From Ravish Kumar to marginalised groups, we need to discuss how bigotry affects mental health
Anubhooti Gupta
Opinion

From Ravish Kumar to marginalised groups, we need to discuss how bigotry affects mental health

It’s a price paid by minorities and others across the country on a daily basis.

By Shahla Khan

Published on :

Hatred affects us in more ways than we think.

In a recent interview, fans of journalist Ravish Kumar asked him about his mental health. Kumar, as humble and honest as ever, talked about his anxieties, when he’s sometimes forced to skip certain stories simply because of lack of resources. And about his insomnia and physiological pain from overwork, and the emotional damage due to the sheer nature of the news he covers.

Kumar has been trolled and abused, his privacy violated and his family’s safety put at risk, because of his staunch criticism of the status quo. He’s the last man standing, literally, in the Indian television space. Others like him, such as Faye D’Souza, Arifa Khanum, Abhisar Sharma, and Punya Prasun Bajpai, have been targeted for their work. Kumar’s work on NDTV India stands above the rest and it has a price: his mental health.

It’s a price paid by minorities across the country on a daily basis — and their wounds cut much deeper.

BLM protests in the US vs everyday persecution in India

On May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was brutally murdered by the police in broad daylight in Minnesota. Americans poured onto the streets in protest, Covid fears notwithstanding, and the online space was filled with support and donations towards the Black Lives Matter protests.

A prominent feature of these protests, and the mainstream discussions on systemic racism, was mental health. On his late-night talk show, for example, James Cordon, who is white, talked in detail with his Black staff member about the latter’s anger and fears. They discussed the mental health of marginalised communities since in America, the Black vs white debate expands to racists vs anti-racists.

But what about in India? The persecution of Dalits and Muslims often isn’t seen as a violation of human rights. Instead, it’s reduced to a political tool. The Hindu majority has made it pretty clear that the debate is about religion, not discrimination.

Not politics, but human rights

What is astonishing about the systemic oppression of Dalits and Muslims is how the majority of Indians are in denial about it. The United States, for all its flaws, recognised first slavery and then present-day racism as a problem. How do you address a problem if you don’t recognise its existence?

Let’s put this in perspective.

In 1992, I was a child. I didn’t understand the political scene of India. Later, when I watched Karan Thapar’s comprehensive coverage of the Babri Masjid demolition, I realised a key difference between then and now. Despite the demolition and provocative speeches from political leaders, the Indian on the street was not as hateful or polarised as they are today. A large majority of people did not condone the demolition, even if they didn’t viciously oppose it.

So, how did we get to this stage, and what does it have to do with mental health?

Everything.

Look at it through my privileged, yet not, lens, as a Muslim woman living abroad, but with family and friends in India. Earlier, it used to be the occasional riot. Then one day, you hear people on news channels openly disgracing a leader from your community. You watch Mohammad Akhlaq being lynched by a mob. You watch your community being labelled “anti-national”, or an enemy of the state, you hear about the disappearance of a Muslim student, with the entire state machinery unable to trace him. You look towards the state but they betray you.

You’re no longer able to sleep. You telephone home more often, worried about what’s happening. One day, you learn about a Sikh man in a temple in Uttarakhand, protecting a young Muslim man from a violent mob. You worry about your cousins in Uttarakhand, who often hang out with their friends near temples. You call and ask them to be hypervigilant.

You watch hate campaigns unfold on TV, speeches on the incompatibility of Hindus and Muslims, and how India belongs to the former. A young Muslim man from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Umar Khalid, is shot in the heart of Delhi. You look at what’s happening with him right now even. Or others like him such as Professor Apoorvanand or Ishrat Jahan and everyone who participated in protests in the last year. Students at JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia University are attacked. Sharjeel Imam is arrested after saying Assam should be “cut away from Hindu”. Meanwhile, a Hindu man openly asks the government to kick Muslims out of India and establish a Hindu Rashtra — but no one bats an eyelid.

If all this was not enough, the final step in the plan to uproot people of your faith is in action: the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Lucknow burns, as do Delhi and Mumbai. Bollywood adds to the discourse vilifying Muslims. Your schoolfriend — a Brahmin and a hardcore fan of Yogi Adityanath — who has been hitting on you since high school now finds you on social media. He hits on you again and when you refuse, he calls you an Arab, an ISIS terrorist, and threatens to report you.

Can you imagine what this does to a woman’s psyche?

You expect things to deescalate. Instead, they get worse, after insightful speeches by Kapil Mishra and Ragini Tiwari. There are riots. You watch videos of the police seemingly in cahoots with violent mobs that are attacking neighbourhoods, desecrating mosques, destroying homes, and forcing people to flee. There are reports of women being sexually assaulted. Bodies of Muslim men are found in gutters. Hindus die too but that’s the nature of hatred, isn’t it? It affects everyone, especially the people in the lower hierarchies of the social class.

A hardworking doctor, Kafeel Khan, has been imprisoned for over six months. A Muslim scholar, who is pregnant, spent months in jail under anti-terror laws. Should we even be surprised? This is the same nation where a man boasted about inserting a sword into the pregnant belly of a Muslim woman and ripping open her womb, and then burning her and the foetus, during the Gujarat riots.

Even the pandemic has seen an uptick in Islamophobia, from the Tablighi Jamaat circus, to reports of Muslim patients being denied treatment, to vegetable vendors being beaten up simply for being Muslim.

These individual incidences are brutal enough. But when you put them together in one frame, how does it feel? And these are just 10 percent, or less, of the total incidents happening, and without even counting the persecution of Dalits, because then this piece would turn into a book.

Connecting the dots between minority persecution and mental health

Dalits and Muslims in India face everything from everyday microaggressions to full-frontal genocide. In the US, extensive research has been done in several areas of life, politics, science and business around the topic of racial discrimination. In India, we aren’t even at the acknowledgement stage, let alone a body of research work on the impact of bigotry on marginalised communities.

However, through American literature on the impact of racism on mental health, similarities can be drawn to assess the tangible effects of this constant oppression on Muslims and Dalits.

As it says in this paper, Discrimination, attribution, and racial group identification: implications for psychological distress among Black Americans in the National Survey of American Life:

“Racial trauma can be defined as a traumatic response to race-related experiences that are collectively characterized as racism, including acts of prejudice, discrimination, or violence against a subordinate racial group based on attitudes of superiority held by the dominant group. Racial trauma can be caused by overt or covert actions carried out by individuals or society (e.g., aversive racism, modern/ symbolic racism, racial microaggressions, etc.). There is already strong evidence that over time, racial trauma can result in significant psychological and physiological damage in people of color, thereby contributing to various forms of psychopathology, including PTSD.”

From the mountains of research on the impacts of racism on mental health, here are three ways in which mental health is harmed due to bigotry:

Vicarious trauma - PTSD

There are a plethora of videos of mob lynchings, with perpetrators filming the violence being unleashed on helpless victims. The culprits’ faces beam with pride, mother-sister abuse sharing space with “Jai Shri Ram”. These videos go viral on social media, thanks to the thrill and shock value. The more people of that community watch the video, the more the trauma multiplies.

This is called “vicarious” trauma. When media outlets report these stories, uncovering details of victims and their family history, Dalits and Muslims who watch the videos immediately think, “That could have been me or mine..." The fact that politicians amplify hateful rhetoric rather than counter it throws marginalised communities further into the pit of PTSD.

Hypervigilance

For someone who has either been discriminated against, or traumatised first-hand, or conceived vicious trauma through social culture, a key feature to develop is “hypervigilance”.

As the Counselling Directory states, “Hypervigilance is a heightened state of arousal, stress or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. It can cause intense emotional reactions, anxiety and impulsive patterns of behaviour. It makes us feel alert to hidden dangers - a primal sense of threat, a feeling of treading around on eggshells without knowing why. Or the belief that you need to remain alert in case an impending disaster.”

I am not even in the country but my state of hypervigilance is heightened every few days, when I get nightmares in which I witness bloodbaths, my family in danger. I wake up with tears, sweat and breathing problems. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for lower-income families in high-risk communities.

Physiological ailments

Dr Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist in the US, has dedicated her entire research career to studying the impacts of racial discrimination on the mental health of its victims. The experience of ongoing microaggressions may begin to reshape individuals’ perceptions of themselves, their ethnic groups, and the benevolence of the world, leading to low self-esteem, psychological distress, and even suicidal ideation (O’Keefe, Wingate, Cole, Hollingsworth, & Tucker, 2015; Williams et al).

Racial trauma has shown in almost 99.9 percent of research to result in poor health outcomes. A study by Berger and Sarnyai found “chronically elevated cortisol levels and a dysregulated hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis appear to mediate effects of racial discrimination on allostatic load and disease. Racial discrimination seems to converge on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and may impair the function of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), hence showing substantial similarities to chronic social stress.”

Their paper provides a systematic literature on hormonal and neural effects of racial discrimination and a synthesis of potential neurobiological pathways by which discrimination affects mental health.

So, when Ravish Kumar shares details of his insomnia and other side-effects of his work, he isn’t just an overworked employee who needs a vacation. He is unable to separate himself from his work, even if he wanted to, due to his passion and empathy for his subject matter.

In this blog, Aunindyo Chakravarty rightly describes Kumar’s journalism as haunting. Perhaps a nation that believes more in the black magic-inducing powers of a woman, and less in the possibility of a man having mental health problems, might not have sympathy for Kumar’s mental health issues. But as Kumar himself said after winning the Magsaysay Award, “not all battles are fought for victory, some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”

In this piece, I have purposely not talked about therapy or access to mental health treatment. Because let’s be honest: how many underprivileged people have the luxury of seeking therapy? With regards to Kumar, I am at a difficult place because I don’t want to glorify his sacrifice, asking other people of privilege, like him, to take on so much empathy and share the traumas of the marginalised in India. On the other hand, if more people of privilege take on this burden, perhaps there won’t be a burden as heavy as this, under which the marginalised are crushed.

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