Will we consider our own, the Kashmiri children traumatised by years of systemic violence?

Amit Sen

The current spate of violence by the state has not only caused extreme suffering and a plethora of mental health disorders of unprecedented proportions, it has also manifested in the seething anger, acute polarisation and paranoia, a complete lack of trust and hardening of attitude towards the Indian state. (Express photo: Shuaib Masoodi)

India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, said on January 16 that “girls and boys are now being radicalised” in Kashmir, and those who are “completely radicalised” need to be “taken out separately” and put in deradicalisation camps (IE, January 17).

I remembered 1983, when I was working as a young medical officer in 92 Base (Military) Hospital at Srinagar which offered sincere medical care to primarily armed forces personnel and their families, but also to the “civilians” during medical emergencies and complicated cases that they couldn’t handle in the “civil hospitals”. And the local people were ever so grateful for that facility.

I would often walk down the undulating roads through Badami Bagh Cantt, along the pristine hills and forests that would lead up to the Dal Lake. Walking through the narrow streets around Lal Chowk, looking for bargains at quaint leather shops or intricate Kashmiri woodwork, to paddling through the floating gardens around Dal Lake, I would meet many families and children. They were a warm, welcoming, respectful and proud people. “Yeh India nahin hai Madam, Kashmir hai (this is not India Madam, it’s Kashmir)”, a shopkeeper had quipped when my visiting mother had tried to bargain for leather bags. It had irked me then, but I came away with a good sense of their distinct identity. I remember buying a lot of things from that shop.

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And the children were everywhere, running and prancing over the steps of Nishat Bagh, going to school in shikaras, picnicking by the rapids in Pahalgam and snowboarding — on makeshift wooden boards — down the winter slopes of Gulmarg. Spring was in the air for most of the year.

The next time I visited Kashmir was in 2003, as a child mental health professional, part of a team that was to address the needs of traumatised children and fractured families in the Valley. This time, the picture perfect landscape had been punctured by protruding nozzles of automatic guns from the security bunkers at close intervals throughout the city of Srinagar. Over the next three years, through multiple visits, we met dozens of children and adolescents, many of them orphans and others from families that were damaged and disintegrated due to insurgency, terrorism and excesses from security forces. There were eight-year-olds who had lost the ability to play spontaneously, and instead, would sing songs of martyrdom where they proudly proclaimed that the only objective in life was to march to their death in the quest for freedom. There were accounts of children and families getting caught in the crossfire between terrorists and security forces, fathers and brothers being picked up by men in uniform never to return again, and young men getting ruthlessly murdered in front of their kin.

Such repetitive, violent trauma in endemic war zones can be deeply damaging for the community, especially children and adolescents, who could be scarred for life, and pass on their fear and anger to generations that follow. They don’t need to be tutored or indoctrinated to form extreme attitudes and prejudices. They learn from the brutal life lessons that surround them, that repeatedly break their trust in people who they expected would care for them and protect them. And that includes our state and custodians of law.

The last time I went to Kashmir was end of September, 2019, with a fact finding team that wanted to take a close look at the ground realities after the shocking shutdown of Kashmir on August 5, 2019. As lawyers, activists and a medical doctor, we felt it was important to understand the situation first-hand. Not just in order to advance the true spirit of a democratic society, but to hold our elected government and the institutions of democracy accountable for their actions. Members of our team visited different districts in the Kashmir Valley, the high court, district courts and other quasi-judicial institutions, interacted with lawyers, health and mental health professionals, traders, and the victims of state-perpetrated violence: Findings from the exercise were published as a comprehensive report that is available in the public domain.

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This time, there were no children on the streets or the gardens. In fact, they were not even in schools. The streets of Srinagar were completely deserted, and it felt like a ghost town in the centre of the city on a Sunday afternoon, when I landed there.

Besides the abject failure of the state to engage with the Kashmiri people in the decision-making about their own land and life, what concerned me most as a mental health professional is the impact of the violence that the security forces unleashed on the young people there. Children and adolescents who could access mental health services, were reporting all kinds of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) and nightly raids by security forces — as corroborated through reports from other members of our group who had visited villages and towns in different districts — which had created an atmosphere of terror and panic amongst young people and their families. They shared experiences of paralysing fear, acute anxiety, panic attacks, depressive-dissociative symptoms, post traumatic symptoms, suicidal tendencies and severe anger outbursts. There was a marked increase in psychological distress in 70 per cent (as estimated through a recent survey by mental health professionals in the Valley) of the population. Professionals working on the ground expressed concern about the aftermath of this imbroglio and feared that the trauma suffered by thousands of people will become evident in the months and years to come.

Experiences of such violent aggression and abuse can cause deep, destructive trauma that may take generations to heal. The damage is particularly severe if the very people who are supposed to protect you become perpetrators. The manifestations may take various forms: From complete psychological breakdown to an extreme numbing of emotions and lack of empathy. The current spate of violence by the state has not only caused extreme suffering and a plethora of mental health disorders of unprecedented proportions, it has also manifested in the seething anger, acute polarisation and paranoia, a complete lack of trust and hardening of attitude towards the Indian state.

So who is responsible for the radicalisation of Kashmiri youth, General Rawat? Who will bear this burden and help them heal? Who will pay the price for the consequences of this terrible oppression and violence on the children of Kashmir? Are we ever going to treat them as our own children?

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2020 under the title “A childhood denied”.

The writer, a historian, is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. The writer is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in Delhi. He has served in the Army Medical Corps from December 1982 to January 1988

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