Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – A wave of fear has gripped Indian-administered Kashmir after a series of “braid-chopping” attacks that have resulted in protests across the region.
At least 200 women in Kashmir have reported being attacked by masked assailants in the last two months.
The women claimed the attackers sprayed chemicals on their faces and left them unconscious. Upon waking up, they found their hair had been chopped off.
On Sunday, masked attackers cut off a woman’s braid in Srinagar, sparking angry protests.
The 35-year-old victim said she was attacked after she responded to someone knocking at the gate of her house. Her husband – an auto-rickshaw driver – was not home at that time.
“One of the masked attackers grabbed me by my hair from behind and sprayed something on my face,” the victim, Gulshan, told Al Jazeera.
“I screamed loudly before fainting. I assumed it was my husband, but.”
Gulshan was unable to finish off her sentence. She started shivering amid inconsolable sobs, sitting on her bed as she relayed Sunday’s events.
Hussain Ahmed, a neighbour, was the first to respond to Gulshan’s screams.
“I saw her face had some sort of liquid on it and her eyes were fluttering,” Ahmed said. “We tried contacting the police several times. Nobody answered our calls or came for help.”
A week earlier, Sami Reyaz, 32, of Srinagar’s Baghat neighbourhood had met the same fate.
“I was holding a dustbin when two people came through the main gate of our house,” Reyaz said.
Like other victims, she was also rendered unconscious and her braid was sliced off.
“When I woke up, I found they had left my chopped braid near the entrance before fleeing.”
The first braid-chopping incident in Kashmir was reported on September 6, when a schoolgirl, Naira Nazir, was attacked.
Such incidents have also been reported across the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, as well as the capital, New Delhi.
Earlier this month, a senior police official told local media he has sought details of over 1,500 incidents, as well as history of victims from these states “to get to the root of the issue”.
Government sources said police has registered more than 40 First Incident Reports against alleged braid-choppers and rumour-mongers in Kashmir.
The region’s police chief SP Vaid told Al Jazeera that the cases were being treated as a crime and has even offered a reward of $9,000 for information leading to the culprits.
“The police is doing its best,” Vaid said. “We have requested the government for constituting a team so that those who are complaining of braid-chopping are properly assisted. We will be sure about things once the investigation is completed.”
Vaid, however, hoped the incidents in Kashmir “will vanish soon” as they did in northern India.
The issue has now snowballed into a major political crisis.
Pro-independence groups, who oversaw protests on Monday, see a government hand behind the increase in these attacks.
“The government wants to instil fear and divert attention from the main issue which is unabated killings and other human rights violations committed by the Indian troops in Kashmir,” pro-independence leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told Al Jazeera.
“Every other day, rebels are identified and killed and youth are arrested under the pretext of stone-pelting. Why can’t the government identify these culprits,” he added.
The alleged braid-choppers have frightened locals across the disputed Himalayan region opposition and rebellion against India’s rule and militarisation since 1989 have already caused huge physical and mental damage on its population.
India and Pakistan each administer a portion of Kashmir, but both claim the territory in its entirety.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the rebel uprising and a subsequent Indian military crackdown.
Another 10,000 people have disappeared, mostly in the custody of government forces, leaving behind an army of orphans and widows.
The fear among the local population has left several innocents exposed to public anger.
In the northern Baramulla district, locals beat a young boy who had gone to see his girlfriend. In Srinagar city, two women, who gatecrashed a wedding, were accused of braid-chopping and assaulted by the hosts and guests.
Last month, people in southern Kulgam district claimed to have caught a braid-chopper, who was rescued by Indian soldiers, stirring renewed tensions.
Earlier this month, a 70-year-old man, who had gone to relieve himself during the night, was mistaken for a braid-chopper by neighbours and killed.
On Sunday, police released pictures of six backpackers – three Australians, a South Korean, an Irish person and a Briton – who lost their way and were travelling in Srinagar, when some people surrounded them and started probing.
“Some locals tried rescuing the group and called the police. With great efforts of the police and understanding individuals in the public, the group was rescued,” a police spokesman said.
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