There are few surprises in the findings of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence on the increasing number of suicides in the armed forces. In its report tabled in the House last Friday, it rightly criticises the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for not going the extra mile to check suicides and fratricides in the army. It points out the glaring absence of a “judicious set-up” in the armed forces, which could help handle complaints of jawans through interaction with civil authorities. This couldn’t be truer, since most suicide cases often are due to social, criminal, or civil cases pending against defence personnel.
It is no secret that the most important cause for suicides in the armed forces is a faulty grievance redressal machinery. It is shameful that more than 100,000 grievance cases of armed forces personnel are pending in courts and services headquarters. This causes undue stress and misery to the aggrieved soldier, for whom even a trifle would often suffice to take the extreme step of committing suicide or to kill his superiors. It is true that the MoD has been trying to cut down stress levels in the forces. The decision to remove the distance limit on free travel warrant to uniformed personnel, the offer of two — instead of one — free travel warrant annually to soldiers posted in counter-insurgency areas, and the hike in allowances for serving in high altitude theatres are commendable. But much more needs to be done.
Although it has not fought a full-blown war after 1971 (but for the limited action in Kargil in 1999), the army is bogged down in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east. Fighting insurgency, guarding borders, and helping civilian authorities keep law and order put jawans at higher risk of combat stress. This along with bad service conditions, inadequate home leave, and the communication gap between officers and men make for an explosive mix. Therefore, the need of the hour is a programme to teach soldiers and their superiors how to recognise mental health problems in themselves and others, and to overcome a culture that attaches a stigma to seeking help.