Over the last month or so, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests across the country have caught the imagination of people across the world. It’s a story of ceaseless determination and extraordinary grit to carry out an indefinite protest against the government’s implementation of what is seen as a discriminatory law. But if you look closer, this celebrated wall of bravery has also caused an unsettling paradox to set in. Increasing threats, possible violence and police crackdown (which has happened before) and even hate-mongering and rumours may have strengthened the resolve of the protesters, but it’s also taking a heavy toll on their mental health, with the symptoms that many are displaying largely indicative of widespread post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This is chilling, but not unusual. History has shown that the people caught in violent social unrest show various symptoms of PTSD. In Hong Kong, for instance, nearly one in three adults were found with symptoms of PTSD comparable to those seen in areas of armed conflict or after terrorist attacks. In India, conflict regions such as Kashmir have shown “extraordinarily high rates of PTSD”, given a long history of unresolved abuse and perpetual instability. As we step into 2020, cities like Delhi are joining this disturbing trend of mental health crisis, and the expanding list of mental health helplines and lists for CAA protesters may be just one of the telltale signs.
Which is why last week, VICE visited the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, where, on December 15, the police barged inside the campus, “unprovoked” and without permission, and fired tear-gas shells and thrashed the students on the pretext of clearing the anti-CAA protests. Some of those attacked even had nothing to do with the protests.
The assault, which lasted a few hours, led to the destruction of college property worth around Rs 2.6 crore, along with 80 students ending up in the hospital with multiple injuries, while over 50 were detained. As probes on Delhi Police continue, investigations around human rights violations are currently underway.
VICE revisited the “night of horror” and asked JMI students how the incident has affected their mental health, and how difficult it has been to go back to regular life.
Adnan Khan, 22
I was in the library when the police entered. I heard loud screams and sounds of thrashing. People were ducking behind tables while the police broke windows one by one. When Uddhav Thackeray compared that day to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, he was right: there was only one exit and one entry. People were running on broken shards of glass, which pierced through their shoes, and there was blood everywhere. As I got out of the campus, my eyes met witha policeman’s, who yelled, “Kya dekh raha hai? Seedhe chalo (What are you looking at? Keep going),” and then thrashed me. When some girls there objected, he said, “Chal randi, tereko bhi abhi maarunga, nikal yahan se (Walk away, cunt, or I’ll hit you too. Keep going).”
When I think about that day and realise that justice has not been served, it brings me to tears because I feel helpless. I can’t stop thinking about it. Right after the incident, I went home to attend my sister’s wedding but I was not mentally present. I was constantly hooked to my phone and couldn’t sleep. I’m from Lucknow and, incidentally, around that time, the state government switched off the internet because of anti-CAA protests and violence. That, ironically, helped me cope with my anxiety. But just when things were getting normal, the JNU violence happened, which spiralled us back to the same anxiety and fear that we are not safe in our own universities. My head and eyes feel heavy all the time. I used to think that only I stay up all night but this one time, I put a message on our college group at 4 AM and everyone responded. That’s when I realised that I’m not alone.
Nayla Khan, 22
Before December 15, I had prior experience with the police using tear gas during the protests on December 13. So a bunch of us were carrying salt and distributed it to people to help them with the smoke. But the atmosphere spiralled out of control very fast and since there was nowhere else to go, everyone ran to the library. It was dark inside but we could see the policemen grabbing people and beating them. After almost an hour, we were asked to put our hands up and leave the premises. I saw blood everywhere and students being hurt. I could see the police thrashing and beating the vehicles with sticks.
When I look back, it’s hard to believe that I actually went through all that. Maybe it’s my coping technique, that when something bad happens, I feel like it’s a dream. This doesn’t happen in a free country—getting beaten up by the people who should protect you. These days, if I hear a loud bang, or even people talking or laughing loudly, I feel like it’s started again. When we go out for protests, we instinctively look for refuge, in case something bad happens. Earlier, when we saw anyone in a khaki uniform, we felt safe. Now it’s the opposite. I also feel like I’m being followed all the time. For instance, a few days ago, I was at the lounge at a train station, where a man was reading a newspaper without no sign of luggage with him. My first thought was: Is he following me? I was wrong but, yes, if somebody watches me for more than a few seconds, I feel like something bad is going to happen.
On the 15th, I saw my friends in really bad conditions, and people being taken to the hospital. I saw vehicles set on fire and heard blasts of tear gas and stun grenades. Stun grenades are not lethal but they’re meant to create fear and terrorise the minds. When the police fired tear gas, I ran inside the campus to get shelter. People switched off the lights so that the cops wouldn’t find us. It literally felt like we were saving ourselves from terrorists. I felt like maybe I wouldn’t get out of this alive.
Days later, when I came back to the hostel, my friends living there told me they don’t want to live there anymore. The fear is that anything can happen now. The slightest sound unsettles me. Different people deal with mental trauma differently—some internalise it, but for me, it was the first time I had seen something like this. For a few days, I couldn’t sleep properly. I have also stopped reading newspapers, or going through Facebook or Instagram. If I listen to people giving their accounts, I want everyone to just shut up because I cannot relive those moments anymore.
December 15 has taken a toll on mental and physical health on not just us, but everyone around us too, like our families. And since I’m from Chhattisgarh, my family knows about this unrest only through television. The way mainstream media is giving information and narrating it, is incorrect. On a personal level, I have not been impacted so much that I have had panic attacks (which has affected lots of people since that day), but the fear of not being heard has set in. We all know how autocratic it’s been and how this country is growing very fascist with each passing day. But what next? Dystopia?
Our everydayness has been impacted so much that things don’t feel normal anymore. Where do you even go for justice if the perpetrators of violence are the police themselves? There’s a lot of anxiety even though I’m not personally impacted by the implementation of CAA and NRC because I come from a very privileged Hindu family. But I cannot even fathom the collective anxiety the community at large has right now, and that unsettles me every day.
Bhumika Saraswati, 21
It’s become hard to sleep these days. I remember coming to college a few days back and our college was closed. It was empty and barren. I had never seen my department this way; there were always people around, talking, chatting, eating food, doing their thing. It was very sad to see our campus like this. During the violence on December 15, we all got messages from our friends, telling us that they’re trapped inside, and asking us to save them. But all transport services to our college like the road and the Jamia metro station were shut down and even the internet was slow.
For days after that day, I was disturbed with the fact that more than 19 people had lost their lives in these protests across the country. I've started to feel I’m fortunate, to live in Delhi, since things are so much worse in states like Uttar Pradesh. It gives me the chills. I’ve been so restless since that day that I am out of my house and at protests everyday. I have friends who were as enraged and disturbed but were not allowed by their parents to even step out. You could see their anguish on social media. I think all of us have broken down at some point over the last few weeks, in front of our friends or even privately. We have batchmates from Kashmir whose parents sent them here so that they stay away from conflict. But now things are so bad here, their parents are calling them back. The worst part for me was that we were not safe on my own college campus. Who do you call when Delhi Police themselves are hunting you down?
Utkarsh Roshan, 21
We were just hanging at the protest on December 15 when, suddenly, we saw smoke and came to know that people have set fire to buses. In my entire life, I had never thought that the police could just enter a university campus with such brutality. We were hiding in the library when they barged in, but when they found us, they let us go. But as soon as we came out, they caught hold of me and randomly took me away. I was detained for roughly 10 hours, along with some 30-35 students. Nothing happened at the police station, the cops were very well-behaved, didn’t ask any questions, and eventually let me go.
But now I live in constant fear. When I was going home to Patna after the incident, I was on a train, and out of sheer paranoia, I told my friend to track my phone in case it goes off. The fear comes now and then when I watch the news or even see a policeman. I haven’t been able to really discuss the nitty-gritties of what happened with people around me because of how the mainstream media portrays Jamia students [several television channels reported the incident as a police response to rioting]. This stops me from discussing anything because I feel nobody is going to listen to me anyway. Along with the feeling that I can get detained anytime for no reason, again, there’s the anguish of not being heard. It’s like we don’t really matter.
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