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Curfew and Siege – Mental Health Crisis in Kashmir

Sidra Insar Chaudhary

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Sidra Insar Chaudhary

The lockdown imposed in occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019 by the Indian government has hit 270+ days, with the the security and communication clampdown now in its ninth month.

            With international pressure mounting to restore freedoms, Indian authorities claimed that they had ‘eased’ some restrictions, such as lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some mobile phone services. The scenario for 12.5 million Kashmiris, however, is far from normal.

            Indian Security forces have arrested more than 600 people since August 5 2019, according to International media reports. Police taking an activist of Jammu and Kashmir Youth Congress into custody during a protest against the Indian government on Aug 10.

            A petition was filed in India’s top court challenging the lockdown by opposition Congress party activist Tehseen Poonawalla, seeking immediate lifting of curfew and other restrictions, including blocking of phone lines, internet and news channels in Kashmir. He also sought the immediate release of Kashmiri leaders who have been detained, including Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

            Dozens of journalists held a silent demonstration against the internet blackout on Nov 12, 2019; holding their laptops with blank screens or placards with the words “100 days no internet” and “stop humiliating Kashmir journalists”.

            Authorities justified the ban as necessary to ‘‘stop fighters from neighbouring Pakistan from using internet to fan radicalisation’’ in occupied Kashmir. They instead set up an office with 10 internet-enabled stations for around 200 working journalists, who queue up to use the computers for 15 minutes each. The very next day, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing to “examine the human rights situation in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir in India in historical and national context”. “We have concerns about Kashmir, and we are watching the situation very closely,” said Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as another congressional panel reviewed the consequences of India’s decision to revoke the valley’s special status.

            Years of conflict have already fuelled alarming levels of untreated mental illness in Indian-administered Kashmir. But an ongoing military clampdown, now in its fifth month, is adding to civilian trauma in the disputed region.

            Nearly one in five people in Kashmir show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2015 study by Médecins Sans Frontières and the Srinagar-based Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, or IMHANS.

            Another 2016 research published by IMHANS and ActionAid estimated that 11.3 percent of the population had a mental health disorder – higher than the national prevalence of around seven percent. But few were able to get treatment.

            The New Humanitarian journal published a research recently which stated the mental health crisis in Kashmir as follows:

Dr. Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist who co-authored the ActionAid study, calls Kashmir one of the “saddest places in the world”.

‘The chaos that Kashmir has witnessed over the years has definitely deepened this problem,’ he said. The situation has escalated as India clamps down on anti-government protests and a decades-long insurgency. Conflict deaths rose to a decade-high last year. The Kashmir valley has been on lockdown since 5 August, when India moved to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood and semi-autonomous status, imposing curfews, cutting off communications, and boosting troop levels in an already heavily militarised region. If the instability and violence don’t subside, Hussain said, ‘mental health disorders are likely going to increase’.

            But health experts say most people who need help often can’t access treatment – a crisis magnified by months of ongoing restrictions. They also fear undiagnosed trauma is spreading among Kashmir’s youngest generation.

            “Every day more than 170 patients visit the four-room psychiatry clinic – the only one serving the Shopian and Pulwama districts of south Kashmir. It is likely that far greater numbers need treatment, but many patients cannot reach the hospital because there is no public transport.” – (The Guardian)

            A nationwide lockdown that India imposed across the country in recent weeks to fight the coronavirus has worsened the problem in Jammu and Kashmir, the medical professionals say. Police officers block roads with coils of glistening concertina wire. Any residents who step out of their homes, especially in Kashmir’s towns and cities, risk getting beaten up. Years of strife left a generation traumatized. India’s clampdown disrupted daily life. Now the battle against or as Newyork Times states: “the coronavirus has further isolated and scarred a people with little access to help.” (April 26, 2020)

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