The long-term effects of curfews

The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations – David Friedman

Razia keeps on looking at her phone anxiously, while whiling away time in her house in Srinagar in Kashmir. Razia also tends to wakes up in the middle of the night, when she ‘hears’ her phone ring.

Irfan, a college student, is unable to concentrate on his books despite his exams. ‘I’m trying really hard, but I just can’t seem to concentrate,’ he laments.

‘This is a manifestation of stress,’ opines a psychiatrist in the trouble-torn Valley, which has seen four months of protests and 123 deaths since January 2010.

There has been a marked change in almost everyone I know. From frequent bouts of crying to helplessness and rage, people seem to be trying to cope with the powerful emotions that they undergo because of what surrounds them.

Insomnia, hopelessness, fear, anger, sadness, fatigue – all creep in at some point. News of death of protesters or fake encounters further aggravate symptoms of depression.

Almost five months of curfews and strikes have affected all the inhabitants of the Valley in some way or another, the doctor added. But the effects of the turmoil are not just confined to those who have been locked up in their homes for months, unable to step out to meet family or friends. There are those who have not only witnessed brutal violence, but have also experienced it first hand.

Speaking to Kashmir Dispatch, Dr Muzafar Khan, a psychiatrist, elaborates on the outcome of the arrest of underage boys and youth in Kashmir by the police during four months of turmoil: ‘Arresting the minors and putting them with the adult population in jails is detrimental – the criminals will act as models for them in a short duration of time. They will feel alienated. This is called social modelling. Due to this experience in jails, their attitude towards India in general, and the security forces in particular, becomes negative. This reflects in their thinking, feelings and actions. This alienation reinforces the negative attitude, pushing it on to the next generation.’

Doctors say that in the past, the level of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the population was manageable. But in this phase of violence there has been a steep rise in PTSD cases. If a patient suffered from mild depression, this has probably risen to moderate or severe in the current scenario, according to Dr Khan.

All the coping mechanisms that people would normally use have been blocked because of the imposition of curfews and strikes. ‘For example, people used to be able to visit shrines. This would help them psychologically cope with the pressures, or they would talk to their friends, or visit their relatives and share their troubles… but all this is impossible in the prevailing conditions,’ Dr Khan continued.

How can you call this a life?
Researcher and doctoral candidate from Cornell University, New York, Saiba Varma, who is studying mental health problems, feels this lack of vent is detrimental to the population. ‘There are no avenues to vent one’s frustration and anger at the prevailing circumstances without facing retribution of some kind by the authorities. For example, the clampdown on social networking sites. Here, people can’t even meet others to lighten their burden.’

Varma said that the curfews and the violence push people into a schizophrenic frame of mind, ‘especially if you are not in a safe neighbourhood, you might feel trapped.’

Salesman Yasin Khan (name changed) has not been to work in months due to the ongoing violence. ‘How long will they keep us locked up? The turmoil has been going on for so many months. How do they expect us to go on with our lives like this? We don’t have an option but to live like this? How can you call this life?’

A young man associated with a non-governmental aid group in Kashmir, regularly tweets about the daily happenings. ‘Even that is met with hate. I get hate tweets from people in India after I post stories on the sufferings of the people here. There is no tolerance, no freedom of expression – it’s all a myth. All we have is blind nationalism and hate. How do we get the word out to the world about what is taking place here? Who will believe us? Who will help us?’

These problems have not remained confined to the streets. As people spend all their time at home, they are finding it increasingly difficult to get along. ‘Normally, you would feel productive as you set out for work and them come home at the end of the day. But now things are very different as people feel helpless and locked up in their homes, fearing for their lives. Tempers are bound to run high,’ said a counsellor.

Psychiatrist Dr Maajid of JVC Hospital elaborates on the ramifications of the unrest in the Valley on the family as a unit: ‘Due to severe frustration, the tolerance levels are down. Interpersonal relationships in families have suffered in this period of turmoil due to this.’

At the hospital, Dr Maajid has observed that people have trouble falling asleep; there is an increase in the suicide rate, there’s irritability, sudden bursts of anger and fatigue in all age groups in this chronic conflict zone. Plus the economic suffering is accentuating all the problems.

And things are not likely to improve any time soon, warn doctors. ‘These symptoms will take at least six months to wear off provided things become normal. People will have to regroup and restructure again to normal life as everything, including life goals have been delayed in this five-month period of violence,’ said Dr Maajid.

The prolonged periods of stress can sometimes change the structure of the brain, it has been noted. These conditions can lead to mental illnesses. Dr Maajid explained: ‘Mothers of younger boys are suffering the most. They become highly anxious if the boy reaches home late from his classes. These high stress levels are a precursor to mental illness.’