In snow-quiet Kashmir, rumors of a witch tease mental health question

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For some in Kashmir, the fear of a raantas on the prowl was overwhelming. Whispers of the witch with dishevelled hair roaming in snowbound villages had returned and rumours echoed across Kashmiri social media.

The rumour spread like wildfire on social media after a news channel broadcasted a clip in which a female voice is heard screaming somewhere in the villages of south Kashmir.

In Kashmiri storytelling, the raantas is a witch with dishevelled hair and feet turned backwards who lives deep in the forests. She ventures out only during the night when it snows heavily and, the folklore goes on, kidnaps young men that she gets infatuated with.

The raantas — and other mythical creatures — has been part of the childhood stories told in Kashmir, over generations, during cold winter evenings. She was part of the region’s storytelling, a favourite character in tales told by grannies, but so horrifying that many believe she existed in reality.

A 27-year-old engineer from southern Qazigund town told The Kashmir Walla that his uncle received a frantic phone call from a well-wisher about the presence of a raantas in Brakpora village of Anantnag. “The person asked my uncle to remain cautious,” he said. The recent snowfall was one of the heaviest in recent years.

While many had joked about the fears, believing it to be based on rumours, many others were reminded of the horrors of the 1980s, when the raantas became an explanation for the unabated attacks on young men during the nights. “This led to discussions among people,” he said. “People got reminded of the previous incidents.”

In the past week when heavy snowfall forced everyone to stay inside their homes and raantas rumour swirled in the air, his mother was fearful, the Qazigund engineer said. “‘Kyah barose chu (What is the guarantee raantas does not exist), one can’t be too careful,” she told him. The years of conflict and repeated bouts of rumours taking over Kashmir amid the turmoil has led to a trust deficit seeping through the generations — many instantly blaming “agencies”, a euphemism for the government, for mischief. 

“The administration has tried to hide the truth about many things, just like how the rumours kept circulating for days before the abrogation of Article 370,” he said. “This leaves a negative impact when it comes to rumour like the one spread today.” 

Deep-rooted fears

Kashmir isn’t new to rumours — or conspiracy theories. Yasmeen Showkat, 49, a resident of downtown Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal, was in her teens in the early years of the outbreak of militancy in Kashmir, when she first heard about raantas. “Those were not just rumours,” she said. “In those days, men would literally show up on our windows wearing costumes and long nails, pretending to be raantas. They often attacked people during the late hours.”

The terror lasted for about seven months and came to be known in local parlance as “Operation Daayan ” — or the Operation Witch, and many believed it was a Psy-Op of the government to induce fear. “We used to sleep together in the corridors in our homes, rooms were no longer safe,” she said, adding that many had believed that the public was made to believe in the raantas as a means of preventing the public from sheltering militants. 

The fears — and accusations against the government — were renewed in the mass hysteria of 2017 when women across Kashmir had reported that their braids were being chopped by unknown assailants. Reports of braid chopping had begun from Haryana and Rajasthan and spread across northern India before reaching Kashmir. 

Mistrust

Nizamuddin Dar, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Bemina, said that living in a conflict zone had altered the public’s response to such events. “If this happens elsewhere, the reaction would probably be different,” said Dar. 

Due to widespread conflict-related trauma, said Dar, the public is receptive to rumours. “Rumours even spread easily in Kashmir because there is a mistrust,” he said, adding that the prevalence of several disorders also played a role. “These disorders increase because of such rumours.”

Amid reports of braid chopping, a team of psychologists and psychiatrists was formed by the government to analyse the situation by sending them to different parts of Kashmir for checkups, said Dar. 

“We analysed that there was a lot of mistrust and psychological stress among people which acted as a factor,” he said. “The other big factor is that we are told the stories about such things from our childhood. We shape these characters in our heads. And then sometimes see them in the form of visual hallucinations.”

Dar believes that unresolved trauma and grief result in aggression and stress among people which later comes out in different forms and can sometimes be abnormal as well. “There is an unheard voice inside people,” said Dar. “Subconsciously, they want to be heard.”

Zoya Mir, a counselling psychologist and research scholar at the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, said that owing to the conflict and mistrust, the Kashmiri phrase “dapaan che (It is said, or it is rumoured)” had assumed significance. “People start believing that there must be some amount of truth in this [the rumour],” she said. “There is an unconscious anxiety in everyone.” 

Anxiety and depression disorders are very common in Kashmir and are transferred over generations, said Mir. “So emotionally we are disturbed,” said Mir. “In such situations, the concepts of ‘dapaan che’ are more believable than scientific concepts.”

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