This article was first published on The Wire Science.
Among the many problematic issues revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nearly six month long lockdown it compelled in India was that of mental health.
A subject that few people had spoken about before March 2020 due to the stigma surrounding it, mental health suddenly thrust itself on the public consciousness due to the lockdown, when people were confined in small spaces for months, often even out of reach of the Sun, and issues like depression and anxiety could no longer be concealed.
According to a recent World Health Report, one out of eight persons in the world suffers from mental health issues. Many, if not most, of these people likely live in urban areas, according to the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health, an international think tank that focuses on incorporating better mental health practices in cities.
In India, some 80% of the people who suffer from mental health issues do not receive treatment, according to the National Mental Health Survey for 2015-2016. The survey also found that depression, anxiety and eating disorders are more common among women in urban areas than in rural areas.
When I combined all this information with the fact that, according to the 2011 Census, more Muslims live in urban areas than in rural areas, I suspected that the mental health situation of India’s urban Muslim communities is likely to be very grim.
Unfortunately, the study I conducted to examine the situation did not prove me wrong.
Life in a ghetto
During my field work, from August 2019 to March 2021, I used a phenomenological approach to understand the daily life of Muslims in Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, and their mental well-being in a time of socio-political chaos. This qualitative research approach involves interviewing people about their lived experiences, rather than what they think about these experiences.
Jamia Nagar is located in the south of the national capital and has a dense Muslim population with limited social services and amenities. Academicians and media persons often call Jamia Nagar a “Muslim ghetto”. The word ‘ghetto’ refers to a cluster of the homes of the community most persecuted by the state, such as the Blacks in America and the Jews in Europe. In India, it is Muslims who live in ‘ghettos’.
“Basically, a ghetto does not have the services and facilities [available in the rest of the city] and residents live there at their own risk and in a perilous situation because of safety and security issues,” said 30-year-old Mansoor.
My research observed that Muslim women feel more suffocated in urban settlements due to their lack of interaction with neighbours and the lack of affordable and safe public transport that would allow them to step out of their homes regularly.
“They spend the whole day in a tiny room or flat without proper ventilation or an open balcony, either engaging in household chores or spending time on their mobile phones,” said 40-year-old Harun.
A recent report on the adverse effect of social media on mental health indicates that these women, already vulnerable to mental health issues, could suffer even more assaults on their mental health.
Men, on the other hand, experience discrimination and humiliation on various levels: personal, societal and economic.
For example, when they step beyond their settlements or do business with non-Muslims, they become targets of communal remarks and comments. Even their jobs and businesses are often affected by communal affairs. Sometimes, they even lose their jobs or businesses due to communal tension.
“Those who had jobs are losing them and business affairs are also being affected due to the behaviour of non-Muslims and those who live outside our settlements. How can you make your dream true when you struggle just to live? Abhi toh izzat bachana bhari hai, Muslim ke liye” (Hindi for ‘now, it is hard for Muslims to even save their self-respect’), said 55-year-old Amin, a political and social activist.
A vicious circle
Factors like these can adversely impact mental stability and agony among Muslims, including the children, many of whom have different issues that reflect their poor mental health and physical engagement.
“They do not have good schools, space to play and open places where they can interact with others,” said 34-year-old Shiraz, a researcher. “They do not have space for educational and physical activities and to relieve stress.”
Most Muslim settlements across Delhi lack public schools, parks and open spaces. They tend to be very congested and without proper sewage and waste management. This lack of cleanliness in the external environment also influences the mental health of the residents of the settlements.
“Congested lanes filled with garbage and filthy roads are not walkable,” explained 40-year-old Nausaba.
Whether directly or indirectly, many Muslims are forced to live in these miserable conditions. These poor environmental conditions are another salient factor of Muslim settlements that needs research.
Finally, the physical segregation of communities leads to psychological segregation and marginalisation. While urban settlements offer Muslims independent lives, they also deeply affect their mental health. In fact, Muslims are more endangered than other communities in India due to the current atmosphere of socio-political chaos and communalisation.
“Restlessness and fear make our life hell,” said 34-year-old Abu, an entrepreneur.
The worst affected among them mostly live in concentrated settlements that are often rudely referred to as ‘Mini Pakistan’ and ‘Terrorist Training Centre’. The residents of Jamia Nagar have had to live with epithets like these since at least 2008, when the controversial Batla House encounter took place.
Thus, political moves to sideline Muslims have created a grim situation which leads to poor mental health and insecurity. This insecurity forces Muslims to live in spatially segregated settlements in hazardous conditions, without proper drinkable water, ventilation, waste management and health services, which can lead to mental health issues. It is a vicious circle.
Effect on public health
Sound mental health not only affects a person’s overall well-being, but also improves creativity and increases economic and social potential.
But in India, the lives of Muslim citizens grow tougher by the day, owing to the political and economic hardships meted to them by the state and the polarised media. Their mental health is disturbed by political coercion as well as a lack of space and privacy.
Mental health issues and spatial segregation are bound to have ramifications on all urban settlements and health services in the country. India’s public health system is already in a poor condition. Now it will also have to cope with an influx of patients with mental health issues.
The author thanks Mahbubul Amin Mazumder, master’s student at CeMIS, University of Göttingen, and Abid Faheem, PhD scholar at the CSMHC, JNU, for their valuable comments and critical assessment of the article.
Featured image: Ana Singh/Unsplash