That there is a problem in the Indian Army, leading to instances of suicides and fratricidal killings, is obvious. In the past month or so, there were six incidents leading to the death of 10 soldiers, a captain and a lieutenant colonel. But while we know we have a problem on our hands, it is more difficult to come up with a remedy. The Indian Army has had a long innings fighting insurgencies, going as far back as 1956 when the Naga revolt began. Even in Kashmir, it has now been on battle-stations for a good 17 years, and yet there has been no period when the problem has appeared as bad as it does now. There are several pop-psychological explanations like battle stress and domestic difficulties, and no doubt the causes are a mix of these and other factors.
In our view, however, the problem is managerial — in the quality of management of the army by its officer corps and the Ministry of Defence. One reason why the army had little trouble on this front earlier was that its infantry units had a strong esprit de corps, based as they were in their so-called ‘single-class units’. There seems to be a deterioration of the management of such units, compounded by the creation of newer units like the Rashtriya Rifles, where soldiers and officers from different corps are temporarily assigned. Where earlier, officers bonded with their men from the very beginning of their respective careers, today they don’t know them well and lose track of their problems. Another aspect of this is the lack of adequate housing for jawans serving in field areas. With the breakdown of the joint-family system, jawans’ families end up living in urban slums when the jawan is away in a field station. The fault here is clearly of the Ministry of Defence and the Government of India for ignoring an issue that has plagued the army since the Eighties.
Given the internal security situation, the problem of battle stress will not go away soon. But the government must at least fix the problems that it can. Units must be strictly rotated from field to peace stations and soldiers must be compulsorily given their annual leave. Simultaneously, a quick building programme must be undertaken to wipe out the deficit in jawans’ housing, and attention paid to the quality of soldiers’ family life.