I am a medical doctor, with some training in psychiatry. I have also specialised as a public health worker. Considering all I understand about these subjects, I am concerned with the way psychiatry approaches social problems, by individualising and medicalising them. I have, therefore, been critical of the global mental health care movement that medicalises social and economic, and therefore, political problems.
So I was struck that this report titled Social Suffering in a World Without Support, published by Bebaak Collective, which was long overdue, takes a uniquely social and political perspective.
In the Western psychiatric idiom, the diagnosis most often used is of PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. This may be relevant to American soldiers coming and killing people in various countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and then going back to safety, to confront the horrors they saw and inflicted on the people. But is it relevant to what Palestinians suffer on a daily basis? There is nothing individual about it: an entire community suffers. This is indeed the situation of the vast majority of Indian Muslims, whose ‘Indianness’ is being questioned even as they are subjected to state and non-state violence, with terrifying utter impunity.
Using the concept of social suffering, which is difficult to define, but can be articulated in several ways, this study seeks to understand what is happening to Muslims in India as the Hindutva agenda of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra, mirroring the Muslim state in Pakistan, has flowered since 2014. This has taken several forms: legal efforts through laws such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens, etc. that disproportionately target Muslims, and for the first time, unconstitutionally inject religion into Indian citizenship.
Other laws such as those on the slaughtering of bovines, the anti-conversion and the ‘love jihad’ laws target minorities, especially Muslims. This has contributed to the emergence of the so-called cow vigilantes, in cahoots with various Hindutva outfits, who kill people with impunity.
There have been open calls for genocide of Muslims, while the police and the courts have remained silent. In Karnataka, which was under the the Bharatiya Janata Party until May 13, laws against wearing the hijab were passed. These laws severely affected Muslim women’s access to education. Separately, there have been calls to boycott all Muslim vendors of fruits and vegetables in India.
This report looks at what this daily hatred, fear and anxiety means to Muslims in India. This must have been a very difficult area to obtain interviews, since people are scared to talk. Indeed, many Hindus in India are scared to say anything even remotely critical of the current government. This report is based on interviews conducted in five states, namely Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat over a period of six months. It’s not clear how many interviews were conducted for the study.
However, the evidence is chilling. In UP and MP, the people interviewed were in shock and grieving as they had witnessed cases of physical violence, bullet injuries, lynching and the destruction of homes and properties by the state. They feel a sense of hopelessness and above all, betrayal by the Indian nation.
Their relationships with the majority community is in shreds. Moreover, they cannot believe this could have happened to them. The police further victimises them should they muster up the courage to lodge a complaint against violence by Hindutva outfits.
They struggle to find some semblance of the lives they lived. Added to that, the cost of medical care for those injured, the cost of restarting their shops which were burned down, the costs of litigation for those arrested on false charges, means that they are out of resources for survival. Their children’s education suffers, as families feel too insecure to send their children to school, especially their daughters.
Their lives change in myriad ways: some refuse to go out of their Muslim ghettos, affecting their employment chances; others are too scared to use public transportation or even public health systems.
They live with anxiety, sleeplessness; they live in a constant fear of sudden sounds; and many suffer with psychosomatic illnesses that they self-treat. During the interview, a man said, “It has become a habit of mine to keep taking pills meant for kidney stones.” They do not trust anyone, leave alone state authorities. They do not know how to negotiate with the police system and the justice system that has prejudged them as guilty.
A woman whose home was bulldozed said, “We are reminded on a daily basis that our voice and existence are illegal; there is no one to go to for help. I don’t have words to express myself; I’m not able to talk.”
A family from Madhya Pradesh, whose son was targeted by Bajrang Dal goons, said, “Our daughter-in-law was forced to run without her saree. We went on a motorcycle to the police station where they beat us again. The police did not listen to us, and they did not file our report.”
Yes, there is an occasional person who died by suicide, there is also an occasional person who dies of a heart attack after learning that his son has been killed. But the vast majority of the people from the Muslim community are being brought down to nothingness that mental health professionals do not recognise.
I have, however, one major issue with the report. It is not just Muslims whose lives are traumatised, shortened, brutalised and filled with fear and anxiety, the same occurs among Hindus as well. They do not face brutality, nor are they threatened for their lives, but their lives, too, are restricted in imagination, in comfort and togetherness. Their souls are shrivelled, for they too act out of fear, a potent political weapon.
They miss out on the richness of Muslim culture and history, and get trapped in their own xenophobic ghettos. I am convinced that this strengthens patriarchy and the control of women’s lives among Hindus.
The report is based on both primary data and secondary literature. This should be read by all concerned citizens, but above all by doctors in the health system and not just psychiatrists. Medical students would benefit enormously from reading it. They appear to have been deprived of the knowledge of the lives of Muslims and Dalits.
Mohan Rao was formerly a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, New Delhi.