(This article was written by this author and published in 'Firstpost' on October 14, 2017 and has been reproduced with permission)
They adapt to hardships at the battlefield, but dread returning to home base. They gladly take charge of the country’s safety but nothing else about their job makes them glad. A total of 310 army personnel have committed suicide between the past three years while 11 cases of fratricide were reported during the period, said Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre at a Rajya Sabha session on 3 October.
Why is it that so many Indian jawans are either killing themselves or their fellows? Reason: Employing jawans for unsoldierly tasks, poor accommodation and sanitary facilities, administrative and cultural issues in the multi-arm Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units, subpar clothing and rations, and poor grievance redressal mechanisms for junior personnel are some service-related issues resulting in chronic stress and suicides among jawans, says a 2007 internal Army study, exclusively accessed by Firstpost.
The report, which was prepared by now-retired Colonel and trained clinical psychologist PK Mehrishi, has come to light after a decade as he sees not much has changed ever since it was presented to the then army chief in 2007.
"There have been instances of jawans in J&K being asked to guard evening parties organised by senior officers and then immediately after they have to leave for patrol duties along the LoC, with hardly any sleep," a serving officer said.
When it comes to personal causes, the report titled Psychological Stress – Study, Analysis and Coping Skills for the Indian Army mentions issues like marital discord, children’s education, unwanted parenthood, illness of parents/spouse/children, financial problems and other difficulties arising out of prolonged absence of their families as causes of stress.
As for fratricides — or soldiers running amok in army parlance — "abusive language" by seniors and "unauthorised punishments" have been named as the triggers in the report.
Narendra R, 22, a jawan from Bengaluru, is the latest army man to have shot himself. He committed suicide by shooting himself with his service rifle at Pahalgam camp in Anantnag district in South Kashmir on 8 October morning.
The last incident of fratricide was when Major Shikhar Thapa of 71 Armoured Regiment was gunned down by a soldier on the night of 18 July. He fired five bullets into the officer for admonishing him over using a mobile phone. Both were posted with the 8 RR battalion at Uri.
Mehrishi, principally recommends a pre-induction psychological testing to reveal suicidal and other emotional traits in army aspirants. "A robust grievance redressal mechanism for PBORs is absent. 'Arzi Reports' filed in a unit or a battalion are hardly acted upon," Mehrishi said.
It also suggests posting psychologists and counsellors in operational units to "promote awareness about psychological problems and remove attached stigma from the minds of soldiers".
This study was commissioned during the tenure of former army chief General JJ Singh and was conducted between 3 December, 2006 and 15 March, 2007. Questionnaires comprising 176 questions each was given to 1,100 jawans posted in counter-insurgency duties in Jammu and Kashmir.
While 2014 saw 84 suicides, the numbers stood at 78 and 104 in 2015 and 2016. The current year has seen 44 army men commit suicide. However, the period between 2011 and 2013 witnessed a consistent drop in suicides – 105 in 2011, 95 in 2012 and 65 in 2013.
More than 90 percent of the victims were personnel below officer rank (PBOR) — enlisted men who constitute nearly 70 percent of the army strength. They include Other Ranks (OR), Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO). Figures acquired by RTI activist Chetan Kothari further show that 125 of the 129 personnel who committed suicide in 2006 were from the PBOR category. For subsequent years until 2013, the break up stood at 116 out of 118 (2007), 120 of 123 (2008), 93 from 96 (2009), 112 out of 116 (2010), all the 105 and 95 in 2011 and 2012, and 62 of 65 in 2013.
Colonel Mehrishi said enlisted men are most prone to psychological stress. "Many of them come from poorly educated backgrounds and have no other skills than those they learn during combat training to be employable in the private sector," he said.
The report lists issues like employment on demeaning tasks, inadequate sleep, strained relations with subordinates/colleagues and seniors, alcohol abuse, lack of timely leave, disproportionate financial emoluments (pay and allowances), as some of the issues afflicting PBORs in operational areas.
The practice of employing army jawans in unsoldierly tasks has been specifically flagged as the reason for both psychological and physical stress for jawans. The armed forces are notorious for their hierarchy-conscious conduct, especially during social events in cantonments. The report said, "Many perceive that they are being employed…like cheap labour in tasks that are clearly non-military, especially in peace stations. Excess utilization of manpower during mess events and parties [must be stopped]."
The quality of food and clothing provided to jawans isn't great either. "Rations have not kept pace with changing times. Troops demand better, well-cooked food," the report said. "Clothing is a big sore point. It would be worth considering that the jawans get the uniforms stitched to their fitting."
General JJ Singh, while confirming the existence of the report, said the army acted on the issue of ration. "We sent feedback from the lower formations to the then defence minister AK Antony. Now, better quality rice, wheat, lentils, tea, salt and sugar are distributed," he said.
The report also recommends "refurbishing and modernising" infrastructure like living quarters, toilets, recreation and dining areas. Mehrishi also pointed towards the low compensation in Lieu of Quarters (CILQ) rates – the army’s equivalent of House Rent Allowance (HRA). "In peace postings when family accommodations are full, the jawan qualifies for a CILQ to rent a private house. The CILQ should be enhanced and the qualifying age for married soldiers should be lowered to 21 years from 25," Mehrishi said.
It proposes viewing leaves not as a "largesse" but as a rightful "requirement". "Anyone separated from his family would want it often. Should empathize and genuinely understand Away Without Leave (AWL) and Over-Staying Leave (OSL) cases," the report said. These cases are some of the most common causes behind disciplinary proceedings in the army. General Singh said, "Some are stingy and clamp down upon leaves before important events to make sure everyone is present. However, one must hand over his charge properly to the next in command," he said. Jawans are presently entitled to a 30 casual leaves and 60 annual leaves.
A particular issue the report touches upon, are problems with the RR, the primary counter-insurgency force which guards the fencing behind the LoC. Raised after the 1990s, it is made up of soldiers and officers from across the army’s combat and support arms. Personnel are deputed to RR for a period of 2-3 years before going back to their parent units.
"Since the nature of the role is more leg work and is physically intensive, only infantry officers and soldiers cope with its demands. This causes friction with personnel from the other arms/services," said Colonel Rajinder Kushwaha (Retd), a former commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, Bihar Regiment. The report, therefore, suggests posting at least five jawans from the same unit together in RR to preserve group harmony and social support.
It also calls for incentivising RR postings by introducing a salary increment to those who have had a misdemeanor-free RR tenure. "The aim is to make jawans feel not as posted out of the unit," the report said. A common practice in army units is to send unwanted elements and troublemakers to RR tenures.
The report, throughout its findings, recommends holding pre-enlistment psychological tests to draw psychological profiles of candidates and training the unit’s second-in-command and the education NCO in counselling. It also proposes setting up helplines at hospitals and formations up to the brigade-level. But a check revealed that the situation remained the same with the recommendations in the report not implemented.