Knocking on Hell’s Door

Carrying on Aer seven suicide attempts, Adil Ahmad is back to weaving shawls, Photo: Abid Bhat
Carrying on After seven suicide attempts, Adil Ahmad is back to weaving shawls, Photo: Abid Bhat

The sound of knocking continues to haunt 31-year-old Adil Ahmad. Until last year, these knocks were from the Pashmina wool suppliers who would come to the shawl weaver’s house in downtown Srinagar to collect their dues. In 2008, when a client bought all his shawls and fled without paying a paisa, Ahmad was left with 26 lakh in debt and a bout of severe depression.

In a bid to battle depression, Ahmad attempted suicide seven times — by consuming sleeping pills and pesticide, and slitting the arteries on his left hand with a knife. He was sent to a mental health centre in Srinagar where he was given electroshocks to control the depression. “I used to hate myself. I just wanted to have a protracted sleep,” he says. “I never thought of my four sisters, parents, wife and two children. They had no meaning in my life.”

His father Lal Mohammad, 55, was forced to sell his property to clear the debt. But he is happy that his son is feeling better and is back on his loom, weaving shawls.

With violence in the Valley at its lowest ebb after 23 years of armed conflict, residents are losing lives to another malaise: suicides. “Suicide has become the second biggest cause of unnatural death in Kashmir,” reveals Dr Arshid Hussain, a consultant at the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital (GPDH) in Srinagar.

In 1989, Kashmir had the lowest suicide rate in the country at 0.5 deaths per 1 lakh population. In 2006, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, which conducted a study about mental health in the Kashmir Valley, concluded that the suicide rate in the region had risen 400 times.

These days, the suicide rate in the Valley is as high as 13 deaths per 1 lakh, which exceeds the rest of India (10.3 per 1 lakh).

According to researches at the GPDH, more than 15 percent of the region’s population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorders, and one person in five suffers from chronic depression. Drug abuse, particularly addiction to sleeping tablets or opiates, has increased in recent years.

To add to their woes, there are only 40 psychiatrists working in a region with a population of nearly 7 million.

Ever since the armed conflict began, at least 17,000 people have attempted suicide in the troubled Valley. In 2011, more than 1,100 suicides were reported in the Valley; the number grew to 1,900 last year.

“Kashmir’s population is scarred,” says Dr Mushtaq Marghoob, a mental health expert at the GPDH. “Two generations of Kashmiris never saw a peaceful time. It’s the underlying poverty, socio-economic issues, trauma of insecurity amid conflict, and dejection at every level that are the root cause for this suicidal tendency.”

The case of Shakeel Mir (name changed) is a prime example. Mir, a 23- year-old commerce graduate, comes from a well-off family, has brothers sending money back home from as far as Dubai and Europe, and has no pressure to contribute to the income. Yet, he is feeling suicidal.

“It’s his second visit to the hospital. He wants to end his life because he fears that he will not find suitable work after finishing his studies. He doesn’t want to be dependent on his brothers,” says a doctor, adding that 20 percent of the patients he sees have suicidal tendencies.

But many like Hadia (name changed) never had a chance to explain their mental trauma to anyone. On 10 April, the 17-year-old consumed poison at her house in Baramulla. It was the ninth reported suicide in two weeks. But the actual rate, says a police officer on condition of anonymity, could be higher because of the social stigma attached to suicides in the Valley.

In the case of Akhter Banu (name changed) who allegedly attempted suicide on 20 April, the police believe that she consumed poison after receiving news that she had failed in two subjects in the first-year exams. But inside Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, her father Mohammad Yousuf Mir, refuses to buy the explanation. Instead he alleges that she may have been force-fed by someone.

Since suicide is prohibited in Islam, such deaths provoke a dilemma, sometimes serious brawls, among locals over whether the dead deserve the Islamic rites or not.

In 2002, Zuhaib Ahmad (name changed) of Srinagar consumed 150 sleeping pills. His family rushed him to a nearby hospital but it was too late. Some people in the neighbourhood refused to allow his final rites but others were adamant that he should be given a proper burial. The problem was solved by a cleric who decreed that the last rites should be allowed.

Last year, sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla, who teaches at the University of Kashmir, published a study, which revealed that out of the 17,000 Kashmiris who attempted suicide in the past two decades, 62 percent involved females. “Youth in the age group of 15-26 years were found to be most likely to commit suicide,” he says. “Cases of teenagers below the age of 13 years ending their lives also came to light.”

Dabla claims the conflict situation has given rise to several social tendencies among women, which directly or indirectly leads them to commit suicide.

“In the years of conflict, many females were molested, raped, interrogated and harassed,” says Dabla. “Many of them became half widows, whose husbands disappeared. They overreact and commit suicide. Social causes have been found are mostly linked to family pressure, marital status, career, strained relationships and the inability to compete at social levels.”

Not only locals, the epidemic has plagued hundreds of troops deployed in the Valley too. A recent report by the defence ministry found that 780 paramilitary troops committed suicide since 2005, mostly by shooting themselves; 38.56 percent of the forces were found to be schizophrenic, 14.17 percent suffered from alcoholism and 9.8 percent were found to be struggling with depression.

Dabla’s study also points out that more troops have died in suicides than in the line of duty — 1,500-2,000 soldiers have committed suicide in the past two decades. This is half the number of troops killed in militant attacks since 1989. The research also claimed that a majority of the soldiers who committed suicides were married.

Even as suicide stories become commonplace in local newspapers, a small group of men have been stopping distressed people from jumping into the Jhelum river at Amira Kadal in Srinagar, which has become a favourite suicide spot.

“We have rescued many people who attempted suicide,” says Farooq Ahmad, 27, who sells Chinese products on the bridge, along with three other youth. “Most of the time, it turns out that they were about to take their lives over some petty issue.”

Ahmad and the rest of the group — Hamidullah Rah, 29, Manzoor Ahmad Machloo, 34, and Mehrajuddin Guchoo, 33 — don’t have any formal training in saving drowning people, but they know how to swim and have saved nearly 100 people.

The last time they saved a life was in 2012 and the last time they failed was in the same year when a girl jumped from the bridge. “We run our business from 8 am to 7 pm. The girl was unlucky; she chose to jump at 9.30 pm,” says Ahmad.

While their bravery has often been acknowledged in the neighbourhood, the authorities have not. After every rescue act, the police tend to give them a tough time by asking unwanted questions. “We become saviours and ultimately eyewitnesses too. We try to stay away from the cops after saving the victims,” says Ahmad.

In such a scenario, stopping suicides has become a difficult task, says Dr Hussain. “Maintaining suicide registers to making mental health accessible have become a Herculean task,” he laments. “Efforts should be made at the community level to combat this problem. A multi-pronged strategy involving every government department is the only way forward.”

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