Armed Forces

Unhappy Army

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Newly recruited Assam Rifles jawans take the oath during the special attestation parade at the Sukhovi Assam Rifles Training Centre and School on the outskirts of Dimapur. A file picture. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Gentlemen cadets of the Indian Military Academy at the passing-out parade in Dehradun. A file picture. Photo: S. Subramanium

The growing number of clashes between officers and jawans indicate a serious crisis in the Indian Army which has resulted from the prolonged apathy of the military and political leaderships.

ON October 14, Col B.M. Hansra, the commanding officer of the 22 National Cadet Corps (Army wing) battalion on Batala, was assaulted by jawans after he admonished a havildar for not reporting for duty on time. The havildar, belonging to the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment, was on deputation to the Batala unit. A court of inquiry (CoI) has been ordered into the matter. This was the second such incident involving officers and jawans in a span of five days. On October 10, jawans beat up officers in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh after an altercation during a boxing match. Two Army majors and one jawan, again belonging to the 10 Sikh Light Infantry unit, were injured in the incident. In this incident, too, a CoI has been ordered.

What is worrying is that such face-offs have been on the rise in the last couple of years. On August 8 last year, jawans agitated against the commanding officer and certain functionaries of the 16 Cavalry regiment at Samba in the Jammu region, while on May 10-11, 2012, officers and other ranks of the 226 Artillery regiment clashed at the Mahe field firing range in the Nyoma sector in Leh. Earlier, on April 29, 2010, an altercation took place between an officer and a jawan of the 45 Cavalry unit in Gurdaspur, Punjab.

In all these cases, the Army, which follows a zero-tolerance policy in matters relating to discipline, has taken disciplinary or administrative action against more than 200 officers and jawans. This was following instructions from the Defence Minister that exemplary punishment should be meted out to the guilty in all such cases to ensure that “necessary preventive lessons” are learnt.

Frontline made futile efforts to find out from the Army what institutional mechanisms have been put in place to tackle the problem at its roots. Is psychological/behavioural counselling a part of the training regimen of officers since discipline and respect for hierarchy forms the bedrock of the Army? An Army public relations officer declined to provide any information, maintaining that “these things keep happening out there, sitting here how are we to know what’s happening?”.

The problem of communication gaps has been plaguing the Army. The Army headquarters has no clue as to what is happening out there in its various regiments. According to some senior retired officers, the problems have their roots in the changing socio-economic situation and perception of concepts such as discipline and hierarchy. “In the past few years, the difference between the socio-economic strata of officers and jawans has reduced. Earlier, jawans mostly came from rural areas and were not that well–educated, while officers came from higher socio-economic strata. So complete subordination of jawans to officers was not an issue. Things have changed now. While the majority of officers are sons of Junior Commissioned Officers, jawans also are mostly from the same background. Even when they are from a non-military background, they are better educated and more aspirational than before. They are not willing to put up with the feudal, paternal hierarchy anymore and refuse to accept abusive behaviour by officers. This leads to clashes sometimes,” says Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh, acting chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement, himself a psychological/behavioural expert and one who has headed many Service Selection Boards (SSB). He has also been an instructor at the Indian Military Academy (IMA, Dehradun) and has evaluated many doctoral theses on related issues. The changing socio-economic profile of its personnel had to be factored into the Army’s training module, but perhaps that was not happening, he said.

He said more personal interaction between officers and jawans was needed for better bonding, but this would not be possible in view of the shortage of officers the Indian Army is facing. The Army, as per the latest reports, is short of 14,000 officers. This puts the existing lot, especially in operational areas, under tremendous pressure. The actual fallout of this crippling shortage is worrying from the operational point of view. Against the sanctioned strength of 22 to 27 officers for every regiment, only 10 to 12 officers are available in each unit. If one takes into account those on leave or temporary duty or attending courses, and so on, the effective strength comes down to four or five officers a unit, which normally has a manpower of 600 to 800.

“The right amount of supervision is next to impossible in this situation and the first casualty is basic drills, which are an integral part of officers’ interaction with the men. This leads to a communication gap between officers and jawans and all other problems, such as stress, suicides and fratricide, follow suit,” said a senior Army officer.

Stress is a major problem in the Army ( Frontline, September 21, 2012). Last year, Defence Minister A.K. Antony asked the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to conduct a study on this aspect and submit a report. The report is likely to be submitted soon.

Army recruitment

On the face of it, if the intake of personnel, especially officers, is streamlined, many problems will disappear. But nothing much seems to be happening on that count. The shortage of officers has not arisen overnight. It is the result of prolonged neglect by the government; figures available for intake point to a steady decline in Army recruitment since 1971. Figures available until 2009, for example, suggest that the recruitment of officers through Permanent Commission and Short Service Commission (SSC) had been declining over the years. In 2006, for instance, only 1,489 cadets joined the IMA for training after their stint in the National Defence Academy (Khadakwasla) against the sanctioned strength of 1,633. In 2007, it was 1,351. In 2008, the sanctioned strength was lowered to 1,540, but only 1,159 joined. In 2009, too, only 1,262 joined against the sanctioned strength of 1,540. At the Officers’ Training Academy (OTA), Chennai, where SSC officers are trained, against the authorised strength of 700 a year, only 575 joined in 2006, 497 in 2007, 407 in 2008 and 315 in 2009. These figures were given out by the Defence Ministry on November 30, 2009, in reply to a question in Parliament. The Defence Minister had then detailed the measures proposed to improve the intake. They are

• Making SSC attractive through measures such as grant of ex-servicemen status to all SSC officers who complete their terms of service and provision of canteen (Canteen Stores Department, or CSD) and medical facilities under the Employees Contributory Health Services (ECHS) scheme.

• Opening of professional training institutes under the Army Welfare Education Society to provide affordable professional education to the children of Army men;

• Image projection campaigns;

• Enhanced physical interaction with the target audience, in which recruiting officers visit universities and colleges for motivational talks; and

• Setting up another OTA.

Significantly enough, none of these measures has been implemented, not even the grant of ex-servicemen status to SSC officers or the provision of ECHS or CSD facilities. A letter written by Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh to the Defence Minister on August 7, 2012, seeking the implementation of the measures, has remained unacknowledged to date.

Another reason for the shortage of personnel is the recruitment formula, which is based on the recruitable male population in each region. It is fixed at 10 per cent for each region, but often many regions, such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and south India, fail to fill their quota and so seats for these regions remain vacant. Sometimes, such vacancies are filled by candidates from other regions but since it is done on an ad hoc basis there is no consistency in the numbers coming in from each region, serving officers say.

Pay and perks

Add to this the not-so-attractive pay and perks, and the choice of Army as a career falls way below other emerging and more lucrative options. In the matter of pay and perks, it may be mentioned that until the Fourth Pay Commission, the salary of military personnel was a notch higher than that in other government sectors. But this was reversed in 1986 and the pay and pension of the armed forces personnel fell below civilian salaries. To compound the problem, even genuine dues by way of rank pay got embroiled in litigation in the Supreme Court. Military personnel’s demand for “one rank one pension” has been hanging fire. “Army is no longer the first career choice for many; it has become just one of the many second options and the casualty is quality,” said another senior officer.

Why does the government not address these problems? “The political leadership of the day is weak. Maybe it has good intentions, but it is taken for a ride by the bureaucracy,” says former Army chief V.K. Singh, who says many of the problems plaguing the Army have their roots in an indifferent bureaucracy. What is unfortunate is that instead of seeing things for itself, the political leadership is blindly guided by bureaucrats even in such sensitive matters, he says. Besides, he says, there is this ridiculous idea among the civilian rulers that keeping the Army happy and contented will result in it seizing control. Hence, the tendency to brush issues under the carpet.

But for how long? Has it not already caused enough problems? Is it not a fact that 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 figures put out by officials of the Defence Ministry, is that the Army is losing more soldiers to suicide and fratricide than to militancy-related incidents. Every third day, a soldier kills himself.

According to A.K. Antony’s statement in Parliament, the suicide rate in the Army is shocking, averaging over 100 every year since 2003. He said 1,018 soldiers had committed suicide since 2003, with the annual 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), a DRDO institution, 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, between 2007 and 2010 some 208 soldiers lost their lives in action against militants, while 368 killed themselves and 15 to 30 soldiers attempted to kill themselves.

With such chilling facts staring one in the face and with the unpleasant situation on our borders, one would have thought that both the political and military leaderships would get cracking to set the mental and physical health of the forces right. But, unfortunately, that is not happening. If at all it is happening, it is happening with such secrecy that nobody, not even the forces themselves, knows about it.