Breaking down

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

According to the Ministry of Defence, the Indian Army is losing more soldiers to suicides and fratricides than to militancy-related incidents.

in New Delhi

ON August 17, K. Muthu, a jawan from a military engineer regiment, climbed a 200-foot-high telephone tower near the New Delhi railway station and threatened to jump if an attempt was made to force him down. He wanted to speak to Defence Minister A.K. Antony and tell him about the pathetic working conditions of soldiers in the Indian Army. His own complaint was that he had been ill-treated by his senior officers, not paid salary for the past eight months, denied leave, and transferred frequently. He remained atop the tower for five days despite the best efforts of senior officers, including the Vice Chief of the Army Staff, Lt. Gen. S.K. Singh. He could only be brought down after he fainted on August 21. He is now recuperating at Base Hospital in Delhi Cantonment. Not many in the past have been so lucky.

Arun V., a soldier posted at a military camp of 16th Light Cavalry in the border district of Samba in Jammu and Kashmir, shot himself with his service rifle on the morning of August 8 inside the camp. His suicide was attributed to simmering tension between the officers and jawans of the camp. When the news of his suicide spread, jawans went on the rampage, attacking officers, who had to lock themselves inside their quarters to save themselves. Two Army units had to be rushed to the camp to control the situation and rescue the officers, who were shifted to various messes outside the camp. The situation there continues to be tense, and an inquiry is on.

Yet another serious case of indiscipline by soldiers, again attributed to tension with senior officers, occurred in an artillery regiment at Nyoma in Ladakh in May, when officers and jawans violently clashed with each other following an altercation. The clash left the unit commanding officer, two majors and two jawans seriously injured. An inquiry is under way in this case also.

Chilling reality

These are not isolated incidents. Something seems to be seriously wrong with the mental health of members of the 1.13-million-strong Indian Army. Otherwise highly motivated soldiers, who are trained to handle pressure, are breaking down and either taking their own lives or attacking their officers, at times even killing them. The chilling reality, according to the figures put out by officials of the Ministry of Defence, is that the Army is losing more soldiers to suicides and fratricides than to militancy-related incidents. Every third day, a soldier kills himself.

DIPR study

The suicide rate in the Army is shocking, averaging over 100 every year since 2003, according to the Defence Minister. In a statement he made in Parliament on August 8, Antony said 1,018 soldiers had committed suicide since 2003, with the yearly toll regularly going over 100. He said fratricide had also become a regular phenomenon in the Army. He informed the House that according to a study done by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), an institute of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), perceived humiliation and harassment at the hands of their superiors, over and above occupational and family causes, was stressing soldiers so much that they were either killing themselves or taking the lives of their fellow soldiers or officers.

According to the 31st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, from 2007 to 2010, 208 soldiers lost their lives in action against militants, while 368 killed themselves, and another 15 to 30 soldiers tried to kill themselves but failed.

The committee expressed serious concern at the fact that enhanced stress, leading to psychological imbalance, had emerged as a major killer in the Indian Army, much more dangerous than any counter-insurgency or militant threat. But it also expressed concern that the Army was still loath to talk about it, that the studies carried out by the DIPR or other institutions were kept secret, and that recommendations to the government remained on paper most of the time. What is the harm if such reports are made public and debated openly? This will give soldiers at least some solace that people are concerned about their problems and care enough to discuss solutions, Satpal Maharaj, Chairman of the committee, said. Repeated efforts by Frontline to get the DIPR to comment on the issue were futile.

The most unfortunate part of this problem is that there is no transparent debate, the tendency mostly is to keep such debate cloaked in secrecy or brush it under the carpet, at both the Army and government levels, said Col. K.C. Dixit, a Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, who authored an extensive study on the issue of stress in the Army, which was published by the IDSA.

Col. Dixit, talking to Frontline, said soldiers were able to handle professional hardships, tough working conditions, poor living facilities, even the long separation from their families if they believed that their seniors in the forces cared enough; that the civil administration outside was concerned enough to try and find solutions to the problems they faced; that the government was attentive to their pleas; that their families were well taken care of in their absence; and that their future was secure once they left the Army. But all this is lacking. At the fag end of their career, when it is time to walk out, they feel cheated, he said.

A young man joins the Army with a sense of pride and honour, but when he goes back to society, that pride and honour is not reflected in the way civil society treats him. Gradually, a sense of despondency builds up, and when this gets combined with issues relating to occupational hardships or humiliation at the hands of seniors, it acts as a trigger, he said, adding, Things are not that rosy in the Army. His extensive study, based on available literature, reports and interactions and surveys during field trips, has ample evidence of that.

Main factors

The following are listed in the study as the main factors causing stress:

1. Lack of responsiveness of the civil administration, leading to soldiers feeling a sense of helplessness when they try to solve problems when they visit their homes on routine leave.

2. Poor interpersonal relationship between officers and jawans, which at times translates into humiliation at the hands of seniors.

3. Non-realisation of personal career ambitions, especially of those who spend most of their working life on field assignments, which are mostly tougher than peace station postings.

4. Non-availability of a quick appellate mechanism, leading to a large number of service-related matters remaining pending for a long time.

5. Social apathy.

6. Retirement blues. Most of the workforce retires comparatively young when soldiers are still in fighting fit condition, but service rules are such that they have to go even though there are few opportunities available for re-employment outside the Army.

7. Tough working conditions.8. Domestic problems.

9. Lack of adequate counselling and treatment.

According to Col. Dixit, what has actually worsened the situation is that over the years the system within the Army, too, has degraded, and the disparity in the pay and perks of soldiers vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts only adds to the problem, with the bureaucracy just not doing anything about it. The mindset within the bureaucracy has to change if matters are to improve, he said. This was mentioned in the report of the Parliamentary Committee as well, which rued the fact that the government just sat on the recommendations forwarded by the committee.

Extensive interaction with serving Army officers, none of whom wanted to be named, for obvious reasons, also brings out the fact that there is a growing tendency of one-upmanship within the Army, and this takes its toll on the mental health of officers and jawans. Whenever there is a change at the top, those down the line pay the price on the basis of their perceived affiliations. The starkest example of this is the recent change in the office of the Chief of the Army Staff. There is an allegation that those perceived to be loyal to the previous chief have been shunted out to insignificant posts. One case is that of an officer who was heading the Technical Support Division, a wing of military intelligence which was created by Gen. V.K. Singh, and was reporting directly to him. This unit had come under a cloud during the generals tenure for the infamous phone-tapping incident in the Ministry of Defence. This division was dismantled the division, and its head has alleged harassment.

Shortage of officers

Another factor that could be instrumental in adding to the stress level is the acute shortage of officers. According to the 2009 figures of the Ministry of Defence, there was a deficiency of some 14,300 officers in the three services, with the Army being the worst affected. It was short of 11,387 officers, the Navy of 1,512 officers and the Air Force of 1,400 officers. According to senior Army officials, this shortage was leading to greater stress among junior and middle-level officers because they had to perform multi-level functions, which left them with little time for interpersonal interactions with the personnel under their command. When this is added to hostile working conditions such as inhospitable terrain, climate and environment, especially in insurgency-affected areas, it becomes a potentially explosive situation, needing only a little spark to cause an outburst, as was witnessed in Samba and Nyoma. It is not clear what remedial action the Army or the Defence Ministry is taking in this regard. Neither answered queries relating to this.

The Army, however, is candid about admitting that stress has indeed emerged as an issue in recent times. Yes, we are aware that rising stress level has emerged as an issue, but in most cases it is domestic problems, and not the professional situation, which is the main factor. The service environment only provides the trigger. But we have evolved systemic measures to deal with this. In cases where seniors are found to be instrumental in adding to the stress, action has been taken, said the Army spokesman. These systemic measures, he said, included a comprehensive mental health programme, which was started by the Army in 2000-01. Twenty-two psychiatric treatment centres have since been established, which, besides providing mental health services, train trainers. So far over 950 of them have been trained. Over 1,000 religious teachers employed by the Army also provide counselling services to personnel.

But it is debatable whether the facilities available are enough for a force that has a strength of 1.13 million. Besides, counselling centres and staff are located at base hospitals, not in the field areas where they are actually required. So their efficacy remains doubtful. Muthus case is an example. Before being posted to Delhi, he was in Bangalore, where he had psychological problems and was treated for a short while. Obviously, that treatment did not help.

Treatment should be the last resort. Actual effort should be to improve the system, both within and outside, so that it does not come to the point where an educated, highly trained, motivated young man, who is willing to lay down his life for his country, is reduced to a bundle of rattled nerves, said a senior officer. Is anyone listening?

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