Saturday, July 14, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

A valley stripped of dreams

The ethereal beauty of the valley's landscapes, its tranquil ambience and its glorious legacy stand plundered at the hands of separatists who, in these 11 years of insurrection in the valley, have not given it anything expect an ever-growing number of graveyards, an alarming rise in the number of people suffering from depressive disorders and a terribly shattered economy that will take ages to revive, observes Aditi Tandon

RAFIQA Ali (59) lives in a silent corner of Srinagar. She has pain and desperation writ large over her wrinkled face. She has not been able to handle life ever since her only son Shauqat became a victim of secessionist movement in the valley in 1999. He was just one of the many civilians caught in a crossfire between Mujahideens and Army jawans. On that fateful day, he had left home with a promise to return. Shauqat never came. His body did.


Now his shattered mother passes her days cursing him for having broken a sacred promise. An independent Kashmir means nothing to her. Nor does she know what has warranted the high number of deaths and destruction in the valley. She has heard of Pakistan and of the Mujahideens fighting a jehad to part from India and merge with Pakistan. But she does not know who Gen Pervez Musharraf or Abdul Ghani Lone are. Her concern, like that of many others, begins and ends at the question of survival: "Shauqat has gone. Who will marry off Jawahera, Tahira and Shehnaz? My fields are lying barren. There is no man left in the family to cultivate them. I don't have food to eat. My brother is sustaining me, but for how long will his good humour last?"

Stripped of its 700-year-old heritage, Kashmir is today a forlorn state, marked by hopelessness and strife. Though sunlight still illuminates the valley of dreams and gentle winds still swirl around, the bounties of nature are not oblivious of Kashmir's suffering. The ethereal beauty of the valley's landscapes, its tranquil ambience and its glorious legacy stands plundered at the hands of separatists who, in these 11 years of insurrection in the valley, have not given it anything expect an ever-growing number of graveyards, an alarming rise in the number of people suffering from depressive disorders and a shattered economy that will take ages to revive.

The scale of deaths in the valley has been such that there has sometimes been paucity of space to bury the dead. No wonder every small locality of Srinagar, Ganderbal, Baramulla, Anantnag and other districts of the valley now has a graveyard to accommodate the dead who belong to the respective area. Srinagar alone has about 300 graveyards, a sad reminder of the continuing turmoil in the valley. Militancy is having an impact on the psyche of the people of Kashmir. Kashmiris, a community known for its friendliness, generosity and tolerance, are increasingly becoming immune to suffering, confirm sociologists. This in turn is making them insensitive, self-centred and indifferent. This mental, moral and social drain traces its roots to violence, a word now synonymous with the valley. Forcible parting from loved ones has also driven an average Kashmiri almost insane.

Till about 1997, Masood Ali (19), like any other boy of his age, had big dreams of living a life filled with happiness and contentment. But how could he not get scorched by the violent fires that raged in the valley? His father, a resident of Shankarpora, was killed by the militants. Ever since, Masood has not smiled. Says his mother Naznin, "He just sits by his father's grave all day long and cries." Masood stopped attending college after death's shadow eclipsed his home. Even today he does not behave or talk normally.

Victims of militancy : Mentally challenged patients in the Psychiatric Diseases Hospital in Srinagar
Victims of militancy : Mentally challenged patients in the Psychiatric Diseases Hospital in Srinagar (Photos by Amin War)

Masood's is not an isolated case. Many youths and elders in the valley are bearing the brunt of armed conflict for the so-called independence of Kashmir. There has been an alarming rise in the number of cases of depression in the valley over the past six years of turmoil. With little or no employment and lives being continuously lost, loss of mental health is only natural.

Abdul Ghani Shah (60) was brought to the Psychiatric Diseases Hospital of Srinagar in a "state of utter shock" on July 29. His son, who had been wounded in a grenade attack in the Lal Chowk area some time ago, passed away in the General Hospital on July 23. Iftikhar Shah, who brought Abdul to the hospital, said: "He cannot tolerate human presence around himself. He keeps experiencing hallucinations and fears that even his younger son Shamim might be sacrificed at the altar of azaadi." A team of doctors in the OPD was diagnosing Abdul when we last saw him.

Abdul, however, might not have been admitted to the hospital, for there is room only for 100 patients and there’s just one ambulance for transportation. The building of this hospital was gutted in a major fire a few years ago and the same has not been restored till date. One OPD section, one ward (with 25 beds) and the X-ray section had got damaged in the fire. The Medical Superintendent, Dr Amin Ahmad Sufi, informed that State Minister for Health and Education Mian Altaf had promised to begin restoration work at the earliest.

Currently, each doctor in the hospital examines at least 500 "depressed patients" daily. Informed Dr G.A. Wani (MD), "Militancy has ruined the life of an average Kashmiri, who does not really know what this war is all about. During pre-militancy days, I used to attend 50 patients in the OPD daily. Today the number is over 500. Ideally, I should not be spending more than 15 minutes with a patient at a stretch. But now the rush is such that we cannot help attending patients for about seven hours at a stretch. The patients we get here comprise just 5 per cent of the actual suffering population."

Begum Shafi, a resident of Kashmir, suffers from anxiety, depression and irritable behaviour. Her son Abdullah also has psychotic problems and has taken to drugs. Begum lost three members of her family, including two daughters, in 1996 during cross-firing along the national highway. Today, she lives on medicines and finds it extremely difficult to cope with family pressure. Informed the doctor attending her, "Women being the balancing factors in a family, are under constant stress. They remain in the grip of fear until their men return home at night. The youth has also been largely affected."

This valley, where alcohol and drugs were once considered baneful, is now watching its youth fall prey to the same. The drugs that are commonly consumed include cannabis, brown sugar and heroin. There are about 16 takias (selling places) of cannabis in Srinagar. Remarked Dr Wani, "Diazepam, pentazosine, spasmoproxyvon and other cough syrups are also in frequent use. With the rate of unemployment touching almost 100 per cent, the youth find it hard to lend meaning to their existence as also to face reality. So they take to tranquillisers like saridon, disprin, larpose and sintamil." According to doctors, the cases of multiple drug dependency far outnumber the cases of single drug dependency. Said Dr Wani,"The incidence of drug addiction is high in the Dal Lake area. Since tourism has been adversely affected, the shikara and houseboat owners are increasingly taking to drugs in the absence of any other creative engagement."

Bashir Ahmad Bhat, publicity secretary with the All Jammu and Kashmir Shikara Owners Union, admitted to succumbing to the fatal trend. Tourism is undoubtedly the worst casualty of militancy, followed by education. Today 2000 houseboats and 2500 shikaras in the Dal Lake area keep waiting in line for tourists, who have been evading the valley for long. The year 1988 saw a record seven lakh Indians and 67,000 foreign tourists visit the valley. Ever since the Al Faran militant outfit killed a Norwegian tourist some years ago, the tourism curve has taken a dip.

Bashir Ahmad, a shikara owner at the Dal Lake, hardly gets three visitors a day. "I have a family of seven to sustain and I earn a maximum of Rs 80 per day. I have to now work as a daily wage-earner also." Similar is the case with Abdul Gaffar Khan, who owns Taj Palace, a C-class houseboat, in the lake area. His wife, who cooked for tourists, now remains free all day. Many houseboat owners have reduced the boarding and lodging charges to attract tourists, but to no avail. Today Mohammad Sultan Khan's Ajanta Palace, Ali Mohd Gagru's Humayun Palace and Mohammad Shafi's Taj Mahal — like hundreds of other houseboats — lie desolate. So grim is the state of business in the Dal Lake area that about 90 per cent of the houseboat owners have had to sell off their precious belongings to sustain themselves through these years of turmoil.

Ghulam Nabi Rata, who owns a houseboat called Holiday Inn, has had to sell off his TV, VCR, and the beautiful Persian carpets, which once adorned his houseboat. "What can one do? We had never imagined this was the kind of price we would have to pay for autonomy," he said.

The state of education is no better. With the security forces still camping in many schools and the buildings of the remaining schools being damaged, children face a bleak future. The overall literacy rate of Kashmir which was 26 per cent (against the national average of 52 per cent) before militancy has now further declined. Said Mushir-ul-Haq, a teacher in a government school, "Education has gone back by 30 years. The schools have been closed for months together on account of tension in the valley. Now the children have lost interest in studies. They play odd games: one group poses as the police and the other as the terrorists. Name a weapon and they know about it."

Child psychologists point out that children will be the worst affected in the long run.

There are about 20,000 widows in the valley and most of them have small children, who see their mothers reel under the impact of militancy day in and day out. With bloodshed all around them, the children are obviously finding it difficult to adjust to the fast altering social scenario, which is marked by incomplete families.

The families of militants — who died in encounters with the security forces — have also not remained unscathed by the violence in the valley. Shamima (32) lives in Mochua with her 9-year-old son Adil, who has never seen his father Fayyaz Ilahi. Fayyaz, district commander of the Al Jehad, was killed in an encounter in 1992. Now Shamima has to support her father-in-law, who cannot walk properly on account of bullet injuries in his left left leg. After the death of Fayaaz, no jehadi from the Al Jehad ever returned to see if his family was alive or dead. Said Shamima, "I never wanted Fayaaz to get into this mess. I knew our fate could not have been better."

There are tragedies galore in the valley. And having lived them, Kashmiris now know what the joy of breathing in free air is. Autonomy or no autonomy, Pakistan or no Pakistan, India or no India, they have alienated themselves from political questions. All they want is the freedom to walk along the side of the Dal Lake without fear and the restoration of their lost identity. Hopeful they still are. If only the proxy war in the valley would come to an end.


"They would feel the coming of a new day

Darkness giving way to light a new way

They would stop for a while until the world,

The world calls them away

For they still have the feeling

Standing with their senses reeling

That this is the place to grow old till

they reach their final day."