Dip in violence, but rise in suicides
High levels of stress among youth, the after-effects of insurgency-related trauma and social problems like acute joblessness and failed relationships have set suicide rates soaring in the state, despite the low levels of militancy violence. Neelesh Misra and Rashid Ahmad report.Spl: Kashmir moves onindia Updated: Jul 21, 2008 22:58 IST
In small roadside shops across Kashmir, anti-depressants and sedatives are flying off the shelves, an ironic milestone when many thought twenty sleepless years were over.
And just when the bullets were dying down, an alarmingly high number of people are killing themselves – or wanting to. Jammu and Kashmir is witnessing an alarming rise in suicides despite the easing of violence.
Tariq Ahmad Lone was in such a hurry that he tried to kill himself on a road.
On an April day this year, the 26-year-old electrician was summoned, yet again, to the local army base in Hyderbagh from his Behrampora village, accused of helping militants in a gunbattle that left an army colonel dead. Right outside the army base, he suddenly took out a poisonous substance from his pocket and swallowed it.
"I screamed for help, some passers-by arranged a vehicle and I rushed him to hospital in (nearby) Pattan from where doctors referred him to Srinagar,” said his wife Firdousa Akhtar, who was with him at the time. Lone survived.
"I was so terrified. I was called to the army camp earlier on six occasions, tortured and beaten up ruthlessly for days together. When they called me again on April 3, I thought it was better to end my life,” Lone, lean and with a thick beard, told the Hindustan Times.
"Death is better than his humiliating life,” he said, holding his little daughter as he sat with his wife on a long stack of rocks outside his door that doubles as a staircase.
Army officials have repeatedly denied the allegations of torture.
Across the Kashmir Valley, many others who killed themselves, or tried to, didn’t even need a militancy-related provocation. Mental disorders have resulted in intolerance, and people are now reacting even to minor things, experts say..
A lawyer's daughter in Srinagar took an overdose of sedative pills after she was scolded by her mother for watching too much television. Another woman killed herself with pesticide; she wanted to visit her parents but the husband asked her to delay the trip by a day as a death had occurred in their neighbourhood.
A dejected lover stabbed his beloved to death in Srinagar on July 10 and later attempted to kill himself by slitting his throat. He is battling for his life in a hospital. And reports come in frequently about people jumping into the River Jehlum or swallowing pesticides in one or the other part of the Kashmir Valley.
Suicide is taboo in Islam, and Kashmir had the lowest suicide rate in the country during the 1980s, according to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS).
But some 17,000 people attempted to kill themselves since 1995 – most in recent years – and some 3,000 died, according to government records.
The alarming new spurt began in 2006, when national crime data revealed a 160 per cent jump in the number of suicides in Jammu and Kashmir over the previous year.
Some 1,700 patients visited the Psychiatric Hospital in Srinagar alone in 1995. The number surged to 20,000 in year 2004, 62,000 in 2006 and 100,000 last year.
Ironically, the past few years also witnessed sharply reduced levels of violence – but experts say there is no direct link between the two.
“If suicides were directly related to levels of violence, then they would have started in 1990 – but they began in 1995, and now psychiatric disorders are alarmingly high,” leading psychiatrist Dr. Mushtaq Margoob told HT.
“Trauma passes on through generations, we have seen it around the world. It has a cumulative effect,” Margoob said. “If the seeds were grown then in the minds of children, they are bearing crop now.”
Back in Behrampora, Lone’s trauma began after a fierce encounter between soldiers and militants in the village in December 2006. The three-day gunbattle killed Colonel G S Sarna, two Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militants and a civilian. More than 20 residential houses and other structures were also gutted in the clash.
Lone says he has since been harassed by security forces because Col Sarna fell to the bullets in the backyard of his house.
"Since then army regularly visited our house, they said we were supporters of militants," he said.
Lone’s younger brother Javaid Ahmad Lone is already in jail. Eighteen-year-old Tariq was picked up from a computer institute in Pattan, where he was doing a course in
Tariq Lone, meanwhile, is switching careers.
"Since my job of an electrician is not full-time, I have turned now to carpet
weaving," he said. He said he makes about Rs.1500 per month to support his wife, daughter and parents. The parents also seem to be victims of the post traumatic stress disorder sweeping across the valley, as it often does in conflict zones.
“My father and mother do not sleep. They are ill. They have gone to Srinagar today to see a doctor,” Lone said, holding back tears. “We had to borrow Rs.200 from a relative to send them to the doctor," his wife Firdousa intervenes.
“It has reached an epidemic level – this use of antidepressants and sleep medicines. People cannot sleep and they won’t share their pain with even their family members,” said Margoob.
Meanwhile, Lone has bigger challenges to deal with.
"An army officer visited our house today as well. I was not at my house then. He left a message with my wife to call him on the phone, or I would be in trouble," Lone said. "If life comes this way, it is better to end it.”