India has the tremendous disadvantage of having two hostile and some not-so-friendly neighbours. In this situation a declining morale of the guardians of the nation’s frontiers is the last thing that the government or society wants.
In two days in succession there have been news highlighting the plight of two wings of the Indian defence forces. Just a day after the fire tragedy on the INS Sindhuratna — costing the lives of two naval officers — came the report on Thursday of a Rashtriya Rifles soldier in Jammu and Kashmir killing five of his colleagues before turning the trigger on himself.
While the first is a question of technological preparedness, the lack of which can be deadly, the second, the latest in a series, is one of stress that India’s army has to go through while guarding inhospitable terrain, away from family or home. It is noteworthy that a large number of cases of fratricidal killing have occurred in J&K. According to a statement from the defence ministry in Parliament, about 100 soldiers are committing suicide each year since 2003. With the advent of the mobile phone, pressure from families thousands of miles away can be excruciating. Also, studies done by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research point to a breakdown in officer-soldier relations. The problem has been compounded by the fact the army personnel is short by about 45,000, including more than 10,000 of officer rank.
Another problem of the defence forces relates to anomalies in the pay structure and the pension system. Till the mid-70s there used to be a separate pay commission for the defence sector. Once that was done away with, distortions began to emerge in the way salary scales were determined and the consequence of this was a plethora of litigation, leading to a Supreme Court order directing the government to pay salary arrears with interest to more than 20,000 soldiers, serving as well as retired. Representation in the pay commission has been a long-standing demand, which has again been ignored by the government for the seventh pay commission. In addition to this, though soldiers retiring before 60 are sometimes re-employed by the Centre, the practice of deducting their pension that they are supposed to get as retired servicemen from their new salary has been a source of disaffection.
India has the tremendous disadvantage of having two hostile and some not-so-friendly neighbours. In this situation a declining morale of the guardians of the nation’s frontiers is the last thing that the government or society wants. A career in defence — once a matter of prestige — is in danger of losing its attractiveness. The new government should do everything at its command to restore healthy working conditions in the army. A beginning towards that end can be not involving the army in tackling things such as communal riots and let the soldiers remain in the barracks except in a war-like situation.