SRINAGAR – Kashmiri musician Zeeshaan Nabi looks up and his smile widens as he talks about his Siberian Husky Ranger, whom he attributes to saving his life.
“Music, my mother and my pets helped me survive, otherwise it will be difficult to keep going,” says Nabi. Like thousands of Kashmiris who have experienced the worst armed conflict in this troubled region, the 28-year-old Nabi suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hidden in his head is an image of his uncle, a bullet hole in his head who was killed by unknown armed men in 2004. There was no recourse or degree for Nabi, who was only 11 years old at the time.
Such violence was part of everyday life for those born in Indian-administered Kashmir in the early 1990s. Thousands in the Muslim-majority region had defended themselves against the Indian government. Tens of thousands died in the decades of conflict, and many more were injured and mutilated for life. To this day, violence is not uncommon on the streets of Kashmir and the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic have only made the situation worse for the people here.
By the time Ranger entered his life, Nabi felt a black hole in his head that both grew and gnawed at his self-esteem. “I felt so alienated from the people around me that I didn’t want to communicate with anyone. I was withdrawn, and then there was self-harm. I feel uncomfortable talking about it now,” said Nabi.
This despite therapy and his burgeoning career as a musician. “I made great music, my life was good too. But just because we live and how we live things didn’t seem good and that’s something that affects the mind,” he said, remembering thoughts like that dark that it leads to a “depressed state of mind”.
Above: Kashmiri musician Zeeshaan Nabi enjoys a moment with his Siberian Husky Ranger: Bonding with dogs is difficult for many Muslims, who are often taught that dogs are unclean. Bottom: Unlike dogs, cats are revered by most Muslim societies, especially in Kashmir. (Photos by Mugais Malik)
What changed his life was the arrival of Ranger. “Watching Ranger run feels so liberating. It’s a feeling of freedom. … When I spend an hour with him, I feel relieved. I run after him, he runs after me. It helps, this constant one To reduce exposure. “
It is against the grain for Muslims to own dogs, and many have learned not to touch them because they are considered dirty. Owning a dog wasn’t easy even for Nabi – it took him several days to convince his parents. After his brother brought a beautiful dog to the family, his parents eventually gave in. But not without making a few rules: They couldn’t bring the dog in and had to wash his hands every time they touched Ranger. “And now my parents love rangers too,” said Nabi.
Even so, Nabi is among the hundreds of Kashmiris who have sought solace in keeping dogs and other pets.
According to a 2015 study by Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Srinagar-based Institute for Mental Health and Neuroscience (IMHANS), almost one in five people in Kashmir has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2016 study published by the Institute and ActionAid estimated that 11% of the population had a mental disorder well above the national average of around 7%.
This mental health crisis worsened when India imposed a security lockdown and communications outage in August 2019 after abolishing Kashmir’s autonomous status. Not long after, the coronavirus pandemic struck and Kashmiris found the walls that were approaching again.
The clinical psychologist Zoya Mir from IMHANS describes the state of mental health in Kashmir as a “ticking time bomb”. She says she has seen an increase in the number of patients since August 2019 and that around half of them are directly or indirectly affected by the situation in Kashmir. “The number of patients who visit the outpatient clinic has doubled. Today 350 to 400 patients visit the OPD, previously it was around 200,” says Mir.
Given that the benefits of owning pets are so well documented, pets help reduce loneliness and anxiety. They provide the owners with focus and structure for the day. and most importantly, they encourage their owners to play too – it’s no wonder the number of pet stores across Kashmir has risen so sharply in the past five years.
“It’s a way to deal with fear, loneliness and stress,” said Farah Qayoom, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Kashmir.
Dr. Shahid Hussain Dar, a veterinarian, said when he entered his government-funded veterinary clinic in 2010 he would only treat a handful of animals each month. Today he and his colleagues see around four to five pets a day, many more in private clinics.
“There was a lot of demand [for veterinary services] People from all over the region have been coming here for treatment for their pets since 2017, “says Dar. The unrest in Kashmir peaked in 2016-17, with more than 100 people killed and up to 15,000 injured in violence Street protests.
Above: When Shahid Hussain Dar started working as a veterinarian in 2010, he was treating only a handful of animals per month. Now he and his colleagues are four to five animals a day. Below: Bashir Ahmed and his daughter Batool Fatima with their cat Jaani in Dr. Shahid Hussain Dar. “She is my other child,” says Ahmed. (Photos by Mugais Malik)
Journalist Syed Shahriyar survived the shooting of a protest in the turmoil of 2016. A colleague was not so lucky and was blinded by a pellet pistol used by paramilitary forces. “He was lying in a pool of blood right in front of me, writhing in pain,” recalled 28-year-old Shahriyar.
While his colleague was losing his eyesight, Shahriyar said he had lost his peace of mind: “I had antidepressants for years. After this incident, I couldn’t sleep for days,” says Shahriyar, visibly nervous.
Shahriyar was prescribed medication and couldn’t get rid of his fear until he finally found peace and took care of his cousin’s cat, Kitty. “I didn’t like pets, but Kitty senses my mood and purrs in front of me when I’m downstairs. Feeling an animal’s love is wonderful,” said Shahriyar.
For the elderly, pets also offer companionship. 63-year-old Bashir Ahmad believes his cat helped him maintain his sanity during the long, empty days of the COVID lockdown through 2019 and the days that followed. Unlike dogs, cats are revered and loved in Muslim society. “I wouldn’t have made it without Janni,” said Ahmed of the consecutive suspensions.
“During the first wave of the pandemic, everyone told me not to leave her at home, but I knew she had to live with us, even if it meant contracting the virus,” Ahmed said, watching videos on his cell phone in front of his cat playing with him. “She is my other child,” he added with his daughter Fatima and nodded in agreement.
Today, as Jammu and Kashmir are hit by a deadly second wave of the pandemic and India sees more than 300,000 new cases daily, the country’s health system is on the brink of collapse.
With authorities imposing a series of new restrictions – but not yet fully finalized – the pandemic has only exacerbated uncertainty in a life in hardship that has faced so many Kashmiris over the past three decades.