Anger In Uniform
On February 26, in an incident of fratricide in a Rashtriya Rifles camp in Kashmir valley, a sentry shot his five sleeping colleagues dead before killing himself. It has once again opened up the inner turmoil of the armed forces’ and Central Armed Police Forces’ (CAPF) personnel. Why do the men and women in uniform kill their comrades or themselves?
Explanations are very many; but these fall short of a comprehensive diagnosis of this fatal problem. We must admit that socio-economic and socio-political changes have swept our societies. Joint families have given way to nuclear families. Bereft of familial support, separated families of servicemen have to fend for themselves. Well being of family back home is one such worry troubling servicemen serving in the field areas. This anxiety is accentuated by civil administration, whose lackadaisical attitude towards the problems of serving soldiers is only too well known.
The rural youth-traditional stock for recruitment in the armed forces and CAPF is being replaced by the urban youth. The services prefer better educated people in their rank and file—leaving the rustics, who were cut for such jobs, demanding discipline and hardship, out in the cold.
Over the years, our aspirations have soared and we all want cushy jobs. Armed forces’ jobs as compared to civilian jobs, in terms of social status, comfort level, earnings—both legal and illegal and even marital prospects are not a preferred career option. Abstract value of patriotism, camaraderie and élan cannot buy materialistic pleasures or possessions. As humans, we abhor authority; especially the one, which demands obedience and discipline from us. Streaks of defiance and non-adherence are present in everyone, which gets amplified under life threatening situations.
It is no secret that serving in armed forces is different from other jobs. Armed forces’ careers are best suited to those who are physically tough, mentally robust and motivated to serve beyond the call of duty. Certain degree of privation and occupational hazard in such jobs are inbuilt. No matter how hard the government or organisation tries, these cannot be wished away. Can the risk to life be eliminated for troops operating in counter-insurgency environment? Can the ambushes along the line of control be done away with, just because these are inconvenient to some troops? Can the monotony and seclusion associated with manning an air-maintained post in Siachen or north-east be overlooked? Such operational conditions are part and parcel of the career one has chosen for himself or herself. To an extent, rigours of service life can be reduced and even compensated through remuneration, promotions, recognition, facilities and other incentives, but cannot be removed altogether.
Perceptions about the hardship have also changed. Earlier the army service was considered the toughest. Not-so-tough people avoided it or served in its administrative wings. The other services like air force, navy, para-military, central police forces and even civil police were seen with envy for the comforts, perks and privileges these provided to their cadres. Today, suicides and fratricides have spread into these services too.
In good olden days, the only connect of armed forces’ personnel with their families use to be the letters or telegrams—latter being harbinger of bad news. The soldier and his family usually refrained from mentioning any issue which could perturb the other partner. Today, we live in an era of real time connectivity, which has its own pluses, but it has weakened us from inside. Our tolerance to ambiguity has eroded to such an extent that we want to be updated on domestic trivia 24X7. Used to comforts of modern life, we lose patience on minor issues and wilt easily under trying conditions. In 2012, alarmed by rising cases of suicides Border Security Force (BSF) conducted an inquiry and found that excessive use of mobile phones amongst the troops was main reason for suicides. “Through cell phones individuals try to micro-manage their domestic affairs, sitting at faraway place and a setback could act as a trigger for self-harm,” observes Colonel Sunil Kumar, a decorated army veteran.
We accumulate stress ourselves. There are personal, family, financial and service problems, which, if not attended to properly can result into stress disorder. Earlier, the stress affected the officer cadre more. Today, it is prevalent across the rank and file in the armed forces and CAPF. Even two woman officers from Indian Air Force have committed suicide.
Suicides and fratricides kill more servicemen than live situations. A comparison of fatalities suffered by armed forces and CAPF due to suicide & fratricide and in counter-insurgency operations during 2008-13 shows that security forces are losing more men to suicide and fratricide than in operations. Since 2010, security forces’ fatalities in active operations have declined, but the fatalities due to suicide and fratricide have not ebbed. It means that suicide and fratricide, to a large extent, are not triggered by operational factors alone.
Mainly two factors trigger suicides and fratricides—fear and stress. Life threatening situations are unique. These either make individuals to face them squarely or cower down from fright. The latter ones are most susceptible to suicide or fratricide. Fear of unknown haunts everyone. Newly-inducted troops into an operational area display signs of anxiety. Most of them overcome it during pre-induction training and gradual initiation into operations. Leadership and motivation plays an important role in allaying fear and stress. There is a chronic shortage of officers in the armed forces—particularly the army. The shortage is being managed by juggling officers from units stationed in peace locations to units serving field tenure. But, this practice too has its limit. Basically, security forces are officer-led organisations, in all wars and conflicts; officer cadre has suffered more casualties in comparison to their cadre strength ratio. Today, officers despite their depleted strength are performing duties that are meant for junior and non-commissioned officers and even getting admonished for the slip-ups.
Rate of suicide in armed forces and CAPF are dangerously close to the national average of 11.2 suicides per lac population. In fact, the CAPF figures have even exceeded the national average. Since, the armed forces and CAPF recruit personnel from a large human resource base; their intake should be the best. Hence, this trend is disconcerting. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and BSF are the largest organisations amongst the CAPF. These have borne the brunt of suicides and fratricides also. Disenchantment among the cadres of CAPF is evident from the fact that during 2008-13, 50,000 officers and men have quit the forces. Attrition rate is alarming. Operational stress cannot be the singular reason for this exodus. There is a need to examine the organisational functioning, service conditions and satisfaction level of the cadres in the CAPF.
Indian army is facing yet another challenge in the form of collective insubordination and near-mutiny like situations. Recent officer-soldier face-off in battalions and regiments stationed at Nyoma, Meerut, Gurdaspur, Patiala and Samba is a symptom of a bigger malaise brewing within the organisation. Despite such serious problem in our hands, our approach is to treat the symptoms, not the disease. Why do we rely on temporary measures? If the discipline and functioning in army needs to be reviewed it should be done. If better pay and amenities can assuage the feelings of the men and women in uniform, it should be implemented. Modern methods of command & control and man & material management are required to be imbibed in our functioning. Operational stress is nothing new for the armed forces. All theatres of war from World War II to Afghanistan have had their share of psychological casualties. Troops had to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, Indian Armed Forces resort to ‘self-healing’ i.e. not taking professional psychological help to get over the combat stress. Our service personnel should have better access to professional psychologists. Occasional bursts of anger by the personnel of armed forces and CAPF point towards the severity of the problem, which needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with and not quick fix solutions.