Mumbai: When violence, discrimination and humiliation are ongoing, their impact cannot be fully understood just through established clinical terms like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trauma responses are also ongoing and cyclic and need a newer lens and approach to redefine the meanings of mental health, selfhood, resilience, and survival, says social activist and researcher Hasina Khan, in recent research co-authored along with Sudeeti G.M and Umara Zainab. In a new study published by her organisation ‘Bebaak Collective’, the researchers have interviewed Muslims from different classes and castes, with differing levels of education, across different states to examine the impact a communally charged environment has on the lives and mental health of the community.
The study, touted as one of its kind, was meticulously carried out over a period of six months starting in February this year. Thematically, the report covers the social, emotional and financial burden that the Muslim community has had to face in the country due to the dramatic rise in communal polarisation and hate crimes over the past few years. “We kept the circle wide and spoke to activists who have been imprisoned, friends of activists, families of men who have been lynched, therapists who treat Muslim patients, families of riot victims, and several family members of imprisoned men, among others,” the research methodology states.
Insisting that there is a dire need to redefine the meanings of mental health, selfhood, resilience, and survival among Muslims in India, the researchers extensively quote Dr Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Jabr says using available/western categories of mental illness and the clinical definitions of post-traumatic stress disorder do not apply to the experiences of Palestinians.
“PTSD better describes the experiences of an American soldier who goes to Iraq to bomb and goes back to the safety of the United States. He’s having nightmares and fears related to the battlefield and his fears are imaginary. Whereas for a Palestinian in Gaza whose home was bombarded, the threat of having another bombardment is a very real one. It’s not imaginary. There is no ‘post’ because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous.”
Among the many causes of trauma, the Bebaak Collective’s report starts with a close look at the violence inflicted “by the law”. The role of the law in systematically isolating and alienating Indian Muslims can be seen in its emboldening of both the Hindu majoritarian imagination and its grassroots efforts, the report says. Laws are introduced with the intention to reinforce the idea that “Muslims pose a national and existential threat to the majoritarian conception of India as a ‘Hindu’ nation”, it observes.
In recent years, more particularly, in the wake of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and two other imminent countrywide exercises, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was used indiscriminately against the community leaders, activists and even journalists belonging to the Muslim community. “Mujhe raat mein neend nahi aati. Court website hi dekhta rehta hoon poori raat. (I am not able to sleep at night. I just keep checking the court’s website),” says young Bilal, whose brother was allegedly falsely implicated in a case after the February 2020 pogrom in Delhi.
Tayyaba, an activist from Shaheen Bagh, told the researchers, “If the father or the brother in the family is vocal and politically active, the rest of the family is affected when there is a backlash from the state. If the main male member of the family is arrested, there is a huge feeling of isolation and crisis as a protective presence is lost.” She recollected that she had to go to the police station alone when her husband was arrested, and no one stood by her at that moment.
The continuous nature of trauma, the researchers say, often changes the victims’ everyday lives and interactions, reproducing its effects in how they interact with the world, primarily through their religious identity and their decisions about where and how they choose to travel, whom they sit down with, and how much and with whom they speak. In the case of the women, who were collected from different houses and locked away in one place during the riot in Khamaria, Madhya Pradesh this vigilance takes the form of closing themselves off and restricting where they travel, while still grappling with the pressing concerns of money and caring for their children and relatives.
Similarly, the loss of opportunities due to a riot not only limits the economic prospects of families but also changes people’s aspirations, dreams, and hopes for social mobility, the report finds. In one of the interviews, 22-year-old Bilal in Delhi says he had planned to pursue a career in medicine in Delhi, but due to the pogrom, he had to miss his class 12 board exams. He is 22 years old now and trying to finish school while also planning to pursue a computer course to support his family.
Many interviewed in Karnataka after the government imposed a ban on students wearing the hijab shared the painful experience of losing friends and support in the neighbourhood. “People talk about the disappointment with friends, losing relationships, and not even having the space to grieve that relationship because the people that they had to end relationships with are avid hate mongers. I have also lost so many friends because of this,” shares Shamima Asghar, a mental health practitioner based in Bangalore who works with communities that face discrimination.
She argued that “mental health in its clinical practice can be extremely individualistic”. She points out that mental health practice, as a way of dealing with trauma and suffering, does not investigate the root of violence but instead aims to mitigate its ill effects on those impacted by it. “It is a way of saying that the violence you endure will remain; you simply need to learn to live with it,” she says.
The loss of community, the study says, severely affects one’s sense of confidence and surety about navigating a difficult situation in legal cases or simply rebuilding one’s life after a violent incident. “An all-pervading sense of being made to feel powerless in front of a fascist state and hateful ideology, which has forced several Muslim victims of communal violence to change how they live their lives, is the most important point that has emerged from our work,” the report concludes.