Interview: Addressing Stress Related Issues in the Indian Army with Brig. Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd)

To address the perceived surge in stress levels within the rank and file of the Indian Army, Brigadier Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd), a decorated veteran, academic, author and renowned defence and national security analyst spoke to MVI on military mental health…

Interview: Addressing Stress Related Issues in the Indian Army with Brig. Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd)

War Amongst the People…

Low-Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO) have been an evolving trend in armed conflicts, with military organisations increasingly engaged in this type of warfare. Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN-Ops) have become an increasing mandate for military forces, who are increasingly finding themselves operating in austere combat environments amongst the civilian populace. Such types of operations have often been criticised for their perceived lack of aim, lack of visible success, as often cited in the case in Afghanistan in the United States context, and in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the North East (NE) in the Indian context.

COIN-Ops are often marked with significantly high casualty rates, operational and moral ambiguity, intense battle fatigue, all of these resulting in lowered troop morale and high levels of stress during, and after deployments in hostile areas. Adding to the complications are the ever-existing challenges associated with military service along with identified stressors, all of which individually and/or cumulatively add to service-related stress in military organisations in general and the Indian Army in particular.

To Put Things in Perspective...

A now retracted study by the tri-services think tank, United Services Institution (USI), claimed that over half of the 1.3 million strong Indian Army are under ‘severe psychological stress’. The study had stirred the hornets’ nest amongst both the serving and veteran fraternities of the Indian Army, which has seen a spate in suicides amongst its rank and file; having witnessed 1,100 cases of suicide since 2010, with more than 90% of these being committed by Personnel below Officer Rank (PBOR).

A combination of ‘operational and non-operational’ factors have been identified as the key triggers. It is pertinent to note that study has been criticised for its extremely low sample size, however its findings regardless of the sample pool, has identified similar stressors as found in previous studies on the subject of ‘organisational stress’ and its leading causes.

Collating data from various studies commissioned on the subject; A 2007 internal report by Clinical Psychologist, Colonel PK ‘Royal' Mehrishi (since retired), commissioned by erstwhile Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General JJ Singh, followed by a 2011 study ‘Addressing Stress Related Issues in the Indian Army’ by Col. KC Dixit (Retd), published by the think tank, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), and the latest "bombshell" study by the USI, have identified some of the major organisational causes of stress among Army personnel as follows…

Human-Resources issues like: Inadequacies in the quality of leadership, overburdened commitments, denial of leave, frequent dislocations, prolonged deployments, disproportionate financial emoluments, a lack of fairness and transparency in postings and promotions, humiliation by seniors, conflict with both seniors and subordinates, coupled with employment in unsoldierly tasks, inadequate resources, accommodation and recreational facilities, unreasonable restrictions on the use of mobile phones, poor quality of rations and cooked food, poor grievance redressal systems and a culture of zero error syndrome, unauthorised punishments and, are some identified areas of contention.

Furthermore, domestic, and personal issues like, property disputes back home, marital discord, inability to meet familial/spousal aspirations, unwanted pregnancies, impotency, alcohol, drug and substance abuse, inadequate sleep cycles are some other triggers which are said to affect a soldier’s mental health. All of which culminate either individually or get compounded, leading to suicidal and fratricidal thoughts and tendencies.

Book Available on: Pentagon Press

To address the perceived surge in stress levels within the rank and file of the Indian Army, Brigadier Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd), a decorated veteran, academic, author and renowned defence and national security analyst spoke to MVI on military mental health…

Q: Do you see an observable correlation between combat deployments and suicide amongst military personnel?

Ans: While the USI study may have brought out certain indicators relating to the question of combat deployment and its frequency contributing toward suicide and fratricide, yet I disagree with that perception and the study findings. A soldier once trained well for combat and combat related roles and with resolute leadership can withstand pressures of tasks given at regular frequencies to include at different geographies. It is also part of man management to ensure that soldiers are not moved from one field posting to another with little time for recuperating.

Hence suicides, to my way are not directly related to deployment and the frequency of such tasks and I consider it a fallacy to suggest that combat deployment and suicide have any correlation. However, it is important to examine a host of other factors, which affect the psyche of a soldier and possibly lead to his/her taking the extreme step.

Q: What in your professional opinion is the primary factor leading to the stark contrast between the suicide rates among PBORS, NCOs, JCOs and Commissioned Officers?

Ans: The single most important factor is education and an appropriate work environment. It is a fact that problems increase with poor leadership and peer pressure and the major contributors toward the two come from the top. Inclusivity must replace all forms of selfish motives and ‘The beyond self’ attitude must be the mantra for all leaders and at all levels. The context becomes more apparent with technology and media having taken centre stage.

Q: Would you agree with the view that the Indian Army’s Officer shortage is a major compounding factor affecting the stress levels of junior/mid-level Officers, in turn trickling down to PBORs? Could you elaborate with some observations or anecdotes from your time in service?

Ans: The shortage in officers’ cadre has certainly contributed toward increasing stress levels, yet I am sure solutions are being created to mitigate the problem at both the apex level and also at the executive level. Having said that, I believe senior leaders must have the capacity to foresee the quantum of work desired out of their subordinate colleagues and not unnecessarily pressurize them to accomplish beyond their capacities and raise the expectation bar at levels beyond the capability of command.

The problems get accentuated when the desire to achieve for self-promotion becomes the single driver than the achievable possible under the constraints of resources and capabilities. Most Commanders for personal gains and perhaps to project as ‘Showmen’ accept tasks beyond their abilities to perform and hope the maxim of ‘Luck favours the brave’ will apply every time. I can share some personal examples in combat when we were short of officers under the most adverse conditions at subzero temperatures and at extremely high altitudes.

The first example that I would like to share was the time of my Battalion, 8 JAK LI, deployed at Siachen during ‘Op Meghdoot’ tenure in 1987. Almost immediately after taking over the operational responsibility on the Glacier, the formation Commander gave orders to the Battalion for the capture of the Pakistani ‘Quaid post’ at an altitude of 21,000 feet.

The CO carried out a detailed target analysis and took a stand to launch the operation only after having built up the resources of manpower and logistics that were required to sustain the operations. The buildup took three weeks before the attack went in and despite the pressure to speed up the operation under the most difficult conditions of weather and enemy fire, the operation continued for three days before the green success signal was given.

The other related action was when Pakistani troops, three months after we had captured Quaid post (renamed Bana post) attacked our posts in the Bila Fondla complex in the Siachen glacier. The attack over three days and three nights led by the Brig Parvez Musharraf was beaten back by mixed troops of two battalions during the process of handing over. There could have been many reasons to buckle under pressure and withdraw under severe enemy assault and heavy artillery firing, yet the troops held their ground and successfully defeated the attacks.

I would subscribe such actions to resolute leadership at all levels of command and the ability of our commanders to withstand pressures, both from internal and external sources. What better tribute to our resolve than the words of our Corps Commander, Lt. Gen Sami Khan in his address to the troops when he said, and I quote – “Jo aapne kaam kar dikhaya who to devtaon ka kaam tha” and words to the effect.

The second combat related experience, where I found absolute understanding of the task was during ‘Op Parakram’ in 2002, when my formation was given an exceedingly difficult task to occupy a Pakistani winter vacated post, Point 5070 in Drass sector under most severe subzero conditions. It took me seven days to cover just one thousand meters to carry out this silent operation. The troops were rehearsed and the move cautious with perfect understanding of Commanders up to the ladder to include the Army Commander, who had faith in our effort and applied no pressure on us with deadlines.

In both cases narrated above despite immense shortage of officers there were no signs of any kind of stress levels beyond a point, which affected the operational tasks. Hence, I do not agree with the point that shortage of officers is a major compounding factor for hyped stress levels, which then transcend to the PBOR.

Q: How do you see the acute shortage of Officers affect the overall psychological stress in a military organisation; from the subunit level all the way up to the level of army commander?

Ans: While I gave a perspective from the standpoint of combat and combat troops, yet we should not lose the point about provisioning for the combat troops, which require the staff to carry out the intricate role of ensuring smooth and timely supply chain management. Such efforts require skilled and logistic staff and any shortage in officers required to plan the activities behind the actual combat scene will heighten stress levels of the men in the rear echelons.

Hence the psychological stress in the military establishment increases when such shortages rise beyond a point. It is in such understanding that the shortages need to be minimized and organizational restructuring necessitated. In view of the above, there is a need of correctly staffing various formation headquarters along the chain of command with proper understanding at all levels.

Q: How would you propose to address stress related issues in the Indian Army?

Ans: My response to the question will be short and straight. The key areas toward addressing stress related issues are on accurate data points on the ‘What’ and ‘Where’ of the problem area that need to be identified before actions are taken. I find most of the reasons for stress levels are a lack of appropriate inputs, which lead to quick fix solutions to problems.

Hence it is important to carry out a detailed baseline survey and conduct impactful studies, which need to be analyzed properly and preferably by a third party on the premise of field trials before arriving at possible solutions. Although it may be time consuming, yet when there are deadlines to be ensured and deliberate monitoring mechanisms put into place then the process can be speeded up ensuring quick and timely implementation.

Once shortages are identified with specifics on locations, then it is management of manpower resources either from within the organization or from outside that should be planned at the earliest. Such actions will reduce stress levels across the board and innovative solutions found to combat the issue.

To bring this into perspective, I would like to mention that the study being carried out to reduce the teeth to tail ratio by outsourcing certain tasks will facilitate in making up deficiencies quickly. I am sure the stress levels will decrease when a soldier realizes and understands that the deficiencies of manpower resources will be made available earliest. However, we must also ensure that such steps do not affect combat worthiness and security is not compromised in times of war.

Q: Do you feel that there is a need to streamline/review the ‘tenure policy’ of military personnel, especially those serving in insurgency environs? What do you feel such a review would find?

Ans: ‘Tenure policy’ is created after factoring the inputs given based on experience gained on certain constants of situation and resources. Such a policy must be dynamic and must be revised periodically, keeping in mind that a soldier’s combat efficiency is not compromised at all times. It is important to have pragmatic understanding amongst various directorates in the military with regular review carried out of equipment and other tactical requirements of field formations. The problem with tenure-based deployment is that even when the requirement is changed, the troops continue to serve in a particular area for durations longer than necessary thereby increasing stress levels.

A case in point that I would like to share is the tenure-based deployment of units, when ‘Himalayan brigade’ was raised. The tenure of six battalions, which came under the ORBAT of the newly created formation, was five years. Three battalions would be deployed in the field for five years and three battalions under its ORBAT in peace stations. The turnover of the six units was planned in such a manner that the movement of units was staggered over a period.

However, after a few years only, with change in thinking and threat perception, the need of having the ‘Himalayan Brigade’ was reviewed and the concept shelved for a later date. Due to such short sightedness, there were units which had completed their full five years tenure in high altitude areas were relieved by one of the six units located in peace time locations.

However due to change in the concept of the ‘Himalayan Brigade’ the units had truncated peace tenures and were moved to field areas again after a short stint at the peace time location. Such a change in policy did have an impact on the troops morale though it was only temporary. Hence one must be careful in implementing such short-sighted policies as it impacts the psyche of troops and of the command.

Q: Would you say that combating non-state actors, operating within the civilian population, pose a significantly higher military mental health risk than other types of more conventional combat operations such as with an opposing conventional military force?

Ans: Operating in an uncertain environment and combating an unknown enemy needs a different approach in carrying out military operations as compared to tasks carried out by troops under conventional warfare. The adverse anticipated problems can be minimized when troops are trained well and are put through exercises before moving into complex situations. Such training is not restricted to tactical maneuvers but also to the type of equipment and speed of operations.

The leadership at both military and civilian levels needs to be well coordinated with a perfect understanding between the two. It is equally important to state that although the military element is subservient to the political element in the ‘Elements of power in a Nation state’, yet military prudence and combat truth must never be compromised. It is a sacred duty of military leaders to be truthful in their presentation of operational preparedness and they should never succumb to pressures of the civilians in matters military.

Q: Do you see a correlation between social apathy and troop suicide?

Ans: The question relates to current trends in lifestyle management. It is when ‘Respect’ of a soldier gets compromised that there are tendencies of what has been asked. The reality of pressures from home contributes majorly to soldiers taking extreme steps especially when due to long protracted periods of separation. This gets compounded when families are not given due respect from the environment they reside and are put through physical and emotional stresses over time.

Hence it is important for creating greater awareness on rights of soldiers and their families especially with local military and civil administration. With my experience of the number of field tenures during my years in the Army, I found the military administration very caring toward the separated families, however the desired respect from the civilian administration in tackling problems was found wanting. It is therefore important for the military to ensure that a healthy relationship between the two administrations is always kept at peak.

I would go a step further that if adequate importance is paid toward a good humane military civil relationship then it will ensure the ‘Respect’ for the military, both serving and retired. The social apathy and troop suicide or such like measures will be reduced if the military leadership ensures that ‘Respect’ for soldiers is never compromised at all costs.

Q: What do you propose to remedy this long-standing issue?

Ans: My view is that we must ensure good military leaders who can take a stand even at the peril of their personal ambitions and promotion prospects. If we can understand the real meaning of the Chetodian credo and the oath we take at the time of commissioning, then I am sure the current problems will be addressed holistically. Unfortunately, most feel that all problems boil down to economic benefits and not to the component of ‘Respect’, which gives a soldier a pride of place in society.

Most conversations are around pay perks, comparing ranks with civilian ranks and profiles, which have led to such an understanding or misunderstanding. This is equally applicable to some actions taken by the retired fraternity basing their arguments as their rights. I believe if we always stress on the importance of ‘Respect’ then solutions about the current topic on suicides and fratricides will be tackled well and the military seen in better light both by the civil as well as by the uniformed fraternity.

Learn More about the Interviewee

Brig. Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd) took premature retirement from the Indian Army in 2005 and has since been engaged in CSR. A Postgraduate from Madras University in International Relations, he is a member of several strategic security related institutions and think tanks. He is presently Corporate Head – CSR with Jindal Stainless Limited, which is part of the OP Jindal Group and is responsible for planning and executing all Group CSR projects across the country.

As a member of the Governing Council of the Global Compact Network, Brig Williams has championed the initiative – ‘The India CEO Forum on Business and Human Rights’. He is a regular speaker/panelist at various forums and seminars and has been invited as a speaker to the United Nations offices in USA and Geneva. He also spoken at the Danish Institute of Human Rights, at Wilton Park, The UK and at seminars organized by Indian Industry Associations, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, GIZ, etc.

He is also a regular invitee to various discussions and consultations organized both by the Government as also by private bodies. A prolific writer, Brig Williams has written several articles on varied topics from conflict prevention & security to matters relating to Responsible Business & Corporate Citizenship. He has co-authored books on IMA and on Siachen, the latter one titled ‘The Long Road to Siachen the Question Why’ having been published by Rupa & Co. in 2011.

(Views expressed are the interviewees own and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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