Non-lethal weapons are turning Kashmir into a psychiatric hell

Posted: September 6, 2016 in Arrest, Draconian Laws, Human Rights, Right to Dissent, State Violence

In what is considered the highest militarised zone in the world, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder takes an inexorable toll.


Srinagar looks a dead city. Instead of streets full of tourists, men in uniform parade its alleys, and, as you would expect in any curfewed city, the streets are empty and the shutters of shops down.

Few kilometres away from Srinagar’s centre, the Shah family lives in Chattabal, comparatively an older part of the city. There is an insidious gloom and it’s understandable – the family has lost its youngest member, Reyaz.

The 21-year-old, who worked two jobs – as an ATM security guard at night and a salesman at a kitchenware shop during the day – was killed on August 2, supposedly after being hit by pellets.

Shah is one of the 71 people killed – that includes two police officers – after massive protests erupted in the Kashmir valley following the killing of popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in early July. The protestors are demanding “Azaadi” from India.

Dark glasses are no props to look cool, rather a necessity to keep the operated eyes cool. Photo credit: AP/ Dar Yasin

As usual, the Indian government has blamed Pakistan for fuelling the stir in Kashmir and Islamabad has categorically denied involvement in the protests, accusing India of human rights abuses in the same breath.

At around 10pm that fateful night, Reyaz was returning home after completing his shift at the ATM. His elder brother, Shakeel Ahmed Shah, aware of the dangers of stepping out in the curfew, kept calling his brother to know his whereabouts. Reyaz told him he had been shutting down the ATM. A few minutes later, Shakeel was not able to reach his brother’s phone for a second call.

He was worried, but there was not much he could do. But around 11.30pm, Shakeel received a phone call from an unknown number asking him to reach SMHS Hospital immediately.

At the hospital, the family learnt that Shah had been found lying on the road, bleeding profusely. The paramilitary forces, supposedly CRPF, had fired pellets at him from a close range, which apparently killed him on the spot.

According to the doctors who conducted an autopsy on Shah’s body, around 300 pellets were lodged into his defenceless frame.

Five-year-old Zohra was walking on a road with her cousin during clashes when she got injured. Photo credit: AP/Dar Yasin

While many have died in the conflict due to the use of firearms, some of them have, surprisingly, succumbed to “non-lethal weapons”, a term used by the government to identify low intensity arms used to quell protests. Critics and residents of the Valley, however, allege the “non-lethal weapons” often turn deadly if used from a close range, as in the case of Reyaz Shah.

Even in the 2010 protests, in which 112 people lost their lives, it was the tear gas shell, a non lethal weapon, that became the reason for the eruption of the Valley.

A shell allegedly fired by the security forces, hit a young Tufail Mattoo, and the incident turned into a rallying point for massive protests.

At Shah’s house, his sisters are inconsolable. They break down intermittently. His elder brother Shakeel, tries to maintain his composure, but even he is overwhelmed. Reyaz spoke to him over the phone moments before his death. The family was waiting for him to join them for dinner.

“Reyaz was returning from work. We wouldn’t have let him go out had the government not threatened to cut the salaries of employees who fail to turn out to their work. No protest was going on in the vicinity. Even then he was killed. It is a murder,” said his niece, the only family member who speaks with some determination.

Reyaz’s parents died when he was only three-months-old and his elder siblings raised him since. The eldest of the sisters often faints and had to be taken to a psychiatrist.

Rising mental health issues

Dr Arshad Hussain, associate professor, psychiatry, at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) Srinagar, sees up to 130 mental health cases a day. He paints a grim picture of the psychiatry-related health issues. “90 per cent of Kashmiris have faced a traumatic life relating to conflict in Kashmir. We have an epidemic of mental health problems, particularly depression,” he says.

Over the years, the number of patients visiting SMHS’ psychiatric department has increased rapidly. According to Dr Hussain, the hospital saw more than 1,00,000 patients last year compared to around 1,700 in 1989.

The Shah family’s story is synonymous to many other families in Kashmir who have lost their dear ones in the last three decades. The latest deaths and grave injuries by “non-lethal weapons” has added to the trauma of people.

Thousands are stuck in their houses since a strict curfew is in force. The government has snapped phone and internet connectivity. The supply of essential goods and medicines is running out and security forces have allegedly attacked the ambulances ferrying patients and injured.

Kashmir is a 70-year-old conflict between nuclear armed countries, India and Pakistan. Armed insurgency broke out in the region in late 1980s. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal 44,033 people were killed in the Valley – All Party Hurriyat Conference claims 1,00,000 died – and thousands have disappeared and suffered torture, allegedly by the security forces and armed mercenaries.

Relentless curfew and crackdowns have taken an inexorable toll on mental health. In what is considered the highest militarised zone in the world, many residents face Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and women are the worst-affected.

A 2009 study done by Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar on “Life in Conflict: Characteristics of Depression in Kashmir” found the prevalence of depression in the region is over 55 per cent.

A survey done in 2015 by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) (Doctors without borders), and Department of Psychology, Kashmir University and the Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (IMHANS), says nearly 1.8 million adults (45 percent of the population or one out of every two adults) in the Kashmir Valley show symptoms of significant mental distress.

“Nearly one in five adults (19 per cent) in the Kashmir Valley is living with significant PTSD symptoms, representing 7,71,000 individuals, with 2,48,000 (6 per cent) meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD,” says the MSF.

It states that mental distress is “significantly higher” among woman than men: “50 per cent of women and 37 per cent of men have probable depression, 36 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men have a probable anxiety disorder, and 22 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men have probable PTSD.”

Although, the impact on mental health due to the current stir is not clear, doctors suspect there would be a steep rise in PTSD in the Valley.

“The reflection on mental health will not happen immediately. The effects of trauma of 90s, we have seen in early 2000. What happened in 2008-2010, we started seeing [its effect] from last year,” says Dr Hussain.”I have currently on my follow up at-least 15-20 mothers of these young who died in 2010,” he adds.

Pellet victims

Since the unrest started, many wards in hospitals of the state are full of those wounded in the protests. At SMHS hospital, Srinagar, several wards are packed to the rafters with those hit by pellets in the eye.

Bandages or dark glasses partially cover the faces of rows of injured men, mostly in their teens or early 20s. They are no props to look cool, rather a necessity to keep the operated eyes cool. Among the victims are children as young as eight years old.

Few of them have lost vision in both eyes.

There is a seething anger in the hospital. Sameer, in his early 20s, who lost an eye due to the pellets, says: “Indian forces are systemically torturing the people of Kashmir. I will join the protests as soon as I get discharged from the hospital. Even though I have lost an eye, this won’t stop me. We will fight till Independence.”

However, spokesperson of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Rajesh Yadav, sees them as “misguided youth who should invest their time and energy on their studies.”He said they, in fact, are not using excessive force against the protesters.

Meanwhile, an affidavit filed by the CRPF informed Jammu and Kashmir High Court that it had fired 1.3 million pellets from pump-action guns between July 8 and August 11.

Pellets or pump-action guns were introduced in Kashmir as a “non-lethal” alternative to bullets after 200 people were killed between by security forces during demonstrations against “Indian occupation” between 2008 and 2010.

The government’s reasoning was that when fired from a distance, shotgun pellets disperse and inflict only minor injuries.

As a large group of youngsters live in the irrevocable fear of getting arrested, Dr Hussain observes a rise in substance abuse among the youth.

Problems are varied, however small they may seem for those who are away from the 58 day-old curfew. Shahid Wani, an entrepreneur in his mid-20s, is frustrated for his own reasons and says he has taken to smoking more than he did. “I am not able to see my girlfriend since the curfew started.” She lives in downtown area of the city, where the protests are most intense.

Meraj Khan, Wani’s friend, who studies at Kashmir University, says a large section of Kashmiris believes it is under siege. “My mother has not stepped out of our house from last 50 days,” says Khan. But the bigger problem is dealing with the children. His brother’s children haven’t stepped out for weeks because everything, including schools, is shut. “They easily get irritated and sometimes turn aggressive.”

He fears that “the prolonged curfew and tense environment is already exposing the next generation to psychiatry related complications.”

Senior journalist Yusuf Jameel feels there is a difficult life ahead for Kashmiris, more so for the pellet victims. Even now, the pellet victims at the hospitals have to hide their identities to avoid being detected by the security forces as they fear they might be taken as stone-pelters -which could lead to detention, arrest and torture.

He asks: “At this point everybody is overwhelmed, there are sentiments, and everybody is offering help and the question is whether this will continue and what will happen after, say five years?


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