For a city frequently on terror alert and its citizens constantly watching their backs fearing a snatching or robbery attempt, Jammu 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 Jammu 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.