After 2 Months Under Siege, Kashmir Battles Mental Health Catastrophe

In this Aug. 26, photo, A Kashmiri man Mohammed Abdullah, center, sits with family members at their home and talks to reporters about his grandson who was picked up in a nocturnal raid recently and shifted to a jail in Agra. — AP


After more than 9 weeks under a communication blockade and security lockdown, Jammu and Kashmir is teetering on the brink of a mental health catastrophe, reports a group of eminent citizens and activists after visiting the beleaguered state

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

NEW DELHI — The ongoing lockdown in Kashmir is causing stress, fear, trauma and anxiety among the people which may lead to a host of mental health problems as the access to healthcare is restricted due to communication lockdown, according to a new report released by a team of concerned citizens in India, which included a noted psychiatrist, after their recent week-long visit to the beleaguered state.

During the visit, the team, comprising four members, interacted with doctors and health officials at different hospitals in the Kashmir Valley besides general people from different backgrounds. The 75-page report reveals that the conflict, especially in the last two months, has created structural reasons for depression, anxiety and a whole host of mental health problems because of the atmosphere of uncertainty.

A team of concerned citizens presenting the findings after a week-long visit to Jammu and Kashmir at a presser held in New Delhi on Saturday. — Photo: Caravan Daily

“The economy of Kashmir is predominantly dependent on agriculture and other related activities. Almost 90% of the workforce is linked to the apple economy in some way or the other. With the latter taking a big hit on account of the blockade and threats from ‘certain corners’, apple orchardists are deeply worried whether as they never know whether they would be able to sell their produce or not,” the report quotes from a conversation with a Srinagar based mental health consultant.

Due to the prevailing conflict, incidence of mental health issues is on the rise in Kashmir. According to a 2016 report by MSF, a staggering 45% of the population suffers from symptoms of mental distress including PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

An Indian paramilitary trooper patrols at the top of a hill in Srinagar on August 25. — AFP

Speaking to Caravan Daily, Dr Anirudh Kala, a noted psychiatrist who was part of the team, feared that within six months the cases of PTSD in Kashmir could be doubled from the current number. “Patients with symptoms of mental health problems take several months to be declared clinical,” Dr Kala said, adding “so, we will have to wait for a few months (to ascertain the exact impact of the crisis on the mental health of the people there).”

The report quoted the mental health consultant as saying that the crackdown by the establishment, along with the communication and transport blockade, were also limiting access to mental healthcare services.

Over two months have passed since the Government of India revoked special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated and downgraded the state into Union territories. Ever since, there has been an unprecedented communication blockade restricting the ability of the people to have access to essential services like calling ambulance service.

A police officer beats Kashmiri shia muslims as they tried to took out a Muharram procession in Srinagar, Kashmir on September 8, 2019.

Prior to August 5, the day on which the government enforced strict clampdown on the state, an average of 200 patients would visit the OPD he works at every day. The number has since dropped to 70-80, the consultant told the team.

Based on a conversation with two health officials, the report says that a centrally-sponsored scheme has been working properly on improving mental health conditions of the people only in two districts of the Valley – Baramulla and Pulwama – even before the 5th of August. Restricting the ability of the people to communicate and the threat of punishment for voicing their views are the factors that added to the distress.

“Earlier, people used to call before going somewhere. But now, they have to go personally or send someone. This becomes especially difficult during medical and other emergencies and end up in the death of a loved one or a family member,” the report reads. “People are afraid that if they air their views on their political situation they will be put behind bars.”

A woman with her nephew in Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian soldiers have forced most Kashmiris to stay at or near home. — AFP

According to the report, parents of young boys are deeply anxious as they fear they could be detained or arrested especially if they are involved in stone pelting. There have been reports of young boys going missing from villages.

Dr Anirudh Kala is quoted in the report observing: “Many people we met during our trip reported heightened anxiety and sleep disturbance. Parents whose grown up sons got late in reaching home were found with symptoms of anxiety because there was no way to assuage their worst fears in the absence of mobile phones. Most families did not have any landlines either.

He adds, “As of now, what is clearly visible are the predominant emotions and these are of having been betrayed, humiliated, of anger and defiance.”

The report titled #Kashmircivildisobedience was released at a press conference held at the Press Club of India (PCI) in New Delhi on Saturday. The team members, addressing a gathering of media persons, spoke on issues mentioned in the report. Apart from Dr Kala, three other members are: Brinelle Dsouza, a Mumbai based academic and activist, Revati Laul, Delhi based journalist and author of The Anatomy of Hate, a book about 2002 Gujarat pogrom and Shabnam Hashmi, an activist who founded an organisation called Anhad.

Security personnel stand guard during a lockdown in Srinagar on Sept 28, 2019. — AFP

Apart from mental health issues, the report talks about crises in other areas of healthcare such as gynaecology. According to Dr Kala, the incidence of uterine hemorrhage and anaemia has also increased. The report gives an account of the experience of a doctor according to whom the ante-natal and post-natal care of both mother and children have greatly suffered in this period.

In the absence of such care, ante-partum and post-partum hemorrhages cannot be treated in time which put the women at a high risk of becoming anemic, observes the report.

The report is a collection of conversations and interviews with over four hundred people from across the spectrum of varying backgrounds. Except a pellet-hit photo journalist, none of the respondent has been named for security and privacy reasons.

Besides interviews with Kashmiri Muslims, who form a major chunk of the dissenting population, the report has interviews with members of Kashmiri Pundit community, minority Christians and Sikhs, who have given mixed reactions on the issue of the decisions taken by New Delhi.

The team also spent two days in Jammu in first week of October.

“The fear in Jammu is more than what we saw in Kashmir,” Laul said while speaking to Caravan Daily on the sidelines of the presser. The sense of vulnerability the team found during their interaction with Muslim students from Gujjar and Bakarwal community was palpable.

Security forces personnel stand guard next to concertina wire laid across a road in Srinagar during the security clampdown in Kashmir. — Reuters

The report highlights how Kashmiris have resorted to civil disobedience by keeping their markets shut and staying away from normal day-to-day affairs as a form of protest against the clampdown by the Indian government.

“Kashmiris [have] decided they were not going to switch to their usual modes of protest,” the report says.  “What has happened alongside, [episodic stone-pelting] but not captured in the media, is a collective call taken entirely without any leadership, to keep shops and business establishments etc. shut.”

The report quotes an unnamed journalist saying, “Now, civil disobedience movement has started. Trade associations and schools are all shut. No one is going anywhere. Jab tak 370 wapas nahi lenge hum business nahi kholenge (Until the changes to Article 370 are not reversed, we will not be open for business).”

The economic consequences of the shutdown are huge, but despite that people are resisting. The report gives an account of a woman teacher. She is in favour of this total shutdown, in the interest of not succumbing to what she sees in a complete negation of the Kashmiri people by the Centre. For the sake of changing the long-term politics of Kashmir, this short-term sacrifice is essential


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