NEW DELHI/SRINAGAR: Tariq (name changed) is a young man from Kashmir who has always described himself as mainstream. Working more closely with the mainstream regional political parties, having nothing to do with the separatists, he never really understood why young Kashmiris took to arms, and why they did not struggle for their rights more peacefully.

Tariq is one of those young men who prefers to forward news rather than comment on it, and comes across as fairly uninterested in politics. A live and let live soul who did not want to complicate his life with the hallmark politics of Kashmir.

After the government imposed a lockdown in the Kashmir Valley—in place now for a month and a half with eight million people unable to leave their homes—one evening Tariq found himself unable to breathe. He struggled, suffocating, with a pain on his left side, going down his arm that he just could not lift.

“I thought I was having a heart attack,” he says. It took some time for the symptoms to susbide, and since he had local government contacts he was among the more fortunate who could reach a hospital for medical help.

The diagnosis: a severe panic attack, accompanied by a slight stroke as it was not addressed in time.

Panic? But Tariq was always a fairly happy go lucky young man, living life a day at a time. Now a shadow of his former self, serious, morose without the hint of a smile on his face he says, “This must be because every night the soldiers cordon off one area or another. And they do it in the early hours of the morning, when we have finally fallen asleep in these tense times.

“They come in with guns on the ready, smashing the windows of houses, breaking down the doors, and storm through the house picking up any young man they find.” They are looking for young men, who are then dragged away to detention centres, amidst screaming mothers and their terrified family.

Tariq started living in fear of such a raid, a strategy adopted he feels to “tame” the youth, regardless of whether they had picked up a stone or protested in any manner during their young lives. He has only his widowed mother and a brother at home. Feeling the pressure as the eldest, and unable to talk to anyone because of the curfew, he says “Nights are the worst.”

He has never spoken of political solutions, of autonomy and azadi, leaving it to others to take decisions that he is quite prepared to follow. But today he finds himself reacting, with the panic attack caused by unconscious fear and terror. “There must be so many like me,” he says, “but I have no way of finding out.”

The panic attack followed news that a close friend of his had been picked up and taken away, even though like him the friend had never protested against the state. “I don't even know where he is now. All I know is he has been taken away for a crime no one has even bothered to specify.”

The curfewed young in Kashmir are feeling the pressure. Anxious parents are not willing to let their wards go to school for fear of their safety. Those with young boys at home remain terrified of the frequent midnight raids.

Protests continue, with the videos carried largely by the foreign media making it apparent that the youth are at the forefront of stone pelting. There is also a visible change in attitude where the young people have no regard for their own lives and face armed forces with stones. Teargas barely deters them. Tear gas and pellet guns are being used to disperse the crowds, with reports filtering out of pellet injuries on a large scale. Figures of the dead and injured vary with no official confirmation of either.

Tension is mounting as a cloak of fear envelopes the Valley. No one knows what the situation holds, and while there is no great sympathy for the political leaders in detention this has added to the sentiment, “If they can do this to them, who are we?” further compounding the trepidation and resulting anxiousness.

The feeling of not being wanted, of everyone young and old being regarded as “enemies” of the state, of being locked in at all hours without access to family or friends, is taking a major toll on ordinary people here.

Young people working or studying outside are finding it impossible to reach their families and vice versa. One person who visited the Valley told The Citizen how touched and sad she was when an old man handed her a 500 rupee note to give to his child studying in another city. He said that he had not been able to speak to his son who must be in need of money, and he would be so obliged if she got it across to him.

She did, but as she said he was just one of the hundreds and thousands waiting for word from their loved ones.

Mental stress and illness has become a major cause of concern in Kashmir. Over two years ago Doctors Without Borders published perhaps the only research study, which placed the number of Kashmiris suffering from signficant mental distress at 1.8 million, or 45 percent of the Valley’s people.

According to the survey, 41% of people exhibited symptoms of probable depression, a quarter showed symptoms of probable anxiety, and a fifth showed symptoms of probable post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Estimates ranged from 28% in Srinagar to as high as 54% in Budgam. Women in particular were severely impacted, with at least half of Kashmiri women seeming to suffer from anxiety disorders.

The survey covered 5,428 households in 399 villages across all ten districts of the Kashmir Valley. It was conducted in 2016.

Cover photograph BASIT ZARGAR from Srinagar