Amidst the lockdown, communication blockade, restrictions on movement and massive deployment of security forces in Jammu and Kashmir for over month, it is reported that doctors at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Srinagar are developing a contingency plan to provide psychological first aid to children suffering from psychosocial trauma as a result of this extreme situation. Their alarm is well-founded.

Under such circumstances most children evidence psychological distress in a variety of ways such as school refusal, nightmares, withdrawal, behaviour problems, fearfulness, and so on. These are the distress signals through which they convey feelings for which they lack adequate words or which being connected with extreme fear or shame are ‘unspeakable’. Recent epidemiological research on school children in the Kashmir valley (Paul and Khan, 1918) found that the percentage of mental disorders – anxiety, mood disorder and behaviour disorder – is much higher than in other states in India. This high prevalence is attributed to the long years of political conflict in the state and the paucity of mental health facilities.

The well being of children is intrinsically linked to the adequacy of their protective and care-giving system – the family and community. The greatest threat to children’s well-being are those that damage this protective system. It is for this reason that international guidelines for psychosocial intervention in complex emergencies put great emphasis on restoring and enhancing family and community supports.

Sadly in Kashmir today this protective system is gravely compromised by the toll on adults who are themselves emotionally overwhelmed by the extremity of the situation, and by the collective trauma inflicted on the community as a whole.

Collective trauma is a blow to the tissue of social life – to its social processes, networks, relationships, institutions, dynamics, practices, capital and resources. The social fabric is rent. In addition, the chronic violence has given rise to a ‘repressive ecology’ based on imminent, pervasive threat, terror and restraint and an emotional climate dominated by fear and distrust, powerlessness and anger.

The Kashmir Mental Health Survey 2015 carried out jointly by Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Psychology Department of Kashmir University and the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Srinagar in the 10 districts of the Kashmir valley found that nearly 45% of the adult population (1.8 million adults) are experiencing symptoms of mental distress with 41% exhibiting symptoms of depression, 26% of anxiety and 19% of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).There was clear relationship between the number of traumatic events witnessed or experienced and the presence of these symptoms of mental disorder. Traumatic events related to the political conflict – assault, militant or military attacks, disappearances, crackdown, raids, interrogation, torture, etc were reported by 93% of the respondents. This is compounded by the impact of common daily stresses like financial issues, family problems, poor health, unemployment and so on.

A survey conducted a decade earlier had already flagged the grave mental health consequences of the violence in Kashmir, noting the frequent cordon and search operations, frisking, raids, and physical and psychological maltreatment at the hands of security forces. It was then found that 33 % suffered from psychological distress and that fear was a pervasive problem for children and adults alike. A ‘repressive ecology’ was thus well-established. The study found that one in six respondents had been legally or illegally detained and of these 76% had been tortured in custody. Sexual violence is a common strategy used to terrorise people in conflict but may not be openly discussed. Nevertheless 11.6% of the respondents said they had been victims of sexual violence and one in seven had witnessed rape. It should be mentioned that sexual violence is often perpetrated on boys and men who are detained to intimidate, humiliate and punish.

Thus the negative psychosocial consequences of the political conflict in Kashmir that has been carrying on for 30 years are readily apparent and likely to intensify as the ‘repressive ecology’ becomes more harsh. In addition to the adverse consequences on mental well being and social capital, the probability for violence to escalate is great for a number of reasons.

First, there is a normalization of extreme violence. Images of children playing war games with pretend guns and so on indicate both the child’s capacity to find moments of carefree play, and also an engagement with the possibilities of destruction. It is this kind of normalisation that produces suicide bombers according to Palestinian psychiatrist, the late El Sarraj (2002). It underlines a developmental context that has sinister latent possibilities in the longer term.

Secondly, there is a breakdown of social and moral ordering principles based on trust, goodwill and compassionate inter-connectedness. Such a breakdown damages core assumptions that ground people and make them feel secure – beliefs in goodness, in meaningfulness, in self-worth. Further, there is the development of a malevolent order based on terror, distrust, cynicism, powerlessness and silence. Researchers have shown that such societal conditions are most vulnerable to the outbreak of violence (Varvin, 2003). And the most malignant situations come about when the implicit social-moral order is corrupted from above, that is by the state or by the leaders. This is the case when brazen acts of injustice, terror and repression are sanctioned and justified by authority. They create a psychological state where violence is permissible because the moral codes that govern our ideals and our taboos have been perverted from on high.

Thirdly, climates of fear, powerlessness and humiliation have dire implications for the development of young boys into manhood, particularly in terms of the role that aggression and violent action will play. The triumph of revenge over shame, impotence and humiliation in acts of violence is central to toxic masculinity and such socio-emotional climates are fertile for such enactments. Indeed this has been described as having been the case with Palestinian youth who joined terrorist suicide squads (El Sarraj, 2002). They were the children of the first intifada or survivors of the massacres in the Lebanese refugee camps.

Fourthly, the collective memory and narrative of victimhood become identity markers transmitted from one generation to the next and institutionalized in the political and public discourse. These hold the seeds for continuing violence. This is familiar to us from the legacy of Partition.

In the past decade and more, one theme that has been reiterated in the writings and reports of government appointed teams and interlocutors, parliamentary delegations, military commanders, humanitarian workers and others is the imperative need to address the palpable reality of the alienation and anger of the Kashmiri people, particularly the youth. It could be argued that what one saw then was anger coupled with hope. Anger can be a constructive emotion in that it feels strong, it makes us take risks, have courage and put in the effort to change existing situations that are noxious. But if hopefulness is to increase, and the promise of a future of dignity, freedom and justice is to be achieved, the frustrated needs for respect, redress and freedom from fear that underlie the anger have to be addressed. If the socio-political context remains obdurate or worsens as has happened, the anger of hope can give way to the anger of despair where a sense of hopelessness and impotence prevails. It is likely then that more youth will find a home for this angry despair in fundamentalist ideology that confers meaning and worth, describes an alternate socio-moral order and promises redemption in violent acts of ‘macabre idealism’, as mentioned by Shah Faesal, where hope is yoked to death not to life. Also the anger of despair may congeal into hatred of that which has made them so abject. Hatred offers little scope for constructive action being an emotion that sees the adversary as evil by nature and needing to be destroyed.

The prospect of more suffering and more violence loom large.
Shobna Sonpar, PhD is clinical psychologist and psychotherapist who has worked in Kashmir as a practitioner and researcher since 2000.