The army has sent a powerful message down its ranks that incidents of 'fragging' - killing of an officer by a jawan – will not be tolerated and will warrant the harshest punishment. A sepoy found guilty of murdering a lieutenant colonel in Jammu and Kashmir has been sentenced to death by a court martial.
Sepoy Suresh Chandra Behera of 28 Rashtriya Rifles had gunned down Lieutenant Colonel Saket Saxena at Harwan near Srinagar following an altercation last October. The death penalty has been awarded by a Summary General Court Martial (SGCM), which is the quickest trial available in the army. It is ordered only during war, active service or when an offence is committed overseas.
It is rare for a military court to award the death sentence. Lieutenant General Hriday Kaul (retd), who was commissioned in the army in 1948, told HT, "This is perhaps the first time since Independence that a soldier has been awarded the death penalty."
The SGCM tried Behara on charges of murder, criminal intimidation and using threatening language towards a superior. The sentence is yet to be confirmed by the Central government and even if it is approved the sepoy will have the right to appeal to a civil court. Under the Army Act, death sentence may be awarded for wilful murder, treason leading to murder, mutiny and cowardice.
Former army vice chief Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi said, "The punishment would have been less severe had the same offence been committed in a non-field area. Discipline is the cornerstone of an effective fighting force."
Stretched out to its limits in the counter-terrorism grid, the army acknowledges that it is critical for it to meet the "fragging" challenge – 23 incidents were reported last year. The figures for 2005 and 2004 stand at 13 and nine, respectively. Rising numbers of fragging and suicide --- about 100 soldiers commit suicide every year –-underline how mental stress and physical fatigue are taking a toll on the army.
The Ministry of Defence has constituted an expert panel under the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) to suggest remedial measures. Courts of inquiry into fragging incidents link them to "perceived harassment by seniors and disagreements between colleagues."
The measures taken by the army to keep soldiers in the right frame of mind include yoga and meditation programmes, liberalised leave rules, rotation of units to minimise exposure to stress and training JCOs as counselors. The Armed Forces Medical Services has sent a proposal to the MoD to hire over 350 psychologists in the next five years.