Dwindling morale of Indian soldiers

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Sultan M Hali

INDIA boasts of a 1.1 million strong army and aspires to be a world power. On the one hand it is acquiring weapons of mass destruction and is developing a huge arsenal of non conventional and conventional weapons but on the other, its manpower is suffering from acute cases of depression, low morale and diminutive self esteem. Factors contributing to this alarming state of affairs in its soldiers are varied but are a cause of serious worry to the Indian defence planners. Resultantly, the instances of suicide, desertion, murder, rape and fragging have risen to frightening proportions. By one count, four times as many soldiers die by their own hand as those killed in combat. In the past 10 years, more than 1,000 Indian soldiers have committed suicide, while another 73 have died of “fragging,” a Vietnam War term born of the practice of disaffected US enlisted men killing their superiors with fragmentation grenades.
Statistical evidence of suicides and fragging in the Indian army points to growing levels of frustration among the jawans. Specialists have pointed out that there is a gross gap between Indian soldiers and officers with respect to treatment in service and the soldiers blame officers for discrimination and injustice. They opine that attitude of army officers is the main cause of increasing suicide incidents of soldiers in Indian army. Soldiers commit suicide because of the mental torture by their senior officers. As many as about 700 military personnel committed suicide between 2009 and 2014; there have been 69 cases of suicide in the Indian Army in 2015 besides an incident of fratricide. The reasons for such incidents include prolonged occupational hazards, family issues, domestic problems, perceived grievances, personal issues, mental built, financial problems and inability to withstand stress. Such incidents take place because of the misbehavior with army soldiers by their officers.
In fact, the Indian army is losing more soldiers in these incidents than in action against the enemy. The army has lost 72 soldiers to alleged enemy attacks so far this year. But over 100 soldiers have already taken their lives. In addition, another 32 have been killed by their colleagues. The Indian Army is clearly under tremendous stress. Though it has not fought a full-blown war in decades, the force is bogged down in fighting domestic insurgencies, guarding restive borders and sometimes quelling civilian rioting. Most experts attribute the growing stress to low morale, bad service conditions, lack of adequate home leave, unattractive pay and a communication gap with superiors.
The Indian army is involved in a long running internal security environment of its own creation. There is lack of rest and they get very little leave. Lack of leave increases his stress. Soldiers get angry when they are denied leave and their officers themselves take time off. It triggers a reaction, they are well armed and they take their own lives. Then there is the question of what many say is low pay – starting salaries in many jobs in middle-class India are double that of a new soldier, and for many of them the army no longer holds out the promise of a good life.
A major source of frustration in the Indian Army is frayed nerves, which is bringing disconcert to its leadership. Soldiers kill each other when one of them perceives that they are being harassed by superiors or when they have heated arguments among themselves. The induction of women in the Indian army has also led to serious problems. Many officers and men vent their frustration by raping the women personnel. Instead of reporting the incident, many females commit suicide because of the trauma and fear of bringing shame to their families. Deploying the Indian army to quell disturbances, especially in Indian Occupied Kashmir, has had a big toll on the nerves of the uniformed personnel. Killing and maiming young unarmed protesting Kashmiris, blinding them with pellet guns and training their guns on women and old men leaves big scars of trauma on the Indian soldiers.
In the near past, another serious factor contributing to the distress of Indian army is the realization that false flag operations are taking a big toll of lives. The Mumbai attack, the Pathankot incident and the Uri assault left scores of Indians dead. Facing a faceless enemy is by itself devastating for the nerves but the shock of discovering that the assault was orchestrated by their own forces is tremendous. Many Indian soldiers consider this to be a stab in the back and are ready to rebel at this startling disclosure. The recent claim of Indian army’s “surgical strikes” against purported targets in Azad Jammu Kashmir has also infuriated Indian army personnel. Those privy to the fact that the claims are false are irate at the ignominy of the extent of lies being told to Indian masses.
Indian army psychologists are delving deeper into the issue to find treatment of the severe mental disorder. Multiple reasons have been attributed for the discontent. According to studies by the Defense Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), the major causes of suicides in the army were domestic problems, marital discord, stress and financial problems, with soldiers serving far from home and unable to return to their families to solve the issues. Psychological aspects relate to the army being increasingly deployed in low-intensity but long-running and intractable conflict zones in the northeast, Jammu & Kashmir and lately extended to regions afflicted by leftist Maoist rebellions. Rather than being deployed to prevent or fight a war, the army is too often bogged down in domestic insurgencies, guarding its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh and sometimes being required to bring civilian riots under control.
That has created a peculiar situation in which defence forces must deal with multiple goals of eliminating the enemy while ensuring safety and retaining popular support of civilian population. The theatre of war in Siachen has its peculiar problems, where the harsh terrain, inclement weather and the vicissitudes of nature take a huge toll of human lives as well as impact the morale of the Indian army. If it does not stem the rot, it is likely to face serious consequences.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.