Blame it on mass hysteria or anti-social elements, the restive Kashmir valley in northern India is facing a mysterious problem that is threatening the region's fragile peace and posing a new challenge for the state's law enforcement agencies.
The Valley has witnessed years of violence owing to cross-border terrorism and extremist activities within its borders, but the series of braid-chopping incidents reported in the past few months is emerging as a major challenge for security services.
There have been a total of 72 reported cases of mobs beating up innocent people on suspicion of being the mystery braid-chopper, according to a recent statement issued by SP Vaid, director general of police, Kashmir. Some of these incidents have also resulted in fatalities.
Several elderly people and people with mental disabilities have become victims of vigilantism and mob lynching, local media reports suggest. Security personnel have also been attacked by crowds, who mistook them for the culprits.
On 20 October, in Sopore town of north Kashmir, a mob tried to set on fire a man with a mental illness, suspecting he was the mysterious "braid-chopper". In another incident reported the same week in Srinagar, a crowd tried to drown a youth in the Dal Lake.
Earlier in October, Abdul Salam Wani, 70, from Kashmir's Anantnag district, became the first victim in the state to lose his life to the braid-chopping scare.
As many as 50 cases have reportedly surfaced across Jammu and Kashmir state where women claimed that their braids were chopped off while they were either asleep or unconscious.
Such incidents were first reported in other states in northern India like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and national capital New Delhi, but soon spread in Kashmir. However, police reportedly believe that most of the braid-chopping cases being reported are unfounded. They also suspect that anti-social elements were taking advantage of the panic and fuelling people's fears.
"It (braid-chopping incidents) took place in many parts of northern India and then it was reported in Jammu. Such cases were also reported in south, central and north Kashmir," Vaid told reporters on Monday (23 October).
He added: "But the difference is that, in Kashmir, there are elements who do not want peace and normalcy."
Talking to IBTimes UK, Vaid said it was prudent not to pay too much attention to such incidents. Focusing on them would only aggravate the situation, he said. He has assured the people of the state that any criminal activity linked to the hysteria would be dealt with strictly.
A special investigation team was formed by the Jammu and Kashmir police earlier in the month to investigate the claims.
In New Delhi, a police commissioned report from the Institute of Human Behavior and Allied Sciences that came out in August said women were cutting their own braids to seek attention.
"From all the available evidence, it seems the women are cutting their own hair either consciously or in an altered sensorium, likely to seek attention," the report authored by Dr Sudhir Khandelwal, former head of the department of psychiatry at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), noted, referring to a medical condition characterised by impaired consciousness or the inability to think clearly.
"When such a phenomenon happens, there is also a fear of missing out, so other people start copying the original incident," Khandelwal said, explaining the possible reason for such incidents spreading across states.
The description of the incidents varies from person to person further raising questions about their authenticity. Some women claim to have seen ghost-like creatures approaching them to chop off their hair; other theories blame it on tantric activities. Police have, however, cautioned people against believing such theories.
The current mass hysteria over braid-chopping incidents is reminiscent of the panic created by rumours of a "monkey man" in 2001 in New Delhi. Many people had then claimed they were attacked by a man who resembled a monkey. Police, however, never recovered any proof of the existence of the "monkey man".