India: Mysterious 'braid chopping' continues, villagers spooked
Police said Thursday they were investigating an outbreak of "braid chopping" that is spooking Indian villagers and has seen a woman murdered amid rumours of witchcraft.
Since July, at least 55 women across five Indian states have reported waking to find their braids mysteriously lopped off, sparking intense speculation around the assaults.
Four new cases were reported on New Delhi's outskirts on Wednesday, just days after half a dozen similar cases were reported in Gurgaon, south of the capital.
"We heard her cries, and when we rushed she was lying on the floor unconscious," said Rohit Yadav, whose 55-year-old mother Monesh Devi fell victim in July in Delhi.
"Her chopped off hair was lying next to her."
The string of unexplained attacks has occurred in largely rural areas, where superstitious beliefs spark hysteria and allegations of witchcraft.
Some villages have held special prayer sessions to ward off evil spirits and begun patrols to protect their women.
None of the victims have been harmed in any physical way or robbed.
A 65-year-old woman murdered by a mob in Agra -- home to the Taj Mahal -- was later branded a witch and accused of using sorcery to slice braids, despite no cases being reported in the city.
"She was beaten after they found her loitering in a nearby village. Someone accused her of being a witch and later linked her to the hair cutting incidents," Dinesh Chandra Dubey, Agra police chief, told AFP.
Authorities in Delhi are treating the assaults as crimes but have no leads thus far, Surinder Kumar, deputy commissioner of Delhi police, told AFP.
However, they have dismissed claims of witchcraft, leaning more towards the theory that mental illness or cases of copycat attacks could be behind the bizarre events.
"Counsellors said they could be suffering from disorders and could have done it themselves but our investigating are broad-based," Kumar told AFP.