In June 2017, the braid chopping incidents caught the attention of the public. The first such incidence was reported by ABP news in Rajasthan’s Bikaner district where a woman claimed that a “witch” had chopped off her braid. The report was portrayed in a sensationalised form and as expected, it spread like wildfire. Then, it wasn’t long before similar incidents were reported in other states.
Recently, Kashmir Valley was shut down as people came out in large numbers to protest against the braid chopping incidents. Delhi, UP, and Gurugram have also seen a rise in similar cases. Everywhere, women claimed the same. Masked men had entered their houses and chopped their braids off.
The accounts, despite being outrageous, are surely compelling. The usual questions arise. Why would ‘n’ number of people lie at the same time and then come up with such bizarre explanations? But at the same time, if braid chopping is taking place, why hasn’t a culprit been caught despite the vigilance?
The answer is simple, mass hysteria.
What is Mass Hysteria?
Mass hysteria is a collective illusion in which a large number of people develop irrational behaviour, false beliefs, and formation of false memories. Unlike popular belief, memories are highly unreliable. With enough suggestion, we can be made to remember things that never took place or alter facts about things that did, while buying into our own delusion.
A parallel can be drawn with the game of Chinese Whispers, where the phrase whispered, in the beginning, gets distorted and the resulting phrase is totally different.
“False memories are everywhere. In everyday situations, we don’t really notice or care that they’re happening. We call them mistakes, or say we misremember things,” said a criminal psychologist.
How does it work?
This concept of false memories stems from at once a highly popular but now discredited form of treatment called repressed memory therapy. It was popularised by Freud, who believed that repressed and forgotten memories could explain a person’s psychological and emotional turmoil.
“Think of mass hysteria as the Placebo Effect in reverse. If people can think themselves better, they can make themselves sick.” (Psychology Today)
This hysteria can also happen due to guilt, fear, neurosis or just a means to grab attention.
What happened in India?
In the braid chopping incidents, people in various states were already exposed to the sensationalised media accounts doing its rounds. In all these cases, a conclusion was already drawn. Thus every new piece of information was compared and then twisted to cohere with the already drawn conclusion. Moreover, a heightened state of anxiety led people to misinterpret possibly normal things and draw bizarre explanations like seeing “godmen”, “witches, or “cat-like creatures”.
“From all available evidence it seems that the women are cutting their own hair, either consciously or in an altered sensorium, likely to seek attention,” said Sudhir Khandelwal, former head of the department of psychiatry at AIIMS.
Another psychiatrist at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital said, “Such hysteria is more commonly seen in women and the reason mostly is domestic stresses. They are usually in a dissociative state, so they may not be aware of what they are doing and might not have any memory of it later on.”
Naturally, people have taken the matters in their hand. In Kashmir, vigilante groups are thrashing people suspected of braid chopping. In U.P., a Dalit woman was branded as a witch and publicly lynched. The views of the police oscillate between mass hysteria or motivated attacks. In all these cases, there is no concrete evidence, only eyewitness accounts, which again are subject to mass hysteria. In Kashmir, an SSP said, “the incidents are a mere illusion and you cannot arrest anyone as it is like chasing a ghost” (Outlook India). Playing into the delusion, the police has even announced a reward for providing information about the miscreant as an act of “good faith”.
History repeats itself
In 2001, in Delhi, many people allegedly saw or were attacked by a “monkey-man” or kala Bandar. In the 1980s in the USA, daycare providers were accused of sexually abusing children as part of Satanic rituals. Similarly, in another popular case of “Salem Witch Trials”, many women were hanged after being accused of being witches.
In all these cases, no evidence was ever found and no accused was proved to be guilty. It all turned out to be a case of mass hysteria.
Ways to tackle
Usually, mass hysteria dies with time as evident from the lack of braid chopping incidents in Delhi and Gurugram. However, in the Valley, the prolonged period could be the result of mistrust of the authorities by the locals and the vast media coverage that such amusing cases have received. The victims’ cultural and societal context also plays a part.
The mass hysteria and the subsequent formation of fear psychosis is a lot harmful than it seems. As always, there are miscreants who try to use such hysteria to their advantage. In Kashmir, this is being used to curb women’s freedom. The sight of women on the streets of Kashmir has decreased as women are afraid to go out in public. In many states, vigilante groups are thrashing people, thus making matters worse.
It is very easy to begin mass hysteria- a vulnerable time in a society, shared beliefs, and a trigger to set it all in motion. The best way to fight this is for the people to not entertain such rumours. The authorities too should try to instil rational thinking by spreading awareness. In a society with an even slight superstitious inclination, every person is prone to being the victim of mass hysteria.