Fatima* is over 3,000 miles away from her family. She cannot focus on studies, does not eat enough food, tosses and turns in bed, takes long and rapid breaths, frequently sweats and has an ever-upset stomach. The young woman from Kashmir valley is not suffering from a dreadful disease, but shows potent signs of anxiety. Nothing was wrong with her until the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr earlier this month.
The Indian armed forces shot dead 22-year-old rebel commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, in Kashmir valley on July 8, leading to widespread protest demonstrations and stone-pelting clashes the next morning. The use of lethal weapons, including assault rifles, by Indian forces led to the killing of at least 50 civilians in the following days and the use of non-lethal weapons lefthundreds with lethal injuries, in the worst turmoil the valley has seen in years.
Even though the situation in Kashmir was getting worse with each passing day, Fatima was at ease in Malaysia, where she goes for higher education, as her family in Khawaja Bagh suburb, near northern Kashmir’s Baramulla town, was in constant contact with her. But an order by the government of Jammu and Kashmir, led by the state’s first woman chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, took away her peace of mind.
Anxiety is considered a normal in response to sudden agony. Psychiatrists do not usually treat anxiety with drugs, but train patients in various tested relaxation techniques. However, they consider anxiety harmful only when it adversely affects one’s life or links itself with self-destructive behaviour.
“I will kill myself if anything [untoward] happens to my family,” says Fatima in an online interview at least 10 days after all private telecom operators in Kashmir were asked to suspend services for an indefinite period. “I’m very scared because my father has asthma and I don’t know how my family is.”
Doctors’ Association Kashmir (DAK) in a statement on July 24 said the present communication blockage has increased mental problems in Kashmir. “Communication blackout has escalated problems of anxiety and depression among people and they are at a greater risk of becoming violent,” stated its president Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan. “People have developed fears about the well-being of their kith and kin whom they have not been able to contact. Students and professionals living outside have not spoken to their families and they are worried about their safety,” he added. “People used to vent their emotions on social networking sites and the gag has frustrated them and added to their mental agony.”
Pertinently, reputed non-governmental organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (or Doctors Without Borders), which calls itself an international humanitarian-aid organisation, studied the mental health of people in Kashmir from October to December 2015. According to the findings, nearly 1.8 million adults, which amounts to 45% of the adult population in Kashmir valley, suffer from mental distress. A majority of people have experienced or witnessed conflict-related trauma, the study says.
Dr Hassan, in his statement, also said: “There is already an epidemic of mental trauma in Kashmir and this jam on communication has made the situation worse.”
Restless Fatima wants the government to resume telephone services for a few days at least. However, she is not the only one suffering from such distress. Hundreds of others in Kashmir and in different parts of India and abroad spend a good amount of time on social media in search of known-faces from their neighbourhood who could possibly make them talk to their families. Although some find a way, many others fail.
Aamir Rashid is a research scholar at St Joseph’s College in Tamil Nadu and went through similar distress for 10 days. “My nephew was admitted at a children’s hospital in Sonwar, Srinagar, on Eid, when I last talked to my family,” he says. “I am worried for my sisters because of the curfew and network blockage.” Luckily, his family called him on July 27 when government resumed postpaid mobile services in Kashmir.
Difficult student situations
The only working telecom network during the present turmoil is state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, mainly because most government and police officials use the state-owned network. Although the government ordered resumption of all postpaid mobile networks on July 26, most people in Kashmir continue to remain cut-off from their loved ones as there are only a small number of postpaid mobile users in the region.
Sakib Tariq, a student at Amity University near New Delhi, which is only an hour’s flight away from Srinagar, narrates the ordeal of students there. “The conditions are so bad that we want to leave our studies and go home, we miss our families so badly,” he says. Moreover, he says the students were short of money. “Many students in Delhi are short of money as they have to pay rent and they don’t even have money for travel now.”
Although he was in touch with his father who has a working state-owned company number, he says many of his friends had no contact with their families for almost 10 days.
Faizan Mir, who is presently in Srinagar, says he usually travels in and out of Kashmir for educational purpose. “My grandfather went to Mumbai during the crisis and we have no way of communicating with him except for coming to our neighbour’s place who is generous enough to let us use his landline,” says Faizan. Mir sees many of his friends in distress. “I see anxiety soaring to levels where I see people smoking the whole night and moving around the room because they have no idea about how and where their family is.”
Syed Aijaz, who stays in Bangalore, says he has no money to pay the fee for his upcoming examination. Another student Haroon Dar often reads news about shortage of essentials in Kashmir and says he is anxious if his family members have enough food to eat. Saeed Waseem is in Malaysia and his parents in Srinagar do not have the state-owned telecom company’s connection. “Brother, we are a lot of students, everyone is crying because they don’t have any contact with their family,” he says.
Call for help
Amidst anguish, a few people from Kashmir were seen circulating their working mobile numbers on internet, offering free financial and communication help to students outside the state. Kashmir-based newspaper Greater Kashmir also announced a similar helpline number. The government was the last to follow the trend when it publically issued contact numbers of deputy commissioners of all 10 districts of Kashmir on July 25, about 11 days after the communication crackdown. However, the helpline numbers seem to be of no good use.
Muneer-ul-Islam, deputy commissioner of district Pulwama, which is presently the focus of armed insurgency in Kashmir and saw violent protests and at least five civilian deaths in the ongoing turmoil, says the administration cannot be more than “agony aunts” at present. “There are three columns of students outside, those who have financial problems, those who are not able to communicate with their families and those who demand for at least the incoming call facility to be resumed,” he says. “We are expecting banks to open up tomorrow or in a couple of days, which would be of help to them.”
Muneer further says that it could have been because of the increasing demand by students outside Kashmir that the government decided to resume the post-paid mobile service. Upon being asked how the government expects normal communication with only postpaid services being active, Muneer says blocking of prepaid mobile services was not new in Kashmir and hence every family had at least one postpaid connection.
Showkat Aijaz Bhat, deputy commissioner of district Kulgam, where at least 12 civilians lost their lives in the present turmoil, claims to have received only three calls since the helpline was announced two days back. He says all the requests were attended to, one of which was to make a student contact his family. He adds the connectivity of the state-owned mobile network was not good in the region these days, so the students should call on the designated landline number. The voice kept on breaking as Bhat explained this over the phone.
It’s not the first time the government in Jammu and Kashmir has clamped down telecom service, particularly prepaid ones. Omar Abdullah-led government faced a similar anti-government uprising in 2010 when more than 120 civilians were killed in street clashes. Like the Internet and social media in today’s time, mobile-based short messaging service was a widely used medium of communication at that time and, as a result, the government banned messaging services for a long time across all platforms. However, the ban was later lifted for postpaid users while it continued for prepaid users for four years and was lifted only months before the next state assembly elections in 2014, an act widely seen as a damage-control measure.
This time, Mehbooba-led government went a step ahead in choking communications. The government totally snapped all mobile telephony and internet services across Kashmir, raided bureaus of leading newspapers to seize their printed copies, forced cable television networks to stop relaying Pakistan-based news channels, and left anguished people with no option but to come out on streets demanding justice. The authorities today resumed incoming call facility on prepaid mobile numbers. However, all mobile internet services and outgoing call facility in prepaid networks continue to remain snapped.
Interestingly, Mehbooba was the opposition leader during Omar’s regime and spoke in sharp criticism against the communication gag. In October 2012, when Omar-led government ordered blockage of social networking website Facebook and video sharing website YouTube after protests erupted over an anti-Islam video, Mehbooba censured the ban in the state assembly, saying it could agitate the youth of Kashmir. “The young boys and girls use the Internet to stay connected and express themselves instead of coming out on streets. If they express themselves on the Internet, it should be encouraged,” Mehbooba had said. “It is the need of the day… We may not be using it as much but the youth are dependent on it.”
This is not the first time the government, led by Mehbooba’s Peoples Democratic Party, blocked telecom networks. Kashmir saw a complete curb on mobile internet service after five civilian deaths in northern Kashmir’s Handwara and Kupwara districts as clashes erupted between civilians and government forces following an alleged molestation bid on a schoolgirl by an army man in April this year.
The government led by Mehbooba’s father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had also blocked the Internet for a few days in September 2015, that too on the festival of Eid, when tension erupted over beef ban in Jammu and Kashmir.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa is a Kashmir-based journalist and founder/editor of news website jandknow.com
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