How sections of TV media amplified the ‘braid cutting’ hysteria

It took a murder and an appeal for rational reporting by the Delhi Police for the circus to stop.

WrittenBy:Manisha Pande
Date:
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Apparently, it isn’t just Salman Khan movies that you need to leave your brains behind to consume. Television news, especially a large section of mainstream Hindi channels, require similar efforts at suspension of disbelief on the part of news consumers. Alas, the low-cost production values ensure the experience is nearly never as satisfactory as a 100-crore blockbuster.

How else would one define TV news reporting on the braid-chopping mystery that has apparently gripped all of North India? You’ve had news anchors investigate the story over the past one week, as if it could possibly be something more than mass hysteria or some sort of a Cut The Braid Challenge that has gone viral.

Complete with Zee Horror-type background score, humping arrows and tacky graphics, news anchors plunged into reporting on incidents of women complaining of their hair being chopped off.

ABP News deserves a special mention here with close to 25 news packages dedicated to “chopping of women’s braid” as it’s neatly segmented on YouTube.

On its show Sansani anchored by the inimitable Shrivardhan Trivedi, the voiceover talks of a shaitaan that’s targeting unsuspecting women across states. Sample some of the commentary: “Kaun hai woh? Dilli main dehshat…Haryana main dehshat…UP main dehshat…kaun hai woh jiske nishaane main hai mahilaaien…kaun hai woh jo kaat raha hai mahilaon ki choti…kya yeh andhvishwaas hai…koi hai jo band kamre main bhi mahilaon ki choti kaat leta hai…koi hai jo mahilaon ki choti kaatke palak jhapakte hi kaat leta hai… (there’s fear everywhere, in UP, Delhi and Haryana. Who is this person who cuts women’s plaits even in closed doors? Who is this person who cuts women’s hair and disappears?)”

The channel’s intrepid reporters were also present in Mathura where they were investigating the presence of witches who may be behind the mystery braid chopping: “Kya waakey main gaon ke andar chudailain maujood hain…jo mahilaon ki chotiyan raat ko kaat kar le jaati hain? (Are there really witches present in the village who are chopping off women’s braids?)” Because this is the sort of thing one needs to investigate into. The presence of plait-chopping witches. The reporter interviews a woman, Premvati, who’s barely coherent and believes her hair has been chopped. Her husband informs the reporter on probing that they got a tantrik to make sure they are safe of whatever evil may have befallen the family.

Its anchors fleetingly appeal to viewers to not give into superstition only to go on to amplify the most superstitious of voices.

Not to be outdone, you had India News’ presentation Choti Ke Peeche Kya Hai. The bulletin is Ramsay Brothers meets Ekta Kapoor. The anchor states that some people believe witches were behind the braid chopping. At no point does the anchor dismiss this theory.

On Aaj Tak, we are again informed of a shaitaan roaming the streets of Delhi in search of plaits to chop. This is presented as a scary (khaufnaak) turn of events. The voiceover wonders if there is a supernatural force at work or if it’s merely a prank. Another show is creatively headlined, Baal Ki Khaal. The anchor kicks off the show wondering how choti (plait) made it to headlines on TV. He waxes eloquent on the need to not give into superstition and rumours but never really dismisses these incidents as exactly that.

Not just Hindi news channels, you had a CNN News18 anchor speak of the “braid-chopping phenomenon which seems to have become the new normal”. She speaks of the need “to not give into hysteria”, but says that, on the other hand, there’s also the grievances of the victims. A psychiatrist on the show calls these cases incidents of mass hysteria and it is truly amazing that one needed a doctor for that to be spelt out.

Most channels that have reported on the braid-chopping carried interviews from the same (small) set of women who believe their hair was cut by a mysterious force. None of them know how, some of them claim to have been asleep when the incident occurred and, in all the cases, the cut hair is there for display. Women complained of a headache before the mystery chopping and were alone when the incident is said to have occurred.

Yet it was too tough for most news anchors to report this as a possible incident of collective illusion like Ganesha drinking milk, the mysterious monkey man or the sweet seawater incident in Mumbai. Looking for witches and ghosts behind the incidents seemed a more likely  journalistic pursuit up until a woman was killed for being a braid chopping witch in Uttar Pradesh. After this, you had Deputy Commissioner of Police (Outer Delhi) M N Tiwari requesting the media to not give these incidents undue importance and inculcate a rational and scientific approach to reporting. To the credit of Zee News, the channel launched a clear-eyed campaign to call out these incidents for what they were. The Delhi Police has cracked the first case. It wasn’t a witch or an evil gang but a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old’s idea of a prank. The bigger prank though was on news consumers watching some of these inane news offerings.

The author can be contacted at manisha.pande1110@gmail.com and on Twitter @MnshaP.

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