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When soldiers turn on their own comrades

The men in uniform are under strain. It is time for J&K and the Centre to work out effective redressal mechanisms, writes Harinder Baweja.
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2014 10:29 PM IST

Each time I go to the Kashmir Valley – and that is often – I make it a point to engage with the men in uniform. At first, they are wary, even surprised to have a civilian walk up to their bunkers to talk to them. The reaction is the same, irrespective of whether they are from the paramilitary forces or from the army.

Trained to watch out for ‘enemy’ bullets, the soldiers are always on alert; their weapons forever cocked. “We don’t know which side the bullet will come from,’’ is the common refrain. They stay in these bunkers for most of their posting – a minimum of two years – with little or no contact with the civilians around them.

For the civilians, these soldiers are part of an ‘occupational force’ and there are several reasons why the common Kashmiri feels alienated from the seat of power in New Delhi – which often opts for the more-boots-on-the-ground approach. But we need to examine the soldier and why he feels compelled to either shoot himself or his colleagues.

The latest instance was last week, when an army sepoy trained his automatic weapon on his sleeping colleagues. Sepoy Ramber Singh pumped multiple bullets into five colleagues. One of the dead had 32 bullets in his body. Singh later shot himself dead.

Army officials say Singh was a teetotaller, that he had returned from leave in November, and that he was at the fag-end of his two-year-posting. So, why did he go over the edge?

The shoot-out only came as a reminder of the fact that the army has not been able to successfully deal with cases of suicides or fratricide. The army continues to grapple with this dangerous problem, and has, in internal meetings, looked at the likely causes that propel a disciplined and trained soldier to violent acts that include the vicious emptying of AK-47s into a buddy. Is the soldier not getting enough leave? Is the officer-jawan relationship breaking down? Has easy access to mobile phones brought personal pressures into the work space? Is counter-insurgency taking a toll?

A psychiatric study by army doctors on ‘Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts’ threw up a range of issues that needs to be deliberated upon, not just by army seniors but by politicians as well. One of the key issues that came up was to do with resolving the contradiction between war and a low-intensity conflict.

In war, the enemy is clearly defined. In Kashmir, or in the North-East, the jawan is operating among his own people. Let the truth be told — the soldiers see the locals as the ‘enemy’ and in turn, the locals see them as ‘oppressors’. In war, the same soldier is encouraged to go all out and in one’s own territory, he has to be restrained.

The real point the commanders must mull over is this — why have the number of cases not come down even though militancy is on the wane? The Kashmir of 2014 is no longer what it was through the 90s and thereafter. Why is the soldier not feeling some sense of respite?

The answer is available, provided the government is willing to listen. Jammu and Kashmir is essentially a political problem. The men in uniform have done their job. It is important for political resolution to kick in. That alone will alleviate the stress the soldier feels — from constant patrols, constant operations, and constantly being on the edge. It is imperative for the state and the Centre to seize the windows of opportunity, instead of sitting back and taking the oft-expressed view that the ground situation is improving. The violence within the barracks is testimony to the fact that the soldier feels trapped in a situation where little light is visible at the end of the tunnel.

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