by his nephew. One mentally challenged man was almost burnt to death by a mob and one was about to be drowned in Dal Lake. Some of the labourers who come from different Indian states to work in Kashmir during the summers were targeted and hundreds of them fled. The targeting of innocents shocked Kashmiri society, which deemed this unacceptable given how much it had suffered itself.

According to a detailed analysis done by the state government, 602 cases have been reported so far in Jammu and Kashmir. Of them 430 are alleged cases, 76 alleged attempts and 76 were qualified as cases based on rumours. In Kashmir, 230 cases were alleged actual chopping incidents. In reaction, 66 people were mistaken as braid choppers and thrashed. Six security personnel received a beating too. The analysis reveals that 40 percent of the victims were below the age of 18 years, 70 percent were unmarried and 30 percent were illiterate. “Out of these 18 suffered from depression and in case of 17, the incidents were repeated,” reads the 31-page analysis. It concludes that in north India more than 600 such incidents had been reported but none of them could be solved with any conclusive evidence.

No one can really say for sure who benefits, if at all, from this. There is no doubt, however, that the gap between the State and the People is so wide that anything, even the unimaginable, can fit. Why did these cases in other states not lead to a confrontation on the streets between the people and the police? Why was no curfew imposed in those states or even in Jammu, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir state?

A trust deficit in the state and its institutions was a contributory factor. This means that unless the reality of the core political problem is not realised, all outbreaks of violence or crimes will  be used against the state. Like the unidentified gunmen who have killed thousands since 1990, this mystery will also recede into oblivion while the women of Kashmir pay the price. An investigation involving psychiatrists, sociologists, civil society members, and those from the administration could have helped deal with the crisis. Alas! The government has a script to follow under the smokescreen of un-accountability.