Kashmiri students attend a class in Srinagar as schools open after over six months. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Uzair Mir was standing at the door frightened his hair slightly wet from the drizzle when he couldn’t feel his feet or the floor beneath it. His next-door neighbour, a 19-year-old girl, had hung herself with a scarf from an iron hook on the ceiling to death in a rented accommodation in Chundina village, Ganderbal, central Kashmir. Mr. Mir gulps several times and fights back tears, and says, “Her stomach and neck had swollen. I couldn’t bear to see it.”

Few hours back, at 12:15 pm, Soufora Yousuf was sitting for her fifth semester’s Railways Tunnel and Bridge examination of Civil Engineering plugged-in earphones and on call. The female invigilator at her Government Polytechnic College in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal, walked up to her, enquiring why is she whispering? “It’s raining outside,” she had replied — looking outside through the broken window panes of the hall. Asking for pardon, the invigilator asked again. “It’s raining,” she had repeated. But the invigilator had noticed her earphones, hidden underneath her headscarf.

Masrat Mehraj, the 34-year-old superintendent of examination stationed outside the hall, knew her job. “What would have been the sanctity of the examination, if I had not taken any action?” Ms. Mehraj told me.

Outside the class, in an over-exposed corridor, Ms. Yousuf — as Ms. Mehraj recalls — didn’t resist at all. “She handed over the phone and unlocked when I asked her to,” says Ms. Mehraj, “the call was on-going.”

As the events unfolded quickly outside the examination hall Ms. Mehraj started scrolling the student’s call history and Ms. Yousuf ran away. “[While leaving the hall at 1 pm] one of her classmates told me that she has depression,” says Ms. Mehraj.

After leaving from the examination hall, Ms. Yousuf had hung herself – and Mr. Mir was looking at her body in shock. Next morning, on 29 February — the leap day — he had to sit for his third semester examination.

Hours later, the frightened Mr. Mir was running towards his college; with the news of her death, which he didn’t know how to say.  “She could have cleared the backlog; why did she mess up with her life?” wonders Mr. Mir, in a breaking voice. “I’m depressed by her loss. She was living right behind me and now she isn’t: I’m afraid.”

A mental health survey by Meds Sans Frontiers in 2015 claims that 45 percent of Kashmir’s adult population have significant symptoms of mental distress — about 13 percent of respondents in the survey were essentially students. And nearly one in every five adults is living with significant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But these numbers are feared to have spiked after the August lockdown, when the Central government scrapped the region’s special status and imposed communication blackout.

At University of Kashmir, Dr. Surrayah Qadeem, who has an expertise in General Medicine and Psychiatry, saw an explosive rise in the inflow of students with mental health problems after August 2019. For instance, instead of two students, Dr. Qadeem claims of hosting eight to ten students after the reopening of the university.

Living through a lockdown 

Last August’s lockdown had a similar impact on Khaleel Firdous Shah, 21. “At the end of the day, I’m falling in a deep pit and there is nobody to help me.”

Coming from a joint-family in Sopore town, north Kashmir, Mr. Shah never had a say in his choices. But after high-school, he was not going to abide by elders’ words; he fought his way to the law department of University of Kashmir (KU) in 2018.

However, the new realities struck him harder. KU won’t allot him an in-campus accommodation and he landed in one of his relative’s place in Srinagar. “I would miss home: Sopore.”

He is nothing like his Instagram username LadWhoTalksALot. “I’ve grown silent over the years,” he says. “[The] University and Srinagar changed me. Here, I need to adjust the way I sit and walk.”

A thing Mr. Shah learnt from his life? “Problems don’t find me. I look for them.”

In her experience of five years at KU, Dr. Qadeem has found homesickness as one of the major causes of distress among newcomers. “Students in the universities are at apex of their health, so we don’t get diabetes or cancer cases,” she says. “It is the issues they have in adjusting to a new life. Majority of them are away from home for the first time and are facing such pressure.”

The mental health issues that we can see among students are merely the tip of an iceberg. If we evaluate, it will be a lot — we’ll submerge.

She has seen it snowballing in the upcoming semesters. “Soon, they are disappointed with teachers, syllabus, food, and accommodation,” says Dr. Qadeem. “The prevailing circumstances add up to it and I’m witness to students turning suicidal.”

In 2018, after fracturing his left leg in a car accident, Mr. Shah was hospitalised for the next three months until his examinations in March 2019 – for which he didn’t attend lectures. He failed in two papers out of six. “I was among leftover people,” says Mr. Shah. When he would reach out to his classmates, they would throw solutions at his face — “but no one would listen to me.” 

He would force himself to focus on his studies; the schedule for his back-paper was out on 5 August 2019. He scrolled social media while turning the pages of his Indian Penal Code textbook. By midnight, the authorities snapped all lines of communication.

“I panicked because I thought someone might bomb us,” says Mr. Shah. “I thought I would never clear my IPC back-paper.”

Students like him, affected by the political situation or their personal issues, are either less aware or find no professional help to balance their mental health barometer. Over a dozen students that I spoke to at the KU refused to be aware about the presence of Dr. Qadeem inside the campus [because she is posted as a General Physician]. Hence, Dr. Qadeem says, “The mental health issues that we can see among students are merely the tip of an iceberg. If we evaluate, it will be a lot — we’ll submerge.”

A drastic, and aggressive, spillover 

Circumstances for 20-year-old Sana Latif have been the same as Mr. Shah. When she was cut-off from her friends and teachers, “I was stressed because of helplessness.” She envies students outside Kashmir “who don’t have to go through these things.”

She would reach out to her mother and confess that she is afraid. Her mother, Saba Latif, saw her attitude changing in the clampdown, too. “She would cry and worry about her future,” says the mother, Ms. Saba. “But we have left everything to Allah.”

When the regional economy lost thousands of crores and jobs, Ms. Latif didn’t understand what she would do with her education. Her mother would explain that it is the light of the eye — but what about the future? “We don’t have any future for them,” says the mother. “The future is blank.”

As per the Economic Survey Report of 2016, the employment rate in Jammu and Kashmir is higher than the average national employment rate. Nearly a quarter of its population in the age group of 18 to 29 years is unemployed, which is far more than the national rate of 13.2 per cent.

In the Meds Sans Frontiers’ Survey, 31 per cent of adults identified unemployment as a weighted proportion of daily-life problems; 10 per cent called out the lack of job security.

The lack of clarity regarding her future makes Ms. Latif  more anxious. She isn’t sure what she would do after completing the degree.

Unlike her, Adnan Wani, who is pursuing a masters in English literature at KU, often finds things ironic. In November 2019, he was studying Shakespeare’s sonnet shall I compare thee to a summer’s day when the class of about fifty students heard a loud bang!

A grenade attack by suspected militants had halted the class for not more than ten seconds. “And the professor started again,” recalls Mr. Wani. I didn’t ask what he remembers from that class. “I feared if there would be a cordon outside. After the class, I called home [in Lal Bazaar, Srinagar] and asked if everyone at home was okay.”

All he could think throughout the class was — “what if one of my classmates were bunking the lecture?” “What if my father was coming to pick me?”

He says he wants to run away and doesn’t want to live in Kashmir. A few minutes later, he asked me if I would have been at his place, would I run? “This is the reality. For how long can you run? This is a part of us.”

However, higher education has always been traumatic for Mr. Wani. He remembers multiple instances from his bachelor days at Amar Singh College, Srinagar. In 2018, one of his not-so-close friends from Pulwama, south Kashmir, was shot dead in protests near a gunfight site. He wonders how I can think that he won’t notice the empty table of his friend. “My teacher was faking, so was I and everyone else,” says Mr. Wani of when the classwork resumed.

Mental health pressure has to happen given the circumstances. But it is common sense that if one puts a lot of pressure on a child; he will find a way to disobey.

Shahid Rasool, who is a Director of Educational Multimedia Research Centre and Media Advisor at KU, is aware that students are dealing with mental health pressure. “It has to happen given the circumstances,” he says. “But it is common sense that if one puts a lot of pressure on a child; he will find a way to disobey.”

Multiple dignitaries — unwilling to come on record — and various students say that since the educational institutes were re-opened after August lockdown, the administration is intimidating students. It is refuting “any means of protests,” irrespective of its nature.

These moves, which block the venting modes, subsequently put more pressure on students and affect their intellectual productivity. Dr. Qadeem nods to it too.

“There is a big chunk of students who are depressed,” says Dr. Qadeem. “They are frustrated with the situation; with the job market, with the university; and with the future. And we put them in a situation where they need to adjust. In this case, this university will not produce intellectuals or scientists.”

If it had been a one-time thing, Mr. Wani would have considered consulting a psychologist. “But it is concurrent,” says Mr. Wani. “There is no cure to this. Is there?”

Last year, he was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) — characterized by persistent and excessive worry about multiple things.

A cup of tea comes. As he continues, recalling and narrating numerous experiences, his hands tremble and voice shakes. The eyes are stagnant, though. “All of this should stop for a minute,” he insists, “just for a minute.”

Dr. Qadeem is afraid of the spillover impact of the shutdown and suppression, though. “From the past experience, especially 2016 shutdown, I can say there will be a saturation point,” she says. “And the spillover would be drastic — and aggressive.”

Is this a hopeless case for students then? Dr. Qadeem agrees, partly. “Unless the conflict goes away permanently, the case is hopeless,” she says.

“Living in Kashmir is a struggle,” says Mr. Wani. “The end of this struggle is death.” 

Where does one go for help?

Back in Ganderbal, on the morning of 29 February the next day after Ms. Yousuf committed suicide — Mr. Mir couldn’t think of reaching out to the college administration, saying: “I didn’t study and I won’t be able to appear in the examination. Or with any other mental health problem either.”

The examination hall of Government Polytechnic College in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal. Photograph by Yashraj Sharma

It is for two reasons. First, he thinks the administration will not understand. Second, owing to uncertainty in Kashmir, he doesn’t want to drag the examination to next year.

That morning, Mr. Mir sat for the exam. He is uncertain if he would pass it.

En route to Ms. Yousuf’s home in Aragam village of Bandipora, north Kashmir, the passenger bus makes several stops for checking at the hands of army and de-boards the passengers. The network fluctuates and the temperature dips. The topic of discussion in the bus is Ms. Yousuf’s suicide. A few eulogise. Fewer acknowledge it as a mental health problem.

A twelfth standard boy, a native of Aragam, remembers Ms. Yousuf as a motivated and passionate young girl, whose life was taken by a djin.

The village is situated in the lap of snow-covered mountains. A few metres away from the bus-stop, her family lives in a single-storey house. Half of the rooms in the house have paint, others remain cemented.

The white-beard of Ms. Yousuf’s father, Mohammad Yousuf Najar, a 50-year-old carpenter, is uncombed. He doesn’t seem to care about his torn pheran either. “She was really fond of studies,” recalls Mr. Najar. “She had dreams of earning a job and standing on her feet.”

Ms. Yousuf’s cousins share a smile a few laughs — scrolling her old texts. “See, the last text she wrote to my cousin: ‘I’m sad today,’” says Ms. Yousuf’s elder sister. The text was before she sat for her examination.

Back at the college, Ms. Mehraj, the examination superintendent, claimed that she didn’t threaten Ms. Yousuf of calling her parents. “[However] when she [Ms. Yousuf] ran away with her phone, unlocked, in my hands,” says Ms. Mehraj, “I was helpless and called her parents. I couldn’t have kept her phone. I called to say, ‘come tomorrow and take her phone.’”

The family contradicts. Rehti Begum, the 51-year-old mother of Ms. Yousuf, received the call. She claims that the conversation ended after three parts: “Hello.” “We have caught your daughter cheating.” “Come tomorrow at the college.”

It wasn’t the first time when Ms. Yousuf attempted suicide. In 2018, during a trip home after a backlog in an examination from first semester, she had jumped off the roof. Family calls it an accident, though.

Following the attempt, Ms. Yousuf was consulting a psychologist in Srinagar — the family didn’t disclose the doctor’s name — and was under medication, mainly antidepressants.

“The doctor had told her that she has hyper-tension and is depressed,” claims Ms. Yousuf’s elder sister. The college claims that they had no information about it.

“Only if the family had told us about her first suicide attempt,” says Shafaqat Yousuf, the principle of the college. “We would have taken care of her.”

The college, however, doesn’t have any mechanism to address the mental health problems of the students. But, Ms. Shafaqat, flaunts that the college had organised a counselling session related drug abuse and mental health problems. Four counsellors had come for the total roll of 287 students — i.e. more than seventy students per counsellor for a day in a year.

The principle denies that the college could have done anything to prevent her suicide: “No. Not at all — never. We are not responsible,” says Ms. Shafaqat. “I feel sorry but not regret.”

If someone paints a portrait of an educational institute, then Ms. Shafaqat believes that it is also the face of the society. “She was taking antidepressants, so how are we responsible,” she says. “It is unsettling, though, she died due to such a small incident.”

Ms. Yousuf was the youngest at home and the first, and the only one, to go to a college. Her father falls upon his knees making his bed. “What could have saved her? What should she have done?” he asks me. I hesitated. “You would say she should have asked for help — but to whom?” wonders Mr. Najar. “Maybe to college.”

He rolls up the blanket to his neck but keeps the lights on. “Or maybe me.”

Few names have been changed to protect the identity of students.

Yashraj Sharma is an Assistant Editor and Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 9-15 March 2020 print edition.

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