Outside the sun is blazing. Light filters through a small window. Jameela Banu, 47, is sitting in her kitchen inspecting her medicine, which is wrapped in a polythene bag. Her five-year-old grandson is playing with his mother. On the shelf is a picture of her 15-year-old son Ishtiyaq Ahamad Khanday, who was killed in the 2010 Kashmir uprising.
Banu has been unable to sleep alone in her house since witnessing her son’s death. She spends the day walking through the house, closing and locking windows and doors repeatedly. Her husband, Ghulam Ahmad Khanday, took her to doctors and eventually to a psychiatric hospital in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. She was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is undergoing treatment.
‘Eight years have passed; the incident is still fresh on my mind,’ she says. ‘I cannot close my eyes without envisioning the face of my son.’
Tensions in Kashmir flared in February when a young militant drove an explosives-laden SUV into an Indian military convey, killing at least 40 soldiers. But this Indian-administered region has been experiencing a prolonged armed conflict for the last two and half decades, which has taken a heavy toll on the psychological wellbeing of the people.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the two gained independence from Britain in 1947. Both the nations claim the territory in full. Several rebel groups have for decades fought Indian soldiers deployed in the territory, demanding independence for the region or its merger with Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. The present insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989 and the ongoing armed conflict has claimed a total of 41,000 lives in 27 years.
Abdul Qadeer Bhat, 34, was 12-years-old when he was tortured by the Indian Army. He was returning from school when he saw officers in his home, conducting a search operation. When he entered the house, he was taken into separate room and tortured for two hours.
‘An army major took me into the room and I was asked to tell him the whereabouts of the local militants. I honestly told them that I don’t know anything. The army major took out his knife and gave me a deep cut on my palm,’ he says.
After the event, Qadeer was in a deep shock for a long time. At night, he would have terrible dreams of torture and wake up screaming.
Qadeer’s parents took him to a general physician in their village but nothing improved. He too was referred to a psychiatric hospital in Srinagar, and diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression.
Mental health services in Kashmir are inadequate and accessibility remains a hurdle. Kashmir’s only psychiatric hospital – the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), in Srinagar – is facing manpower shortage.
According to a 2015 report by Médecins Sans Frontières, nearly 1.8 million adults – 45 per cent of Kashmir’s adult population – suffer from some form of mental distress. A majority of people have experienced conflict-related trauma.
‘Trauma in Kashmir is reality, very prevalent,’ says Dr Arshad Hussain, associate professor of psychiatry at the government medical college in Srinagar. ‘The prevalence of mental health disorders is more in women then men. Apart from PTSD the other mental disorders that we found among Kashmiri people are schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, phobias, OCD, dysthymia and generalized anxiety disorder.’
In many cases, families aren’t familiar with PTSD and don’t know how to help their loved ones. ‘It’s very hard for family members to understand the person going through PTSD,’ says Saima Khan, a clinical psychologist. ‘Its symptoms influence the behavior of a person and can cause them to appear angry, strange and upset. PTSD victims often take a long time to recover and the family support plays an important role in it.’