Panic Grips the Valley After Vigilante Groups Target Innocents Over ‘Braid Chopping’ Incidents

Failure of the government and police to put an end to the braid-chopping incidents have forced vigilantes to take the matter into their own hands.

Protest against the growing incidents of braid chopping in the Valley. Credit: PTI

Protest against the growing incidents of braid chopping in the Valley. Credit: PTI

Srinagar: The vigilantism sparked by the rising incidents of braid chopping in Kashmir is quickly worsening. On Friday, October 20, a mob tried to set on fire a man with a mental illness in Sopore town of north Kashmir on suspicion of being a “braid chopper”. In Srinagar, a crowd attempted to drown a youth in the Dal Lake, mistaking him as an invader.

These worrying incidents have left people in a state of shock and they are now questioning the government for “failing to perform its duty” and allowing mobs – armed with sticks, knives and iron rods – to take control of the Valley.

From Srinagar to Sopore

At around 3 am on Friday, a vigilante group patrolling a Sopore locality caught a youth near the fruit market, claiming that he was a braid chopper.

But before it could be established that Wasim Ahmad Tantray was suffering from a mental illness, a mob began thrashing him and tore apart his clothes.

During the incident – shot on mobile phones and circulated online – a person was heard calling on the frenzied mob to set the victim on the fire as a group of youth began burning a stack of hay.

“Burn him,” the person shouted repeatedly. A few youth held Tantray by his arms, asking him to reveal who had sent him there.

“We have been asked to kill you, tell us who else is with you,” another youth is seen asking Tantray in the video.

Caught in a helpless situation, Tantray, bleeding from his nose and with injuries on his face, appears terrified.

At one point the mob pushed him to the ground and dragged him towards the flames while he cried in despair.

“Who led you here, who else is with you?” the mob circling the victim asked him. When he was unable to answer, he was pushed over the flames to the other side and beaten once again.

A police spokesman said Tantray was critically injured in the incident and rushed to a Srinagar hospital for treatment. “He has mental health issues, also confirmed by his family,” said the spokesman.

Speaking to the media, Hareemet Singh, the superintendent of police in Sopore, said Tantray was rescued due to the timely intervention of the police.

The SP said the mob tried to burn him alive and roll a tractor over him. “Had we not reached there on time, they (the mob) would have killed him,” he said, adding that the police has identified the miscreants and that they would be arrested soon.

In another chilling incident in Hazratbal area, a mob tried to lynch a youth, accusing him of being a braid chopper. The victim, who according to police had come to meet his brother studying at Kashmir University, had gone for Fajr (morning) prayers at the mosque when he was suspected to be a braid chopper and beaten up.

A separate video of the incident shows a man pushing the youth into the Dal Lake. He is then seen slapping the victim, catching him by the neck and again pushing his head into the water in a bid to suffocate him.

“Don’t do this to him, he will flee,” a man is heard shouting from behind.

“Don’t kill him. Instead get his statement, this is not the way,” a woman is heard shouting repeatedly amid the noise.

‘Brutal behaviour’

Terming the incident as “bone-chilling”, government spokesperson Naem Akhter cautioned people against demonstrating “collective frenzied behaviour”.

“Whether braid chopping is real or hysterical, physical or psychological, one thing has become clear, we as a people are the worst posters of what we claim to be – Kashmiris. Neither Kashmir’s ethos nor the teachings of the religion of Islam…allow, much less recommend the kind of brutal behaviour that we display,” said Akhter.

He added: “No braid-chopper has been apprehended so far but numerous innocent persons have become the victims of our collective criminal behaviour. We are only proving those people right who want us painted black.”

Like these two incidents, since September 6 when the first braid chopping was reported from Anantnag, there have been several cases when innocent people including labourers, youth who had gone to meet girlfriends, persons with mental illness and non-local tourists including foreigners have had to face the wrath of the vigilante groups.

A 70-year-old man died on October 6 when his nephew hit him in the head with a stone, mistaking him for a braid cutter.

‘Government’s mishandling and failures’

While Akhter’s strong-worded statement put the onus on the people, he did not offer any explanation why, even after 50 days and more than 120 incidents of braid cutting, the government and police have failed to explain the incidents which have triggered panic across the Valley.

And in the absence of any breakthrough by district-level committees set up to investigate the incidents, hysteria is now taking control of people’s behaviour.

“In this helpless situation when the government, as well as police, have failed to deliver, we are now witnessing a rise of vigilantes across Kashmir who are out claiming to safeguard their areas,” a journalist said.

To add to it, the contradictory statements from the government and its agencies have only compounded the situation.

Recently, the chief minister said braid chopping was an attempt to create mass hysteria and an attack on the honour and dignity of women. Prior to her statement, top police officials linked the incidents of hair cutting to mental illness, retracting from the earlier stand when police had announced an award of Rs six lakh to anyone who provided information about the alleged braid cutters.

“The chief minister has access to all intelligence and she is in a better position to know what actually is happening. Her statement doesn’t rule out that somebody is doing it and if somebody is doing it why isn’t government acting,” asked the journalist, adding that contradictory statements have cemented the perception among the masses that the agencies were behind the hair cutting acts to change the narrative and shift the focus from militancy.

“This has fitted in Kashmir context owing to distrust between state and its people,” said the journalist.

That the government hasn’t formally involved the experts from psychiatry and forensic department in the investigation process also shows how the situation has been mishandled.

On the other hand, the surprising part is that despite the police having the video evidence about a mob beating innocent people, they haven’t made a single arrest.

“This could have acted as a deterrent for the self-appointed vigilantes,” said a psychologist, adding that the government wasn’t speaking “truth” to its people which has compounded the problem.

“We have come across cases where the victims have history of mental illness. But today the entire phenomena has gone out of control and there could be miscreants, criminal elements and ‘others’ out to exploit the situation,” the psychologist explained.

Separatists call for restraint

With no let up in the cases of braid chopping, Kashmir on Saturday witnessed a complete shutdown on a call given by the separatist trio of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik to protest against the “government failures to arrest braid cutters”.

They asked people to exercise care and show maturity while dealing with a situation, at a time when innocents continue to fall prey to the vigilante groups.

“Well trained sleuths are involved in this devilish game and the criminal silence of authorities and incompetence of police is encouraging these unscrupulous elements. We have to exercise the utmost care and show maturity. Any suspicious person should be handed over to local mosque committees,” said a joint statement issued by the trio.

Talking to The Wire, Malik said while safeguarding the honour of mothers and sisters was important, hurting innocents was “gruesome and criminal”.

“Attacking, lynching, hurting and injuring innocents in the name of braid choppers is shameful and those who indulge in this crime are actually harming the freedom movement,” Malik cautioned.

Then, referring to the Sopore and Srinagar incidents, Malik added: “We can’t lead our society to anarchy where there is no distinction between an innocent and a guilty.”

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter. 

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