A Silent War: Steps to Deal with Suicide Amongst our Ranks

“We must understand we are dealing with most sensitive and volatile creatures i.e., human beings who have their minds and thinking ability and everyone does not think alike. But one thing everyone understands is a fair deal.”

A Silent War: Steps to Deal with Suicide Amongst our Ranks

It is really unfortunate to learn cases of so many suicides and fratricides in both defense and paramilitary services. It is deplorable indeed  but definitely controllable. The medicine is compassion.

The basic cause of any kind of suicide is losing mental balance for that moment due to momentary provocation, whatever it may be, that weighed beyond the bearing capacity of the person committing it. So, it has a cause. So, it is preventable. Cause, I am sure, does not erupt in one moment or a day. A trained soldier would not take his or his compatriots lives just like that. There must be a reason. Commanders at all levels must look for that.

We must understand we are dealing with the most sensitive and volatile creatures i.e., human beings who have their minds with thinking ability and everyone does not think alike especially when someone is performing duties in the most adverse condition. But one thing everyone must realize is that it is the “fair deal” which will carry the team and bring laurel. I read somewhere that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw never punished one.

Whenever one joins the army or any branch's defense forces, one knows that he has to go through some kind of regimentation, hardship, deprivation, loneliness and most importantly loss of lives or limbs etc. That is why it is more important to keep them buoyant by keeping them gainfully engaged. They know that they would not have eight-hour syndrome like their civilian brothers hence we have regimentation, buddy system, taking our units as second home. We must create an atmosphere in the unit that everyone is desirable in the outfit.

I always remember the few lines of Field Marshal Slim who had been one of most humane as well as successful commanders. He, in his book “Defeat into Victory,” wrote in one place “Whenever I used to address my troops I used to avoid talking of strategies or policies which invariably was not their domain of interest. I used to talk about new weapons coming, leave opening, clothing, and induction of troops in the local area of operation, various successes in the battles: the issue that would interest them” or words to that effect.

I always remembered this during my service tenure where I fought two major wars: War of 1971 and in Sri Lanka in 1987.

To quote another incident of human generalship I shall give an example. In July 1975 I was posted to 16 Sikh, Jalandhar. The Corps Commander was General Vas. It was his custom that every month, on a scheduled date he would meet all newly posted officer. So, one day I was also in that line. Till date I cannot forget that fond handshake and a few personal questions. That incident not only made the day but changed my outlook.

“I strongly feel that we must train officers on basic man-management at the entry level and as they grow up the method of the same will keep changing with level gained without forgetting basic criteria;  fair deal and compassion.”
For representational purposes; Illustration by Amit Bandre

The first stage of people who can control this malaise are section commander to sub-unit commander who come in daily contact with their soldiers and unit commander and second-in command for the officers. Constant association and giving enough opportunity to vent out inner feelings, patient hearing is the most important step to control these sad incidences. No one must keep a revengeful attitude should there be any untoward incident. One must know that one to one intimate expression reduces 80% of unexpressed tension. One must remember that punishment is to the crime and not to the person.

Book Available on: Pentagon Press

All that is needed at unit of operation level are: -

  • Fair handling,
  • Compassion,
  • Allowing expression,
  • Correcting and controlling the rifts in time,
  • Avoiding being rash and using unparliamentary language.
  • Avoiding misuse of men.
  • Avoid open insults especially in front of ladies.
  • Upholding dignity of the subordinates.
  • Give fair attention to the problems of subordinates and their family since we consider ourselves as part of the bigger family members. Even inquiring about the well-being of each other’s families gives a moral boosting effect. Bring back fond memories of home.
  • Fair deal especially in case of leave, promotion, posting, selection for a special task where honour is involved etc.
  • Give them their due especially in case of food, clothing, and other basic entitlements.
  • Always encourage them to excel.
  • Disseminate all information – good or bad. Lack of information creates worry and tension leading to depression and further course.
  • Interact with the civil counterparts especially when posted in the field area to resolve the problems of the affected soldiers as they feel hopeless being away from the spot.
  • Constant counseling.
  • Sports and other gainful activities.
  • Whenever possible give free time for their personal needs.
  • Avoid harassment.
  • Everyone must get his due.

There can be few more, but I strongly believe finally cordial relation between officer and men and officer to officer, spending maximum time with them will bring immense good. This is not rocket science but humane handling. After all they are the one who is going to ensure victory for you.

I would like to narrate an interesting incident which may substantiate what I am saying. Time was Jul/Aug 1971. Dark cloud of war was being seen on the horizon. Leave was generally stopped other than extreme compassionate reasons.

We were holding defenses in the Naugaon sub sector in North Kashmir. I was a post commander. Few soldiers were required to go to avail leave/temporary duty/course etc. As per the custom they were lined up for an interview with the idea of knowing their last-minute requirement. Somehow, I felt that one of the soldiers was having extra body movement. Anyway, I reached him as the turn came and asked him if all was well? He initially was hesitant to come out. After much of coxing he said “Sabji mera dilda ichha puran korna hai''

I asked him what that was? He said “mereko do aadmi marna hain!!!! I almost fainted. I asked him “tenu pata hain tum keya bol raha ho” He in a straight face told “Yes”. I asked him to meet me after this interview was over. He and I sat in my bunker and discussed the issue. He narrated that a few nomads had occupied his land and were teasing/misbehaving with the ladies, so he needed to kill them. His eyes reflected his determination. I tried to explain to him the situation and make him understand that such a drastic action may ruin his life.

I assured him that I shall write letters on this account to the Dist. Collector, Dist. Superintendent of Police and all the officers down below, up to in-charge of the local police station. I still did not if he was convinced but I reiterated to refrain him from doing such an act. After his departure I did keep my word and wrote them. Thereafter in the hectic preparation of the war I totally forgot about it.

Time passed. One fine morning I again saw Dola Singh in the line for interview. I became cautious not knowing what he would have done. This time also he was extra agitated. When I reached him with a broad smile, he greeted me and on enquiry he said, “Sadda kam ho gia saab.  Tuhaddi chithi melande bad police thanedar, Block Development Officer etc sadde ghar aye sare bajigar (nomads) nu hakal deta. Gaon bich sadda ijjat bahoot baad gia. Sab civil officers sadde ghar bich aye. Sab thik hogiya” I still see the glow of his face.

I do not propagate that one needs to be ‘sweet talker’ but be firm as well as reasonable and must deal with all fairness. Unlike in fifties, sixties, even early seventies, the pattern of aspirants seeking recruitment has changed. Soldiers of today need different handling.”
Recruits training at the Gurkha regimental training centre in, Himachal Pradesh; File Photo

I strongly feel that we must train officers on basic man-management at the entry level and as they grow up, they should be more and more concerned to be fair and compassionate whether it is officers-men relation or officers to officer’s relation. Newly commissioned young officers are equally vulnerable to mental pressure to tough work pressure and sudden isolation. This becomes the total responsibility of senior officers starting from Major to CDS with different applications. At junior level responsibilities are more direct and higher level by personality projection. We must feel that we are one. Our shoulders are not heavy only by ranks; it also carries the number of soldiers we command.

I cannot but mention one of my recent experiences when I participated in an Army day function. We have been waiting for the Army Commander. He performed the ceremony perfunctorily, addressed the soldiers standing at one side and the officers standing on the other side for not more than one minute and left like a robot. He was in a hurry to go. He did not show the courtesy to mix among them over a simple cup of tea which I am sure made it memorable. I found no human touch.

Same type of training as I mentioned before is also required of the junior commissioned leaders as they must directly handle the troops. This should be part of each promotional cadre.

With this training I do not propagate that one needs to be ‘sweet talker’ but be firm as well as reasonable and must deal with all fairness. Unlike in fifties, sixties, even early seventies, eighties, the education level of aspirants seeking recruitment has changed like the basic structure has changed. Soldiers of today need different handling.

I always remember what my commanding officer, late Lt Col Sam Chengapa - who died as Major General in harness while commanding 11 Div, who had been most efficient as well as humane commander I ever seen – once said in 1971, when we were preparing for war: “Guppu you have one pair of eyes but remember you are being watched by one thousand pairs of eyes. That always kept me going.

Here we discussed what we can do within the organisation. But what about the Government and the local administration, what would be their responsibilities? Do they owe something to the uniformed people?? The letter I reached 5 decades ago would have the same impact today? Innumerable cases are filed by the defense ministry in the courts where poor soldiers are fighting for their legitimate right. Soldiers performing their duties are languishing in the jail! Their families are struggling with their bare necessities while their sons, fathers and husbands are away.

Dealing in ECHS is pathetic. Government is on the lookout to find the first opportunity to take away the defense soldiers. Our hierarchy is ceremonial. Having reached the pinnacle seems to have forgotten their days. Veterans are fighting the government in the court to get their legitimate dues. Police is hekling them. These are all observed by them. These elders are someone’s father, brother; obviously it has its effect on them. Many menial and un-soldierly like jobs are being done. For political mileage soldiers are sacrificed.

One must remember while the job profile of a soldier is different it also needs different handling. If the Government can solve three important things of the migrating soldiers who do not stick to one place for their nature of duties, viz, permanent quarter arrangements, good education, and medical facilities and social security when husbands are away 70% problem would be taken care of.

By getting demographic details why the government cannot initiate a housing project for each category of soldiers which is handed over to the soldier on the first day of his joining to keep his family at the place of his choice and deduct the cost as monthly EMI from his pay.

Please think out of the box.

(Lieutenant Colonel MK Guptaray (Retd), 9 Sikh is an author of two books and a seasoned veteran of the '71 war where he had the privilege to participate in the Naogan Sector under 104 Brigade, 19 Division. He participated in Op-Pawan in 1987 capturing over half the Jaffna Town. He is presently having a retired life in Pune.)


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