Srinagar, India: Hundreds of young men — armed with knives, cricket bats and iron rods — patrol the nighttime streets of India-controlled Kashmir these days, hoping their ad-hoc vigilante groups will deter the mysterious bandits reportedly chopping off women's long, woven hair.
In more than 100 cases confounding police over the past month, women said they were attacked by masked men who sliced off their braids.
The attacks — most reportedly occurring inside people's homes — are so strange that police initially suggested women were suffering from hallucinations, until the government-run Women's Commission warned them against making dismissive comments.
The region's top elected official, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted recently that the braid-chopping was an attempt "to create mass hysteria and undermine the dignity of the women in the state."
Still, police have no suspects and no leads, and no clue about the motives for the attacks.
"We're frightened," said Tasleema Bilal, a 40-year-old woman whose hair was hacked off last week while she was in her home in Srinagar, the region's main city. She said she tried to remove the man's mask, but "he was very strong, and like a commando almost snapped my neck" before escaping, leaving her hair behind.
Just days earlier, Bilal's 16-year-old niece had also been knocked out by a blow to the head with a brick, only to wake up later in a hospital to find her hair also gone. Other women have said they were knocked unconscious with a mysterious chemical spray that authorities have yet to identify.
The mysterious braid thefts have spread fear and panic in the heavily militarised and disputed Himalayan region, where many among the mostly Muslim population already feel traumatised after decades of conflict between separatist rebels and India soldiers.
Similar incidents of hair banditry were reported earlier this year elsewhere in India, including in the northern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. But nowhere have the attacks sparked such panic and vigilantism as in Kashmir.
While Kashmiri Muslim women traditionally wear their hair long like women in other parts of India, most cover it with headscarves out of cultural modesty.
Separatist leaders, angry at the initial reactions by police, said the attacks were the "handiwork of Indian agencies" trying to cower Kashmir's rebellious population, which is widely opposed to Indian rule.
Residents are also suspicious of the Indian authorities, and some have accused soldiers and police of staging the attacks or protecting those responsible.
"We want to know who the culprit is: police, army or civilians?" Bilal said.
Police Inspector-General Muneer Ahmed Khan said it was ludicrous to think authorities were involved. Authorities said they would pay about $9,000 for clues leading to any of the culprits.
"It's important to first know the motive behind such acts rather than who the culprit is," Khan said. "Once the motive is established, it would be easy for us to solve such cases."
With the mystery unsolved, many Kashmiris have stopped travelling outside their neighbourhoods after dusk, dealing a blow to local businesses.
"Our business has shrunk to 10 per cent of what we had before this braid-chopping started," cafe owner Syed Mukhtar said in Srinagar.
Meanwhile, men take turns on nighttime vigilante patrols, and some have beaten up so-called suspects only to find later that they were innocent, police said. One 70-year-old man died after vigilantes in a southern village mistook him for a suspect and smashed his head with a brick.
Several soldiers and police officials also have been thrashed by vigilantes. Police have arrested nearly two dozen people so far on charges of spreading rumours and beating people.
The hair-chopping attackers "are behaving like a typical Bollywood film villain who tries to harm female family members of the hero after failing to pin him down," said Srinagar university student Basharat Ahmed. "And through these (braid) choppers, the government is trying to convey to us that we can't protect our women. But they'll fail in this scheme, too, God willing."