Suicides and fragging by army jawans have become a more frequent occurrence in the army of late. The Samba incident last week once again compels me to ask: What is it that drives a jawan to desperation? Is it just the tension of operating in the counter-insurgency? Or is there something more to it than meets the eye?
There are no straight answers but figures available since 2003 clearly indicate that that the Indian army is facing one of its biggest challenges in history. Consider the figures
In 2003, 96 army men committed suicide
In 2004, this number was exactly 100
In 2005, 92 of them took their own lives
In 2006, 131 army personnel committed suicide
In 2007 and 2008 the recorded figures were 142 and 150 respectively.
Since then the numbers have come down but still remain over 100.
2009: 111; 2010: 130; 2011: 102.
Given that India has an 11-lakh strong army, these numbers may not be huge but for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, it is certainly a matter of concern if not alarm.
One can also point out the fact that in the American Army this year alone the rate of suicide (till June 8) was one-a-day. That's hardly a consolation.
Therefore, like I had done in 2007, its time to ask the question: Is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers' stress levels peaking dangerously? Making them prone to acts of indiscriminate violence?
Come summer, winter or rains, soldiers continue their daily patrols along the line of control in Kashmir. Every day and night at a thousand foot patrols spread out in in Jammu and Kashmir to try and corner terrorists. The job is risky and can even get monotonous. A bullet can come from anywhere any time. So one has to be always alert. but the chase is mostly futile. Nine out of ten times the patrols returns empty-handed.
After nearly 14 years of counter-terrorism in Kashmir, the Army has got used to the apparent hardship of uninterrupted operations. The fear of the enemy, claims each man that I have talked to, is nominal. "We have no tension in this respect( counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency), we had joined the army precisely for this kind of work," is the constant refrain from soldiers.
Officers say their biggest duty is to ensure that men are fully trained to face any situation in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism. "A fully-trained soldier is a confident soldier and effective soldier," Commanding officers say whenever one meets them.
But this practicised auto-reply could cloak a very different reality.
A psychiatric study by army doctors a couple of years ago on "Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts " revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront contradictions between war and the low intensity conflict situations and particularly the concepts of 'enemy', 'objective' and 'minimum force'.There are no clear-cut victories like in wars. Some other findings:
- In general war the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.
- A hostile vernacular Press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.
- Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.
- Monotony, the lure of the number-game and low manning strength of units lead to over-use and fast burn-out.
I remember that some years ago Dr. Nimesh Desai, a practicing psychiatrist had told me: "There is a certain dissonence in what the soldier feels when he operates in low intensity conflict. He is trained for war, to go all out against an enemy but in insurgency, he is told to hold back. Plus there is no end in sight for such operations. It is the constant tension that gets him.
Company commanders who lead field units in counter insurgency situations also believe that tensions at home transmit themselves much quicker today.
One more common thread among soldiers from Rajasthan to UP, from Tamil Nadu to Haryana was how little respect they seem to command today in society which devalues their work.
As a former Army Commander had once pointed out: "You see he comes from a society where he compares himself with others and when he realises that he is at a disadvantage since acceptance wise, the kind of respect that his predecessors had is no longer there."