Braid-chopping: ‘Vigilantism overtakes when the State fails to deliver justice’

FPK Photo/Masrat Jan

The sentiment—Kashmir isn’t safe anymore—is taking grip in the valley since past few weeks. The incidents of braid-chopping and its consequent vigilantism and debates are grasping whole of Kashmir. A kind of fear-psychosis and hysteria is taking control of the people’s rationality and affecting their behaviour.

Kashmir has always been a vigilante society. It has resulted in both positive and negative aspects. Any form of misunderstanding or injustices are mostly addressed and tackled by the community. This informal community based approach has helped in building a closed-knit social and public sphere in Kashmir.

However the ongoing braid-chopping incidents have brought turmoil and instability in the community. The communistic way of life is threatened by constant suspicion and “othering” of one’s own.

It is important to talk about the rise of this vigilantism. These kind of approaches are generally undertaken by the population when the formal authorities like state or police fails to deliver particular demands. As argued by Helmke and Levitsky, “First, actors create informal rules because formal institutions are incomplete. Second, informal institutions may be a “second best” strategy for actors who prefer, but cannot achieve, a formal institutional solution. A third motivation for creating informal institutions is the pursuit of goals not considered publicly acceptable. Because they are relatively inconspicuous, 111 informal institutions allow actors to pursue activities—ranging from the unpopular to the illegal—that are unlikely to stand the test of public scrutiny.”

Many have been thrashed after being mistaken as braid choppers.

Kashmiris have been failed by the state institutions in the past, which explains the rise of these kind of vigilantes. Be it against sexual harassment or violence or harassment by the armed forces, this society has found methods of survival in helping or punishing each other.

This informal system of order is not official but it structures lives in identifiable ways. This order is not provided or regulated by the state. It is ‘outside’ but still susceptible to formal rules. This pattern of social organisation follows a bottom-up approach and indicates survival methods in spite of the formality.

Informality creates a flexibility and a creativity. There is a flexibility and adaptiveness that is evocative of different practices, the ways that people and groups create strategies and ways of surviving in different circumstances.

What has been happening in current scenario is that despite number of complaints and promises by the state authorities in regard to braid-chopping, people have taken matters into their own hands. This is a survival method that Kashmiris are portraying. Here, the formal and informal are working simultaneously and in parallel but in spite of each other.

Women protesting against braid chopping incidents in Kashmir.

This phenomenon is not new to Kashmir. Still it is important to talk about the same in recent context as it is not only producing more and more vigilantism which often turns towards violence, it is also working as a tool for alienation from each other.

News reports of youths getting beaten up or a five-year-old boy battling for his life and similar other stories are making rounds in every form of media. The really worrisome side to it is the suspicion of one another. People belonging to one locality are constantly suspicious of ‘outsiders’. These claimed outsiders might be Kashmiris residing in different areas of the valley visiting the vicinity or they might be some guy looking for his daily dose of intoxication.

The fact is that people of same society cannot trust each other even though everyone is going through the same trauma and fear. Isolation from each other quickly gives rise to alienation and an alienated society is very easy to rule and occupy.

Conspiracy theories are saying that this is a tactical move by the state to divide the society. The apparent and alleged in-activeness of the state institutions are in no way working as a fire extinguisher.

Despite the Joint Resistance Leadership’s constant efforts, a “mass hysteria” has grappled the valley. The main reason of this vigilantism is stated as an effort to save the ‘dignity’ and ‘honour’ of the women.

Women’s body as a field of politics and conflict is not new. The body of a woman, pure and untouched has been used as cultural symbols. To harm the women of a society is to penetrate the cultural fabric. This concept has been used for ages and the role of the men is to ‘protect’ the ‘honour’ and ‘dignity’ of women.

To use this same kind of logic to justify the vigilantism and subsequent violence is to reiterate the age-old conception of women’s honour residing in her body. It is important to note that a woman’s honour doesn’t reside in her hair or in her physicality. Yes, cutting off braids is nothing less than harassment. Any kind of behaviour by someone which instills fear and intimidation in a person is considered harassment and the trauma that these women are facing is nothing short of that. But to relegate it to the sphere of ‘honour’ or ‘dignity’ is regressive.

The state and society, both have been using the ‘body and the honour of the women’ argument. In this way, interestingly, while at one ideological point, the state and society are merging together while addressing the issue of braid-chopping but from a methodological and end viewpoint they are diverting from each other.

Whether this whole issue is a state creation or misdeeds of some social miscreants, the more important issue is its effects on society and the larger struggle.

Vigilantism is not always bad. As argued previously, sometimes societies need to take this approach in lack of any workable formal systems. Many third world developing countries have developed a system of vigilantism to survive, provide security and economic stability to each other as argued by researchers in some cases like, Ghana (Hart, 2008) and Brazil (Willis, 2016).

Kashmir is not different from them. The long absence of any formal mechanism, specially related to security prompted many to act as a substitute of the formal systems. However, in light of the recent developments, this vigilantism is doing more harm, especially in two sectors.

After 100 odd incidents Mehbooba Mufti broke her silence and called it an ‘attempt to create mass hysteria and undermine dignity of women’.

Instead of supporting each other to get through this, the people are becoming the object of suspicion from their own resulting in alienation, harming the larger struggle that every Kashmiri faces.

Secondly, reinforcing the same stereotype of women’s ‘dignity’ and ‘honour’ is impacting the society negatively as using the women’s body and consequently its honour as a tool for politics or violence is in no way progressive.

Informal approach might be the need of this hour but a ‘hysteric’ vigilant society is doing more harm than achieving anything. It might actually give a freeway to state to create more division in the community and have a greater control over the same. Conspiracy theories might, after all, come true if they aren’t already.


Utsa Sarmin is a research scholar from Cambridge University, United Kingdom. She has completed her M.Phil in development studies.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir.

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