When Zehra Mehdi first talked to Naseem Ahmed*, a boy hailing from a small city in north India’s Uttar Pradesh, she couldn’t believe what the little lad had been going through. Mehdi, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, who has been holding pro bono counselling sessions for people suffering from anxiety during the ongoing lockdown in India, had to immediately talk to his mother instead.
“He was tied to a bed by his own mother who feared her son would be killed by some mob,” Mehdi said.
In India, the proliferation of cases the novel coronavirus have been largely blamed on Muslims and Naseem’s mother had seen footage of some young members of the community being beaten by a mob for ‘spreading’ the virus.
“She had gone crazy fearing for her son’s safety. She cried a lot and it took some time to make her understand that tying him was not the solution to her fears.”
Naseem’s case is one amongst dozens of cases that Mehdi has encountered since the last month which are directly related to anxiety caused by Islamophobia. “In this lockdown, you would expect a lot of people getting stressed because of being isolated socially but every second case of anxiety I have been receiving is somehow related to Islamophobia,” Mehdi said.
Last month, as the world’s biggest lockdown began in India, authorities linked hundreds of cases of the deadly coronavirus to members of the Tablighi Jamat – a Muslim missionary group that held a large congregation in the national capital in early March. This led to a renewed wave of hatred and anger against Muslims in a country where the fault lines between the Muslim minority and Hindu majority are already widening.
Muslims have been targeted in a spree of attacks across the country as narratives against the community are being spread by constant misinformation on social media platforms.
“There is vilification of Muslims as if they have deliberately spread this virus across the country,” said Sabah Siddiqui, a psychotherapist and an Assistant Professor at FLAME University in Pune, who is also holding pro-bono counselling sessions during the pandemic. “It is affecting their mental health, their way of thinking and perceiving things. There is anxiety as to what the world is going to meet us as?”
Siddiqui says there has been a substantial spike in the number of clients seeking counselling sessions for stress-related to Islamophobia during the pandemic.
A large section of those who have sought counselling from both Mehdi and Siddiqui are students who participated in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in the country. The controversial Act which was enacted by the government of India on December 12 last year saw students from various universities, particularly from Muslim minority educational institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, protest against the law for being discriminatory on the basis of religion.
The protests then spread across the country. The act which fast tracks the Indian citizenship only for non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – also led to clashes between groups opposing and supporting the legislation, eventually escalating into a full-blown communal riot in the national capital resulting in the loss of over 50 lives.
“Owing to the lockdown, many of these students returned to their native places after riots in Delhi for the first time, ” said Mehdi who is also a research scholar at Columbia University. “So, apart from the lockdown anxiety and fear of academic uncertainty, they are worried about how people in their neighbourhood would react and what their opinions about them would be. They are concerned that if anything goes wrong during the lockdown in their localities it would be them who would be blamed.”
A boy hailing from the central Indian state of Bihar, who consulted Mehdi for a psychotherapeutic session was perturbed because some of his childhood Hindu friends who had earlier supported the anti-CAA protests were now sharing hateful messages and posts on social media after the Tablighi Jamat incident. “He was ready to fight against anyone but not his own friends. This had mentally drained him,” said Mehdi. “Things can turn really ugly in your head,” she added.
The anxiety has even led some members of the Muslim community to attempt to end their own lives. Dilshad Muhamud, a Muslim man from the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh died by suicide. Even though he had tested negative for the coronavirus he faced a social boycott from his neighbours for his alleged links to the Tablighi Jamaat.
“There is barely any escape route. We can’t complain, not to our parents because they are as mentally stressed as us; not to our friends for some of them are suspicious of us. We have to bear all this alone, ” said Sikander Ahmed*, a Muslim student studying at a premier university in New Delhi.
However, it is not only Muslims who are stressed because of rampant Islamophobia during the lockdown. “I get emails and calls from non-Muslims as well, who complain that rising Islamophobia and increasing attacks on Muslims is giving them anxiety. These people, mostly members of the youth, are actually annoyed with their families for their capacity of hatred towards Muslims. They fight and have heated arguments with their parents and relatives who support discrimination against the Muslim community,” said Mehdi.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in Delhi and Jyoti Thakur is currently studying journalism honours at Kalindi College, University of Delhi.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also appear them to the nearest hospital.