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The enemy lies within

With two more personnel ending their lives this week, the suicide toll in the army has touched 54 so far in 2007, report Rahul Singh and Veenu Sandhu.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2007 02:35 IST

It is among the world’s most battle-hardened forces and rouses awe and admiration among the best armies. However, of late, the 1.1-million strong Indian Army has been in the public glare not for the pantheon of heroes it has spawned or its tireless efforts in the strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, but because of a series of internal problems.

Since 2002, more than 450 soldiers have killed themselves. Last year, the army recorded 120 suicides. And this year, 54 soldiers have already taken the extreme step. The most recent case was the suicide by an infantry soldier in Jammu on July 2. This was just a day after 26-year-old lady officer Captain Megha Razdan of 113 Engineering Regiment allegedly committed suicide, again in Jammu. Clearly, all is not well with the world’s third largest army.

Living on the edge

<b1>Ask the officers what is driving soldiers over the edge, and the reason they give is common across all ranks: insurgency. “After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, India fought a visible enemy only in 1999, during the Kargil conflict,” says a serving colonel. “And yet, for over two decades now we have been constantly at war with an enemy we do not recognise — the faceless terrorist,” he adds. It’s a war without rules where you’re mostly shooting in the dark, he says. “The man who poses as a friend or an informer could be a militant. The soldier knows this. He also knows that he could be sent out on dangerous mission at any time of the day, on a short notice. So, he’s on tenterhooks 24 hours a day, all year round,” says Col SS Sandhu, who commanded an infantry battalion in the insurgency-prone Nagaland and Manipur.

The workload is immense and the army is seriously understaffed. “Today, every regiment has 10 to 14 officers against the authorised strength of 22,” says Maj Raghav Rao who is posted in Jammu. Besides, on top of a mountain, Sundays and Mondays mean the same, he says. “Life is a bed, food, exercise, and a phone call that could bring you face to face with a man aiming a gun at you,” he says.

Along with all this, the soldier has to deal with hostile weather and treacherous terrain. “Every time the soldier heads back to his post after a well-deserved leave spent with his family, there is the realisation that this could be the last time he is seeing his loved ones,” says Major Anand Gaur who has served a tenure in the militancy-afflicted Kupwara. And when the soldier sees the families of fallen soldiers being given a raw deal, his worries multiply, he adds.

In a report submitted to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) has identified abusive language, perceived humiliation by superiors, poor command and control, increased workload and the issue of leave as the chief precipitating factors for suicide among troops.

Army spokesman Col SK Sakhuja, however, says, “At 7.5 per lakh, the suicide rate in the army is way below the national average of 11.5 per lakh. For every soldier who commits suicide, nearly four are killed on the battlefield.”

Dying a soldier’s death?

Reports of the army distancing itself from soldiers and their families in the time of crisis don’t do much for the morale. Veena Kohli, mother of 26-year-old Capt Sumit Kohli, who the army claimed committed suicide near Kupwara on April 30 last year, says she’s a living example of this. “My husband and I were at a function when someone from 18 Rashtriya Rifles called up to say Sumit was no more,” recalls Veena. Her husband suffered a brain haemorrhage on hearing the news. The day Capt Kohli’s body was cremated in Chandigarh, where his family lives, his father breathed his last. “I cremated Sumit on May 3. The next day, I cremated my husband,” says Veena, breaking down.

The family is not convinced that Capt Kohli, who had received the Shaurya Chakra for gallantry just three months earlier, committed suicide. “It’s a cover-up. For the last one year, I have been running from pillar to post to get his forensic and post-mortem reports, but the army is not helping. It’s a wall I can’t get past,” says Veena. “All they kept saying is that he took the step because of some domestic problem. Isn’t that what the army says each time a soldier ends his life?” she asks.

But a senior army officer maintains, “The forensic and postmortem reports are with the police. The army has nothing to do with it. These procedures take time.”

Boys don’t cry

Both retired and serving officers say that suicide or any visible sign of depression or frustration is looked upon as a weakness in a force that continues to remain a cohesive unit despite the odds because of its do-or-die spirit. “The army frowns upon any sign of weakness,” says Col Raj Sondhi. “A man in uniform is not supposed to walk around with a long face. That’s an unwritten rule,” he adds. At no cost must the josh dip. The officer is aware of this and internalises his problem. “When it comes to mental health, the soldier and the army both have for long been in denial mode. As a result, by the time his colleagues realise that the officer needs help, it is often too late,” says Maj G Tiwatia.

Little wonder then that mental disorders have assumed dangerous proportions. In the last three years, there has been a 45 per cent jump in the number of troops being discharged from service because of such disorders. As many as 1,263 troops were sent home during 2004-2006 after being diagnosed with psychosis, neurosis, personality disorders, depression and alcohol dependence syndrome.

The spate of fratricidal killings is also a fallout of this, senior army officials say. Last year accounted for 23 such cases. Military psychologists attribute the killings to a variety of factors, including poor morale in the unit, misplaced discipline, unrealistic demands by superiors, monotonous duties and class conflict.

“Leave is a big issue among soldiers. Given the circumstances, the soldier does not know how long it will take for his leave to be sanctioned,” says Col SK Vohra, who served in the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Warangte in Mizoram. “Even if there is some family problem, the reliever could take frustratingly long,” says a serving major. Pushed to the brink, some soldiers pull the trigger on themselves or their colleagues. This year alone, three jawans have been sentenced to death for turning the gun on their comrades.

Meanwhile, the MoD has set up a high-level inter-services monitoring committee to scrutinise every case of suicide and fratricide to pinpoint causes.

The motto for officers — lead from the front — which was supposed to help boost the morale of the jawans has in some cases worked the other way. The DIPR study, conducted by military psychologists on over 2,000 soldiers across the counter-terrorism grid in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, found that middle-rank officers are more vulnerable and stressed out than junior commissioned officers and jawans.

A senior army officer says the pressure to project a strong front has nothing to do with the army. “Isn’t that what the Indian society as a whole expects of men?” he says adding that the army encourages its men to voice their problems. “We have a ‘buddy system’, where two officers who are compatible are always together, during operations and otherwise. This aids communication,” he adds.

Battling battle fatigue

Already short of over 11,000 officers, the largest and the oldest branch of the Indian armed forces that include the air force and the navy, is also contending with officers seeking to quit. Figures tabled in Parliament show that 811 officers sought premature retirement during 2006 compared to 536 in 2005 and 435 in the year before. Apart from that, 35,255 personnel below officer rank have been given voluntary retirement in the last three years.

“It’s sad to see so many officers wanting to leave the army,” says Vishal Batra, the twin brother of Kargil hero Capt Vikram Batra, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously. Yesterday (July 7) was Capt Batra’s eighth death anniversary. Eight years since Kargil, there has been no let-up in the pressure on the army. “Can you really blame an officer for wanting to quit when he is paid pittance as compared to what his counterparts in the corporate sector get?” asks Vishal. To top it, the officer spends an unpredictable life away from his family, he adds. Vishal says the government needs to do more for the men who put their lives on the line for the nation.

From Capt Batra’s batch — the Indian Military Academy’s 101st course that passed out in December 1997 — at least 12 officers have already quit and about 25 have put in the request to be relieved. All of those who quit were among the top 100 in the batch of 353 officers.

“It’s worse when you desperately want to leave the army, but it doesn’t allow you to. It’s a horrible feeling of being trapped and not being able to do anything about it,” says a captain whose request to be relieved has been denied twice. “Now I can leave the army only after another 12 years, when I have completed 20 years in service. By then I will be 42 years old. Who will give me a job outside?” he asks. Despite the frustration, he says he is expected to go about his duties without a crease between his brows.

Considering how much money and time the army invests in training an officer, the force has the prerogative to decide whether or not to relieve an officer, says a senior army official.

Combating the problem

Following the DIPR report, the army has been asked to ensure smoother communication across ranks. The report also highlighted the dangers of employing troops in demeaning household chores or handing out physical punishment.

Several measures have been taken in the recent months to prevent suicides but with no tangible results. Defence Minister AK Antony has ordered the army to make leave rules more liberal to enable soldiers to attend to their domestic problems.

Troops are also being encouraged to go for yoga and meditation classes. “Rest and rehabilitation stations have been set up to help soldiers recoup after a tenure in insurgency-prone areas,” says a serving colonel. A major who has served in the Valley, however, contends that this is but a superficial exercise. “A couple of soldiers who can be spared are sent for these compulsory yoga and meditation workshops from various regiments on rotation. No specific effort is made to counsel individual soldiers and help reintegrate and rehabilitate them in a peace station,” he adds. They are expected to slip into the new routine after witnessing violence firsthand, says the officer.

Meanwhile, greater emphasis is being placed on the rotation of units to terrorism-affected areas. “Even so, troops are coming to peace stations for shorter stints,” says a Major General. As stress levels skyrocket, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) — the interface between jawans and officers — are being trained as counsellors. There’s also a proposal to hire over 400 psychologists over the next five years. Antony has asked the state governments to ensure that civil administration is more responsive to the problems of serving soldiers and their families.

“Perhaps the government also needs to admit that insurgency calls for a civil solution,” says a retired colonel. There can never be a military solution to insurgency, he says and adds, “Deal with this problem and you’ll have lesser soldiers dying in a proxy war or pulling the trigger on themselves and their comrades as they struggle to deal with the enemy within.”

(Some names have been changed on request) (Inputs by Paramita Ghosh)