A new wave of "terror" has gripped Kashmir - a spate of "braid-chopping" incidents that has unleashed unrest in the Valley. While some have called it "planned attack", others have termed it as "mass hysteria" in absence of "credible evidence".
Women, however, continue to live in fear and are unable to venture out of their homes at night. Young men in a bid to protect the women are patrolling the streets after dark, confronting strangers and even mercilessly thrashing them on mere suspicion.
Yet no one knows the truth. Do braid choppers even exist? Or are these mysterious bandits too smart to get caught?
The "braid-chopping" incidents in the Valley, which has a long history of conflict and human suffering, have added more confusion to an already chaotic situation.
As a result, a lot of people have already become victims of mob violence based on suspicion.
Local Sikh boys, international tourists, a senior citizen (who succumbed to injuries after he was hit by a brick), visitors from other states, mentally challenged men, construction labourers and even a crossdresser. In other words, minorities who couldn't defend themselves against the sudden mob violence.
To make matters worse, even the men in uniform have not been spared. A policeman was brutally beaten up because someone in a group accused him of braid-chopping.
Image: Associated Press
On October 17, a mob in North Kashmir's Kupwara accused a jawan of Territorial Army of braid-chopping and beat him before being rescued by the state police and armymen. He was attacked after local residents alleged that the jawan barged inside a house and cut the braid of a woman.
Ten men were arrested for assault and rioting after a video of the incident in which a mob was thrashing the jawan went viral on social networking sites. According to the police, neither the woman nor her family members alluded to any armyman's entry into their house.
On October 4, a boy in Baramulla was beaten after he was seen around a house in Delina Village late at night. It was eventually established that he had come to meet a girl he was in relationship with, following a statement by the girl.
In the same week in Pattan, Baramulla, two contractual labourers Maroof Ahmed Taas and Mohammed Jan Raina were assaulted. An FIR was lodged by cops against miscreants for rumour mongering.
There have been many such incidents when people caught and beat suspected braid choppers who reportedly turned out to be innocent.
On October 11, a video went viral wherein two tourists were seen pleading as they stood bleeding profusely amid a crowd. The two tourists had reportedly lost way in Ganderbal, and were unable to satisfactorily respond to questions when confronted by locals.
The latest case of mob assault on a suspected braid chopper was reported from Awantipora, three days ago, when visuals surfaced of policeman left bruised and bleeding after being attacked by a group of young men. Again, on mere suspicion.
When the state government led by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti used the term "mass hysteria" to dispel fears of "braid-chopping conspiracy", she was viciously attacked on social media as well as by opposition leaders.
Civil society groups have alleged that a clueless police and insensitive government have failed to find a solution. People are angry that women do not feel safe anymore. The government was forced to take a more careful stance keeping in consideration the sentiments of people.
With each passing day, the fear has only increased and so have the mob attacks. On October 20, a mob tried to set on fire Wasim Ahmad Tantray, a man with a mental illness in Sopore.
Following the Sopore incident, a father was forced to post on social media photographs of his mentally challenged son as a "precautionary measure requesting people not to attack his son if found loitering around the area".
In all these incidents of mob attacks, the anger appears more against strangers who are unable to explain their presence at a specific location when confronted by local men. An unsatisfactory response can lead to thrashing, violence, even death.
So far, more than 200 cases of braid-chopping have been reported, though not one person has been apprehended for indulging in the alleged crime.
The state police initially treated the alleged incidents of braid-chopping in the same manner as their counterparts did in Haryana. Incidents of braid-chopping were first reported from Haryana, where a similar fear had gripped residents with young women complaining of attacks on their braids while they were asleep or preoccupied with household chores.
But no one saw their attackers. As a result, not just humans but even animals, especially cats, were attacked in Haryana and neighbouring Delhi after locals suspected them of chopping braids. However, the "scare" of braid chopping died down soon following awareness campaigns floated by the government and the police cracking the whip on rumour-mongers.
The situation in Kashmir, however, is far from normal. The spate of mob violence has thrown up several uncomfortable questions. The mob attacks on unsuspecting victims - tourists, cops, mentally deranged men - also point towards distrust of the "other", the locals versus the "outsider".
While the women rightfully deserve to know who have cut their braids, vigilante groups owe an explanation if they can take the law into their own hands and attack people based on unreasonable suspicion.
Most importantly, the police and administration cannot sit back and play blame game.