By: Our Correspondent

Rising incidents of violent face-offs between officers and soldiers in the Indian Army are becoming a cause for worry. The reasons relate to harsh service conditions, risk to life and limb, low pay, incompetent leadership and a culture of humiliation of enlisted men by their officers.

At least three incidents of violence have been reported in the recent past, prompting the defense minister, A.K Antony, and Army top brass to conduct brainstorming sessions to prevent such occurrences from turning into a wider trend. 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 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.

The latest incident took place at Samba in Jammu & Kashmir and was triggered by the suicide of a jawan, or low-ranking enlisted man. In April, a jawan turned his rifle on four of his comrades and killed them after being given what was perceived as a humiliating dressing-down by superior office. In May, a violent incident took place in Ladakh, while a similar fracas happened in June last year in Punjab.

Last week, Antony publicly expressed concern about the brawls in the first official acknowledgement of the government’s worry over the issue.

“Each incident is a matter of concern to me but armed forces are better trained to handle such situations. They are handling it in their own way. I also had a brief discussion with the Army chief and they are handling it,” Antony said.

Statistical evidence of suicides and fragging in the 1.1-million strong Indian army points to growing levels of frustration among the jawans. In 2003-5, suicides hovered around the 100 mark. They rose dramatically over the next three years to touch 150 in 2008. Since then the number of suicides has gone down but remains over 100 every year. At last count, 26 soldiers had died so far in 2012.

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. Antony recently quoted the report in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament.

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 defense forces must deal with multiple goals of eliminating the enemy while ensuring safety and retaining popular support of civilian population.

An Army jawan trained for all-out war situations is often found wanting in handling the emotional animosities of local populations that perceive security forces as instruments of state oppression and interference. In Kashmir, for example, even an inadvertent road accident could lead to riots across the state.

The same soldier ironically is feted by the country and turned into a hero when he succeeds, often posthumously or by sustaining grievous injuries, in killing terrorists, as happened during the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 or fighting against a foreign enemy during the 1999 high-altitude Kargil conflict in the mountainous border between Pakistan and India, dubbed the world’s highest war.

In fact, along with the army, growing incidence of suicides is being recorded in the paramilitary forces the Central Reserve Police Force or the Border Security Force, which are also deployed in high risk internal conflict areas. The economic factors too cannot be ignored.

The bulk of jawans continue to volunteer for duty from rural areas that are undergoing rapid change due to the effects of urbanization and industrialization. A decade back an Army man’s job was eulogized by folks back home for the sacrifices involved and economic stability that a regular military salary provided.

Today the cost of living has risen much more than the wage increments. Given increased land prices and other avenues of income, the army has lost some of its sheen as a sought-after employer. A recent comment in the Indian media reads:

“An objective review of the manner in which the pay, allowances and status of the military have been lowered over the last two decades reveals some startling facts. The average ‘fauji’ (soldier) retires at a much younger age than the civilian counterpart who serves up to age 60. Many anomalies abound.”

Indeed, it is important for New Delhi to closely look for solutions to pre-empt the disgruntlement among the jawans turning alarming levels. There are already rising instances of industrial unrest in India.

Dissatisfied workers of car manufacturer Maruti brutally assaulted management cadres recently, killing a senior executive and injuring several others. The Maoist violence in large tracts of Central and Eastern India is linked to mining companies exploiting the local tribal populations resulting in deep grievances.

Unlike its neighbors Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal, the Indian army has remained largely apolitical and has worked well under civilian political leadership since India’s independence in 1947. The Indian jawan deserves his due.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)

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