Delhi’s braid-cutting mania: Another mass hysteria calls for mass lessons in rationality
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Delhi’s braid-cutting mania: Another mass hysteria calls for mass lessons in rationality

Braid-cutting incidents are just another chapter in Delhi’s long list of episodes that triggered mass hysteria. It yet again points to the need to engender scientific temperament and quell superstitions.

columns Updated: Aug 07, 2017 15:24 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi news,Metro Matters,Shivani Singh
In the past one week, at least two dozen cases have been reported to the Delhi Police. At a time like this, the best way to fight superstition isto promote rational thinking.(Parveen Kumar / HT Photo)

For a city frequently on terror alert and its citizens constantly watching their backs fearing a snatching or robbery attempt, Delhi can do with more boots on the ground. But not if its policemen are busy chasing a “phantom barber” who chops off women’s hair as they fall unconscious.

In the past one week, at least two dozen cases have been reported to the Delhi Police. Since June, 90 more have been recorded from the neighbouring states. Some women say it was a cat that turned into a man and did it. Others talk of a man dressed in yellow and red.

Villagers near Agra killed a woman suspecting her to be the ghost who lopped off braids. In Mewat, they killed a cat because someone had visions of it turning into a witch. In the only “case” cracked so far, two young pranksters confessed to sniping a 14-year-old girl’s braid. While one of the pranksters was her brother, the other was her nephew. But that’s not stopped the contagion.

Both police and psychologists believe that the women are cutting their hair, either consciously or “in an altered sensorium”. “How else does one explain these cases that are happening behind closed doors, in the presence of family members,” an investigator asks.

Evidently, this is mass hysteria, a condition described as an assumed threat that causes physical symptoms among a large group of people, spreading through sight, sound, smell or conversation, and where people feed off each other’s emotional reactions, causing the panic to escalate.

It is not the first time Delhi experienced collective delusion. In 1995, people fed milk to Ganesha statues. In May 2001, vigilante groups patrolled the streets for days on end, to find the face-scratching “monkey man” who had been “sighted” at least 350 times according to complaints made to the police.

Even as the police announced a reward of Rs 50,000 for information on the furry terrorist and deployed hundreds of men to find it, the manic reactions spun out of control. A pregnant woman fell down the stairs, a man slipped from the roof, and another one leapt out of the terrace — all trying to flee from a shadow or a sound.

Within two days of the first complaint, as the then commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma recalls, the police appointed a committee of psychiatrists and forensic experts to look at each case. It found that people with high sensitivity were the victims of this hysteria.

Suffering from stress, psychiatric disorders and alcohol-related illnesses, and encouraged by unsubstantiated media reports, they came up with their bizarre accounts. The minor injuries they had were not caused by animal bites but inflicted by a blunt object. In one case, a man from northeast Delhi was bitten by his brother, reported in June 2001.

There were no arrests because, as it is happening now with braid-cutting cases, police couldn’t reach the source of rumour-mongering. But if established, wilful misleading should be punished by the same provisions used to penalise hoax callers. The onus of controlling such hysterics, however, can’t be the sole responsibility of the police. The civil society and media must also play their role in controlling irrationality.

For an episode of mass hysteria to begin, all that is necessary is troubled times in the culture, a shared set of beliefs and a final, fearful, anxiety-provoking trigger to set the phenomenon into motion, wrote psychiatrist Scott Mendelson in Huffington Post. In India, it is the shared belief in spirits and possession that often triggers such mass delusions.

The best way to fight superstition is to promote rational thinking. Schools can be a starting place because as the history of mass hysteria shows, children are quick to pick up irrational ideas and carry them along. Their most innocuous pranks — like two boys cutting off a girl’s hair — can trigger mass panic.

Just as conventional biology classes alone couldn’t explain the complexities that come with the tales of the birds and the bees, and we needed to introduce sex-education in schools, merely teaching science may not be enough to inculcate rationality. Maybe it’s time for focused lessons at schools to fight our superstitious leanings.

Macavity, unlike the black feline strangulated in Mewat, was a ginger cat known to have broken every human law. But even he never dreamt of becoming a man at will to snip off unsuspecting braids. Because, impossible or not, that just would not be worth the effort.

First Published: Aug 07, 2017 15:23 IST