Why the names of Muslim soldiers are being noticed in the new India

Unity in diversity: The growing relevance of a forgotten Indian slogan and a lost stanza of the national anthem.

He was an upper-caste Hindu from a village outside the holy city of Varanasi. “Yes,” he said, before I could ask, “the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the man I voted for.” As his taxi hurtled over the Sealink, a cable-stayed bridge spanning a part of Mumbai’s western seaboard, the driver listed his reasons for turning from the Congress to Modi: the promise of vikas (progress) and the possibility that desh ka sthar uncha uthe (India’s position would rise). After a minute’s silence, he spoke again.

Lekin yeh jo ho raha hain, woh galat hain,” he said. Whatever was happening was wrong? I was unclear what he meant, but I let him speak. “Yeh gau rakshak, yeh Musalmanon ki hatya, aapko malum hain na main kya keh raha hoon? [This cow protection, this killing of Muslims, you know what I am talking about?],” he said, tentatively, glancing in his rear view mirror to see if I would disagree. When I said nothing, he spoke with greater confidence.

I want to tell you some simple things, said the driver, 40-something and unshaven. He read the paper carefully every day, and he noticed, he explained, that the last three soldiers who had died along the Line of Control in Kashmir were Muslim (he was almost spot on: Mohammad Showkat, Naik Mudassar Ahmed, Lance Naik Mohammed Naseer, Jaspreet Singh and Naik Bakhtawar Singh were the soldiers killed since July 8). “And who do you think all the policemen who die in Kashmir battling terrorists are?” he asked. “They are all Muslim. Do you know of Abdul Hamid? He was from my area, we still remember him.” Havaldar Hamid of the Grenadiers received India’s highest military decoration, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously after holding back a Pakistani tank attack in 1965, destroying three before a fourth killed him.

The taxi driver stayed silent for some seconds and began to speak again. “Sahab, kuch galat ho raha hain is desh mein,” he said. “Yeh, achanak kahan se aaya ki Musalman bahar se hain, sachcha Hindustani nahi hain?” Something is going wrong in this country. My village has lots of Muslims, he said, and here in Mumbai, I live among them. They are as good or as bad as all Indians. How has it suddenly emerged, he asked, that we are told that Muslims are from outside, that they are not true Indians?

But the question that troubled the taxi driver does not trouble enough Indians, and so Hindu majoritarianism surges, creating new fears and tensions among India’s 180 million Muslims. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that India’s unity – however inadequate and flawed – is at grave risk because attention is not being paid to nurturing its diversity.

Reminder of India’s diversity

Since being a soldier is now a marker of unquestioning nationalism and belonging, let us address what the new divisiveness can do to India’s men and women in arms. There is no data that the armed forces releases, but it is obvious that a large number who serve are not Hindu. We know of Kashmiris serving in the armed forces only when they die, as we do of police officers in a state where a major reason for the current uprising is that many Kashmiri Muslims do not now see a future with a nation turning aggressively Hindu. This is not to say that Kashmiri Muslims had bought into the idea of India, but many could live with a delicate association with a secular nation.

Since secularism is now a bad word, it is important to point out what was once obvious: that minorities, in particular Muslims, have as much claim to India as Hindus. If India – one of the world’s most diverse countries – is to stay united, peacefully, then it must celebrate its minorities and what they do. That is why the media thought it fit to point out (two examples here and here) this: Iqbal Ahmed, the commander of a Central Reserve Police Force battalion that thwarted a terrorist attack in Bandipora, Kashmir, on June 5, abandoned his sehri (early morning meal before a day of Ramzan fasting), grabbed his assault rifle and galvanised his troops. Ahmed was later decorated for bravery.

That is also why videos like the one below are getting passed around among Muslims. A man meets a soldier, begins criticising Kashmiris and soon launches a diatribe against Muslims in general, drawing everything that the Hindu Right propagates, from triple talaq to the singer Sonu Nigam’s crusade against azaans. Finally, the man introduces himself. “By the way, sir, my name is Atul Saxena,” he says. The soldier replies, “Hello, Rasheed Khan.”

These are all reminders to newly resurgent Hindus of India’s diversity. It is unfortunate that such reminders are required and that we must be made aware of a soldier’s religion. But there appears little choice when India’s nuances are rapidly being forgotten in a swelling tide of nationalism that seeks to define itself in narrow, you-must-be-like-us-and-like-what-we-like terms.

Protecting secularism

Over the past week alone, we saw the Madras High Court make it mandatory for private and government offices and schools to sing the Vande Mataram, the national song. We learned that school children in Rajasthan will be taught majoritarian fantasy – that the medieval Hindu chieftan Rana Pratap defeated Mughal emperor Akbar’s army – and that the government in Goa would provide farmers financial aid to look after old cows.

But India’s diversity is too complex, and dangerous, to change by government or majoritarian diktat. In Bengaluru, Delhi’s drive to lend primacy to Hindi generated much passion this week as Hindi signboards on a new metro line were blackened, protestors took to the streets and social media, and the metro authority was warned by a local government authority against insisting on Hindi signage. A few days later, India’s aviation authority “advised” airlines to stock Hindi newspapers and magazines on all flights.

To me, India’s multi-layered realities were embodied in the story that emerged the same week of Thangarasu Natarajan, a Tamilian, Hindu fast-bowler who knows no Hindi and communicates in sign language and English with his Punjabi team mates and whose mother sells beef and chicken fry to get by. The idea of India lives on in the small stories of unknown people, who lend a hand and quietly get along with those unlike themselves, even in areas of strife.

This is a time to recall the old slogan of “unity in diversity”, which, like secularism, is fading from popular discourse. Few politicians now call for “national integration”, a favourite – if, often, hollow – appeal made frequently during the Congress era. I am no fan of the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, but she recognised that “national integration is the internal defence of the country”. She said, “We should not imagine that merely because we are free and have a Constitution, social cohesion will remain on its own. It has to be guarded, just as the nation’s frontiers are guarded.” It is another matter that she ignored her own advice, and, followed later by her son Rajiv, was responsible for first prying open the lid that kept sectarianism imprisoned.

This is also a time to recall the unused, forgotten second stanza of the national anthem, written by India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (mention of whom Hindu ideologue Dina Nath Batra wants scrubbed from text books):

“Ohoroho Tobo Aahbaano Prachaarito, Shuni Tabo Udaaro Baani

Hindu Bauddho Shikho Jaino, Parashiko Musholmaano Christaani

Purabo Pashchimo Aashey, Tabo Singhaasano Paashey

Premohaaro Hawye Gaanthaa

Jano Gano Oikyo Bidhaayako Jayo Hey, Bhaarato Bhaagyo Bidhaataa

Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey, Jayo Jayo Jayo, Jayo Hey.”

(Your call is announced continuously, we heed your gracious call

The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims and Christians,

The east and the west come, to your throne

And weave the garland of love...

Oh! You who bring in the unity of the people!

Victory be to you, dispenser of the destiny of India!)

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.