Who are the braid choppers of Kashmir?

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by Sameer Bhat

These days Kashmir is having a bad hair day. In the lexicon of fear ‘braid chopping’ is the latest addition. The general consensus is that there is someone out there, on the loose, who cuts the hair of unsuspecting women. The fact that this ‘mysterious’ almost always vanishing into thin air, lends it another layer of mystique. In a few odd places where the creature, real or imaginary, was apprehended by mobs, authorities appeared mysteriously to whiz it away. So what does one make of this new pageant of the absurd?

Sameer Bhat

Cops have been struggling to explain away the strange phenomenon. Usually the police in the valley is hands-on. For instance they know who hurls a grenade just after a grenade gets lobbed. They know how many chicken are in each village pen. They know the distant relatives of anyone remotely connected to the insurgency. During the passport verification of a new-born in Kashmir, they ask a dozen people if the baby has displayed good character. But these days they cut a sorry figure, and appear as clueless as angry volunteers of the valley’s ragtag vigilante groups.

In the meantime vigilantes, bewildered and nonplussed in equal measure, have resorted to thrashing anyone who walks after the dark. I remember village barbers of my childhood who used to go around with their nayed-kheus (barber kits), giving cheap haircuts to people on the go. The era of village barbers is long gone, but God forbid if a barber is caught these days with a scissors on him. My estimation is that he would be immediately crucified without a trial. Someone will be at hand to record it on phone. Such is the extent of fear in the valley that a lot of people visiting their relatives or friends these days call them up to pre-announce their arrival. Who knows when mistrustful hosts might mistake a guest for a ‘braid chopper’!

To attack women – most of whom are defenceless – is in reality not an assault on their dignity because dignity does not lie in hair alone. It is an attack on our decency, something we have carefully retained despite years of dehumanisation and subjugation

One of the downsides of living in a conflict zone is that too many experts will start hypothesising your very existence. So it was dubbed collective obsessional behaviour – a type of mass hallucination where everyone visualises a dreadful shape, a braid-cutter, lurking in the dark, with big ugly eyes, hiding in the bushes, waiting to pounce upon a female, off guard, and clop away her hair. This is what I am told is happening at the moment – from upscale localities in Srinagar to far-away villages of Kupwara. Everyone is on the edge.

 

Social media has exacerbated the panic. Videos and pictures of incidents related to ‘braid-chopping’ have gone viral. A quick look at Facebook would explain the general foreboding that people are facing. How else do you expect a society, steeped in conservative tradition, to respond? In the recent past Kashmir has withstood months of curfews, strikes, killings, disappearances, and injuries, with a kind of resilience that is both rare and honourable. Children’s education has suffered, businesses have suffered, tourism has suffered but people took it on their chin. I have a feeling that this too shall pass.

I don’t want to wager a bet on who is attacking women in this dastardly fashion. No one can tell for sure, though we have all developed a sort of political acumen, a gut if you like, over the conflict years, to tell when something is real and something is not. Or whodunit. It could be anyone and no one. The clichéd agencies, epidemic hysteria, criminal elements, all of it – only God knows. To attack women – most of whom are defenceless – is in reality not an assault on their dignity because dignity does not lie in hair alone. It is an attack on our basic decency, something we have carefully retained despite years of dehumanisation and subjugation.

The wimps who carry out these acts know full well that apart from creating a fear psychosis in the society, they are trying to deal a blow at our notion of self-respect. True no one has ever died of a forced hair-cut, but it would be foolish to look at these acts of ‘braid-chopping’ as nuisance alone. This deliberate violation of our nobility is both offensive and vile. Everytime I come across a viral image of some woman holding her chopped hair, I wish to unsee it. It is as if various kinds of miseries compete for primacy in Kashmir.

When the fake djinns came in the 90s, we sounded the bugles and slept next to our pick-axes. There was no internet back then and no whatsapp. Twenty five years later we have both internet and mobility but when it comes to these naghanibalay (werewolves from the plains), nothing works more than courage and valour – both of which we keep in good stock.

(Sameer Bhat is the Deputy Editor (Opinion) with Gulf News, Dubai. This is a guest column for Kashmir Life.)

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