In the valley of despair, women look for a high

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

August 23, 2009

The force of a midnight knock jolted Nazia Akhter (35) out of deep sleep on a chilly winter night in 1999. Before she could gather her wits, four masked gunmen had bundled her husband, Nazir Ahmed, into a car and taken him away. Ahmed was badly battered in captivity and seven days later when he was released, the family’s nightmare seemed to be over. But that was not to be. Armed forces picked Ahmed up to know his captors’ whereabouts. For next 10 days, Ahmed was thrashed so badly that he lost his memory. Nazia cried her eyes out through the 17-day ordeal and continued to weep buckets after the family faced penury, as Ahmed could no longer look after his once-thriving business. Over the months, Nazia became insomniac and restless. Somebody gave her a Diazepam tablet to relax. The family’s condition worsened so much so that the depressed mother of two started popping 15 tablets a day to relax. She was hooked on the sedative. This was when she was brought to a de-addiction centre in Srinagar.

Doctors say Nazia is not alone. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri women, who developed psychiatric disorders, fear psychosis, depression, stress-related disorders and suicidal tendencies during the two-decade-long turmoil, have taken to drugs (anti-depressants, painkillers and tranquillizers) which are easily available over the counter in absence of curbs in turmoil-hit Valley. Most are addicted to drugs ranging from medicinal opiates (opium-based drugs), cannabis and even heroin and cocaine.

Dr Mushtaq Margoob, a psychiatrist and author of the book Menace of Drug Abuse in Kashmir says an alarming 1.5 per cent women in Kashmir are addicted to opiates alone, which is the highest in the world. “Thousands of women are also addicted to contraband like heroin,’’ he says. He says four per cent of the women patients he sees daily are addicted to drugs to overcome depression. “The worst part is that it is a double-edged sword: They become addicts and the depression also lingers on.’’

Margoob has also come across patients using cocaine, costing an addict about Rs 2,000-2,500 per day. “Studies reveal that in comparison to 9.5 per cent use of opiate-based preparations during 1980 in Kashmir, it had increased to 73.1 per cent during 2002 and is worse now.’’

Women, as the worst victims of conflict, are more prone to its direct and indirect effects of death, destruction and unemployment. This pushes them into the trap of negative coping and drug abuse. “Women get hooked on drugs particularly opiates because such substances are easily available and used to relieve the symptoms,’’ says Margoob.

Dr Ghulam Nabi Wani, who has been running the de-addiction centre for 10 years, notes that almost every family has lost a member or somebody has been arrested or beaten up at some stage in last 20 years. “There is a pattern to drug abuse among women. Generally, women who have lost dear ones or have seen violent deaths become insomniac and in order to relax and sleep, they over the years became addicted to sedatives,’’ he says.

Poor implementation of licensing laws for sale of psychotropic drugs in the state compound the problem. Non-judicious use of drugs like Alprazolam, says Margoob, aggravates abuse potential of commonly used addictive drugs for anxiety and depression. “An assessment of the prescribing practice in anxiety disorder in Kashmir reveals a very disturbing trend that majority of such patients could possibly have been helped through counselling and psychotherapy rather than drugs,’’ says Margoob.

Another disturbing trend that has emerged is that elderly women, especially in rural areas, induce younger ones into smoking (hooka) to cope up with the bereavement. “With the easy availability of cannabis, these women often get hooked to them,’’ Margoob says.

The non-implementation of the Drug Act is also aggravating the problem. “If theAct is implemented, the addiction would come down by 50 per cent since the major reason for abuse is the easy availability of over the counter drugs like tranquillizers,’’ says Wani.

In fact, J&K has no drug policy since independence. “We will come up with one soon to check the menace of over the counter sale of psychotropic drugs,’’ said health minister Sham Lal Sharma. In a drug policy’s absence, anybody can buy medicine without a prescription.

A police officer said during the peak of militancy, they hardly had time to clamp down on drug trafficking and poppy cultivation. South Kashmir had become notorious for poppy cultivating till 2007 when police started a drive against it. Police have also engaged local clergy to support the campaign.

(First published in The Times of India)

Caste leader justifies killings in the name of honour, says ‘only whores choose their partners’

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

September 8, 2009

Sisauli (Uttar Pradesh): Squatting on his haunches, dhoti-clad, bare-chested Mahendra Singh Tikait, 79, appears to be just another farmer with a shovel in his hand. But the appearance is misleading. For the influential farmer leader, as Baliyan khap’s Chaudhary, presides over a parallel medieval criminal justice system within 150km of the national capital that disdains law to “award’’ punishments ranging from amputations to death to “protect honour’’.

“We live by a moral code where honour has to be protected at any cost,’’ says Tikait. And anyone who dares to “cross the line’’ meets the fate of the likes of Radha, who was brutally slain for falling in love in Muzaffarnagar’s Fugana village in 2006. Radha was stripped, burnt and then hung by a tree. Radha is not alone. Dozens of women are summarily executed every year as panchayats cling on to the retrograde system that denies them the right to choose their partners.

Reliable data on “honour killings” is unavailable as National Crime Records Bureau does not maintain any records on such murders. “Honour killing” is not a separately classified crime and is recorded under murder. They are also difficult to identify since they tend to be closely-guarded secrets.

Home minister P Chidambaram acknowledged the problem’s severity when in July he told Parliament, “Villagers give precedence to caste panchayat judgments rather than that of the courts.’’ He said some panchayats approve of the so-called honour killings. “I recoil with shame when I read about them.’’

“Honour killings” appear to enjoy public sanction in the vast swathes of Western Uttar Pradesh. Locals say khap rulings are a binding on them and the sway Chaudhries (village leaders) hold over their people ensures police are kept away. “How will police know if parents kill and dump their daughter’s body?’’ asks Kamlesh Devi of Alipur village. “What is the harm, if we solve our problems among ourselves?’’ She says if police dare to intervene, they are driven out.

Tikait claims panchayats are infallible, for they have the divine sanction. “Panch means parmatama (god) and ayath means court.’’ He seeks legitimacy for panchyats in tradition saying panchayats existed even under the Mughal and British rule. “They never interfered.’’

Tikait is at pains to explain opposition to same-gotra marriages. “Such alliances are incestuous. No society would accept it. Why do you expect us to do so?’’ asks Tikait.

He says incest violates maryada (tradition) and they will kill and get killed to protect it. He sounds another chilling warning for lovebirds. “Only whores can choose their partners. Love marriages are dirty, I do not even want to repeat the word,’’ he says and adds that education has contributed to “this dirt’’.

“Recently an educated couple married against samaj’s wishes in Jhajjar. We hail the panchayat’s decision to execute them,’’ he says. “The government cannot protect this atiyachar (travesty).’’

If the government does so? Tikait declares that they are ready for a struggle. He disdains the Constitution and scoffs at the rule of law as “root of all problems’’. “That is your Constitution, ours is different. Your constitution also says that you should eat and pee while standing,’’ he says. “Samaj is unhappy with democracy.’’

Villagers say the Chaudhry enjoys “administrative and executive powers’’ over his khap’s 84 villages. Tikait is said to have presided over a panchayat in 1950 in which a resolution pledging complete loyalty to him was passed. “He can even demand our lives,’’ says Virendra Singh of Jaitupur village.

Daryanl Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers did not bat an eye when he said, “These shameless people (lovers) deserve death.’’ He graphically described how brutally “transgressors are dealt with’’.  He says erring couples are either hanged or nailed to death. “Some people are tortured to death.’’

While Singh explains the whole gamut of punishments, he underlines the crux of what sustains the medieval system – bad governance. Villagers say the government is non-existent and everything works, thanks to kinship. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It is impossible for people to survive without samaj (society). They cannot challenge it.’’

A Dalit, Raju, echoes Daryal. “Pani mey rehna hay toh magarmach say bair nahi leysaktay.’’ He says social boycott as a punitive measure is common. “People are also regularly paraded and beaten with shoes. Another villager says theft is punished by cutting a hand or feet. “I have seen how a couple was hacked to death after they were caught making out.’’

Additional SSP Raja Babu Singh refuses to accept that something was amiss and says jats have a penchant for bragging. “Panchayats settle minor disputes. We have never come across any case of honour killing,’’ he claims. “If khap violate the law, action is taken.’’

But a journalist, who covered Tikait’s arrest for abusing chief minister Mayawati last year, dismisses police claims as sophistry.  “A heavy police contingent laid a siege around Sisauli for 12 hours but did not dare to enter the village to arrest Tikait.’’ He says if they did not dare to implement Mayawati’s orders, how can they stand up to all-powerful Chaudhries.

Courtesy: The Times of India