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Mutiny in the mountains

In Kashmir, a wave of peaceful mass protests against Indian rule has been put down with ferocity. Th

One afternoon in August this year, I left a magazine office near the East Village in New York after an interview, and made my way to Washington Square Park. It was there that I received a call I shall never forget. It was from my brother in Kashmir. “They have fired on the protesters,” he said. “Thirteen or fourteen people, and some say more, have been killed.”

A month later, on the flight home to Kashmir from Delhi, I gave up my attempts to read a news magazine as the pilot announced that we would be landing in Srinagar in a few minutes. I stared out of the window and somehow the joy of seeing Kashmir again reminded me of the melancholy of many departures, of how on every flight out of Kashmir I would stare out of the window as the plane took off, while below me there would be the receding houses growing smaller every moment, the paddies turning into neat green squares marked by their edges, the metalled roads connecting villages shrink ing into black lines, and in a few minutes Kashmir appearing as a pristine, serene bowl framed by snow-peaked mountains.

“Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?” a policeman shouted at the artist

The day before, in Delhi, I had visited an exhibition of the work of a 20-year-old Kashmiri artist named Malik Sajad. Inside loops of sharp concertina wire, Malik had hung framed pictures of heavily militarised Kashmiri streets, with young unarmed protesters staring at soldiers. One of the cartoons depicted Gandhi being detained at a checkpost because he had forgotten his identity card.

An hour later, four bombs went off in central Delhi markets, killing 20 people. Indian Mujahedin, a jihadi group, sent emails to television channels and newspapers claiming responsibility for the attack as revenge against the 2002 Guj arat pogrom, in which Hindu extremist mobs had killed as many as 2,000 Muslims with support from the state government and police. The next day brought the news of the arrest of Malik Sajad, the cartoonist whose exhibition I had attended Shortly after the bombs exploded, Sajad had walked from the cultural centre to a nearby internet cafe where he was trying to email the daily cartoon to his editor at one of Kashmir's largest-selling English language newspapers, Greater Kashmir. The shopkeeper was suspicious of him and called the nearby office of the anti-terrorism wing of the Delhi Police. They arrived to drag Sajad by his neck across the road. A few hundred civilians gathered around to catch a glimpse of a supposed terrorist. "Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?" a policeman shouted at the artist. Then they called the cultural centre, which confirmed who the young artist was and that he had been invited to exhibit his work in Delhi.

Arriving a few days later in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, Sajad spoke of his relief at finally being back at home. Once a beautiful medieval city known for its multi-storey wooden houses with latticework windows, exquisite Sufi shrines, ancient Hindu temples, and ornate houseboats on Dal Lake, Srinagar is now one of the world's most militarised cities. It has lost its nights to a decade and a half of curfews and de facto curfews. Srinagar now has empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. As I travel around Srinagar, I see a bridge, a clearing, or a nondescript building and know that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there. Yet whenever I return to my broken city, I always feel, like Malik, a sense of relief.

On the first Friday after I arrived home, the shops in Srinagar closed at noon. Lal Chowk, a crowded bazaar in the city centre, full of students, shoppers and soldiers, emptied eerily in a few minutes. A few blocks away, in the Maisuma area of Srinagar, Indian paramilitaries and police armed with automatic rifles and tear gas guns took positions in concrete bunkers and on street corners. A few thousand Kashmiris stood in Friday prayer along the half-mile row of modest brick houses and stores while police blocked the lanes joining Maisuma to the city centre, using loops of concertina wire.

After the prayers, Yasin Malik, a wiry man in his forties who lives in a decrepit mud and brick house, led the protest. In the winter of 1989, when a rebellion against Indian rule had broken out in Kashmir, Malik was then the 21-year-old commander of the armed group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which sought independence from India. In the mid-Nineties, after pro-Pakistan, Islamist militant groups attacked the Kashmiri nationalist JKLF and took over the anti-India insurgency, Malik renounced violence and became a self-styled Gandhian. Now he was leading another protest, with young and old chanting: "We Want Freedom! Go India! Go!" The tense soldiers looked on in silence.

"You are late," a college friend who worked at a bank nearby said to me. "You should have been here earlier."

He was referring to the protests, which ran from mid-July to mid-September and in which hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris had come out on the streets to agitate for freedom from Indian rule. What was most startling was that the protests were peaceful. Not a single bullet was fired on the Indian soldiers, and because of this the Islamist militants who had been fighting Indian forces for much of the past decade had suddenly become irrelevant. Kashmir, it seemed, had made an overwhelming transition from insurgent violence to Gandhian, non-violent protest. The message was clear, even on the posters of a coalition of separatist groups: Us Qaum Ko Shamsher Ki Haajat Nahin Padti; Ho Jis Ke Jawanoon Ki Khudi Ho Surat-e-Faulaad (The Nation Whose Youth Are Awake Needs No Swords).

The Indian soldiers and police responded to these peaceful protests in the only way they knew - with violence. Between 11 August, when a senior separatist leader, Sheikh Aziz, was killed in northern Kashmir while leading a protest along the Jhelum Valley Road, and mid-September, the police opened fire on and killed as many as 50 protesters and injured more than 700 in scores of incidents in Srinagar, in the towns of Baramulla and Bandipora and in various villages.

Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu maharajah of the Muslim-majority state, joined India after a raid by tribals from Pakistan. The agreement of accession that Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir much autonomy; India controlled only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications. But, in later years, India began to erode Kashmir's autonomy by imprisoning popularly elected leaders and appointing quiescent puppet administrators who helped extend the jurisdiction of the Indian supreme court over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over control of the old princely state of Kashmir. In 1987, the government in Indian-controlled Kashmir rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost the little faith they had in India and began a secessionist armed uprising with support from Pakistan. The Indian military presence in Kashmir rose to half a million and by the mid-Nineties jihadi outfits from Pakistan began to dominate the rebellion. Although violence has fallen in the past few years and the number of active militants has reduced to fewer than 500, according to the Kashmir police, peace talks between India and Pakistan have made little progress. The exception, in April 2005, was the symbolic opening of a bus service across the Line of Control, the de facto border which has divided the two parts of Kashmir between India and Pakistan since the first war over the state in 1947.

Since 1990, the conflict has claimed as many as 70,000 lives - mostly of Kashmiri civilians and militants, as well as Indian soldiers and policemen - but the lessening violence after 2003 and increasing tourist flows from India have created an impression that Kashmir has been "pacified". The protests of this summer destroyed any illusion of peace.

They were provoked by the transfer, in May, of 100 acres of land by the Kashmir government, led by India's ruling Congress Party, to a trust that manages a Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the mountains of southern Kashmir. The cave, discovered by a Muslim shepherd in the mid-19th century, is associated with Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and Hindus believe a phallic ice formation inside the cave is a manifestation of Shiva. The pilgrimage used to be a small affair of a few thousand pilgrims over a few weeks. Local Muslims provided the necessary support, setting up shops along the route, providing food supplies and helping to carry the old and weak on horsebacks into the high mountains. But from the mid-Nineties, India's emerging Hindu nationalists made strong efforts to turn the pilgrimage into a mega-event, an exercise in Hindu supremacy, using the presence of thousands of pilgrims as a sign of greater Indian control over Kashmir.

Many Kashmiri Muslims viewed the land transfer as a move towards Hindu hegemony, and in June thousands protested against it. The Kashmir government revoked the land transfer after five protesters had been shot. The Hindus in Jammu, the southern province of the state, then began counter protests; they attacked and burnt some houses owned by Muslims and blocked the only road connecting the Kashmir Valley with the Indian plains. Kashmiri apple growers, whose produce was rotting as the blockade stopped it from being transported to markets in Delhi, marched in protest to Pakistan. On 11 August, thousands of ordinary people joined the march on the Jhelum Valley Road, which connected Kashmir with the cities of Rawalpindi and Lahore before the partition of British India. That was when the Indian soldiers fired on the protesters, and my brother called me in New York.

The protests quickly transformed from being about a land dispute to being about freedom from Indian rule, and hundreds of marches followed, including a huge march on 22 August to the United Nations Observer Group office in Srinagar.

Most of the injured were brought to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. There is a single poster on the walls of the casualty ward of a dignified old man with a beard and a Jinnah cap: Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the separatist leader, one of the first to be shot and killed by the Indian troops .

In a sanitised room at the hospital, I met Saleem Iqbal, a 41-year-old surgeon who heads the team of 30 doctors working on the casualty ward. Dr Iqbal, a soft-faced man with a black moustache, had been preparing his team for the worst since the latest wave of protests began. "I have worked here for 14 years and we expected the injured to be brought to the hospitals the moment the protests began. That is how it was in the early Nineties," he told me. At that time, when Kashmiris rebelled against Indian rule and millions came out on to the streets demanding freedom, Indian troops had opened fire, killing hundreds.

One of the doctors at the hospital told me that after the recent shootings he had “operated on 15 people but saved only five. I had to amputate the legs of young boys.” A few days after our meeting, I saw Dr Iqbal again at a fundraising event, where the Kashmiri middle class had gathered to raise money for ambulances and medicines for the injured who couldn’t afford them, including some of the boys whose legs had been amputated.

Not everyone was despondent. The recent protests have, for the first time since 1990, shifted Indian opinion on Kashmir. Many Indian writers, editors and journalists are beginning to discuss properly for the first time the possibility of an India without Kashmir. Vir Sanghvi, the celebrated former editor of India's major English daily, the Hindustan Times, wrote in the paper on 16 August: "I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don't, then we have no moral right to force them to remain . . . It's time to think the unthinkable."

India traditionally described Muslim-majority Kashmir as an integral part of the nation, necessary to prove its claim to be a secular country in which Hindus and Muslims were equal citizens. But the claims of Indian plurality and secularism have been weakened by the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and especially by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.

However, these recent debates among the Indian intellectual elite reminded me of the many afternoons I have spent with friends in Srinagar coffee shops talking about Kashmir and India. Most of us were sure that India would never leave Kashmir. But something is changing, on both sides.

Many more lives could have been lost through September if the Kashmiri separatist leaders had not called on people to suspend the protests during Ramadan; the Indian government responded by lifting the curfew. But the protests were set to resume in October and a coordination committee with representatives from various separatist groups called on people to march en masse to Lal Chowk on 6 October. No one knew how the Indian troops would respond to another march.

On that morning, I woke up to the sound of birds chirping on the mulberry and chinar trees in the backyard of my house in southern Srinagar. Outside, the streets were silent; there were groups of paramilitaries standing with guns and bamboo sticks near the neighbourhood bunker. I sat on the lawn reading the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which is an account of the difficulties and impossibilities of walking around your own landscape in the face of conflict and occupation. Later, in the afternoon, I managed to get a curfew pass and rode with a journalist friend to Lal Chowk. Indian paramilitaries and soldiers used thick loops of barbed wire and walls of iron sheets to block almost every lane leading there. Three boys played cricket in a narrow lane off the main square.

I watched as paramilitaries stopped a red SUV coming towards us. I saw the drained faces of two men inside; the legs of a dead woman wrapped in floral sheet jutted out of a window. They were taking her home from a Srinagar hospital. The SUV was allowed to pass after a few minutes, but it somehow reinforced the omnipresence of death. In my two-mile journey back home that evening, I was forced to produce my curfew pass and identity card at ten different checkpoints. Driving through the silent streets was a reminder of how efficient India's military control of Kashmir had become: a city of more than a million people had been turned into an open prison because its people had planned to go on a peaceful march for freedom. Police vans had been driving through various Srinagar neighbourhoods warning people that those who defied the curfew would be shot.

As many as 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the past 20 years of armed conflict in Kashmir. That October day, the people of Srinagar stayed home to save many more from being shot and killed. But they stared in defiance from open windows, as their armed Indian jailers passed by in military vehicles.

India has rejected even moderate demands to remove some of the half-million Indian forces from civilian areas or to restore some of Kashmir's lost autonomy. There are parliamentary elections in India next year, and the exaggerated fear, for now, is that any party that concedes ground on Kashmir will lose votes. This means that, for the coming months, Kashmiris will remain on edge, angry and protesting, dying in their ones and twos.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come