by Peerzada Arshad Hamid
SRINAGAR, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Oct. 12 (Xinhua) -- Gulshan Akther (name changed), a 25-year-old woman, was busy washing clothes inside her house at a village near Bijbehara town in southern Anantnag district.
She was alone inside the house, while as rest of the family members had gone to reap the paddy crop in their fields nearby.
Unmindful of the braid chopping incidents that took the district by storm, Akther had never thought she would soon be in the list of victims.
She recalls someone trying to catch hold of her from behind and pulling her scarf that covered her head.
"In awe, I shrieked and struggled to let loose myself, but the attacker managed to cut part of my hair," Akther said. "I ran outside raising alarm and soon neighbours gathered and took me to sub-district hospital Bijbehara."
The residents who had gathered near Akther's house searched lanes by lanes of the village, but could not find anyone fleeing or suspicious.
Akther told her family she couldn't recognise the attacker.
The attack sent a tizzy in the village and adjoining areas.
Like Akther, dozens of women so far have reported such attacks on them, with some saying attackers sprayed some chemical and chilli powder towards them prior to attack.
Police officials Thursday said so far 100 braid chopping incidents have taken place in the Muslim majority areas of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
"There have been 100 braid chopping incidents in Kashmir so far. Not a single victim has approached any police station with her hair sample," a local newspaper quoted senior police official Muneer Khan as having said. "We could have sent the hair sample to forensic laboratory to find out which spray the braid choppers are using."
So far no one has been found guilty of braid chopping and no arrests were made. However, in panic residents have attacked strangers, mostly outsiders.
"There have been instances wherein migrant labourers, non-local ragpickers and even foreign tourists were caught by mobs considering them behind braid chopping," another senior police official told Xinhua.
Even local residents and a transgender have to face wrath of angry mob after they were caught suspiciously.
On Sunday, police rescued six tourists from Australia, South Korea, Ireland and England from a mob who mistook them for "braid choppers" from a Srinagar locality.
"The six tourists - four men and two women - were traveling from Leh to Srinagar in a Tavera. Having lost their way, they were using Google Maps to navigate. Suddenly locals at Kanikachi Lati Mohalla raised a hue and cry, and more people gathered at the spot," the official said. "As the crowd was becoming unruly, some locals began rescuing them and also called in police who came immediately to rescue them from the spot."
Police officials initially viewed the incidents as psychiatric disorder among the victims and blamed rumour mongers for using social media networking sites to trigger scare. However, soon after they announced a cash reward of 9,216 U.S. dollars (600,000 INR) to anyone, who provides them clues about braid choppers.
The authorities also tried suspending Internet services to check what they described "rumour-mongering," however, the incidents are yet to stop.
In July and August, similar braid chopping incidents were reported in many Indian parts like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana.
Authorities, however, described them as "mass hysteria" and related it with somewhat similar incident of monkey-man attack that gripped Delhi in 2001.
However, in restive Indian-controlled Kashmir, the braid chopping incidents by now seem to have taken a political colour. Every fresh incident brings people out on roads against police and government.
The residents accused police and government of apathetic towards their plight.
"We are feeling unsafe even inside our homes. Why can't they (police) unmask them," questions Rouf Ahmad, a Srinagar resident.
Separatists suspect hand of government agencies in the braid chopping incidents. On Monday the entire region observed a shutdown against government's failure to stop the braid chopping incidents on call of separatist groups.
"The incidents are part of a well-thought-out conspiracy," a joint statement issued by region's separatist leaders reads. "The dignity of our womenfolk is at stake."
Nayeema Mehjoor, heading government-owned State Women Commission in the region, views the incidents as an effort to "instil fear among residents."
"My worry is that the failure of the police to identity culprits is only fuelling speculation. Why can't the police solve these cases when they could carry out anti-militancy operations with great precision, Mehjoor told a local newspaper.
In towns and villages, vigilante groups armed with axes and clubs have been formed in response to the attacks.
The uncertainty has also claimed a civilian life.
Last week, 70-year-old Abdus Salam Wani was attacked with a brick in head after a young man mistook him as braid chopper near his house at village Danter in Anantnag.
With no end to braid chopping incidents, for baffled residents, every stranger is a suspect. Amid chaos and fear, almost all the residents in towns and villages lock their doors immediately after the dusk.