This month, two Indian magazines carried front-page stories reflecting the morale of the country’s army and paramilitary forces. The statistics are chilling. India loses more soldiers to suicides and fratricide than to terrorists. Around 20 years ago, during a training course as a young officer, an instructor asked us the meaning of “fragging”. Only one out of 70-odd officers knew this American term, which describes soldiers shooting their own superiors during the Vietnam war. Twenty years later, those same officers—now senior commanders in the Indian forces—are facing more damage from within than the conventional war they had trained for.
The force’s track record as an institution, not just in its professional calling, but also in terms of social behaviour and moral righteousness, has given it a well-deserved image, and we should be proud of such an organization. A juggernaut of this size, which serves our democracy in a remarkably non-interfering manner compared with the dominant role that militaries play in many countries of the Indian subcontinent, is a hallmark of our nation. We should be proud of that achievement too.
The manner in which our forces serve as a vibrant example of India’s integration, despite its diversity, is laudable. Boys from the remotest backwaters of Kerala shed their blood in operations alongside Jats from Haryana, Sikhs from Punjab, Rajputs from Rajasthan, led by officers from Orissa—for a singular cause that is India. As a society, we should be proud of that accomplishment as well.
In the same vein, we should also be ashamed when our soldiers resort to ending their lives—lives they had sworn to lay down for us—and citizens dismiss it as an institutional problem.
Soldiering is a high-pressure profession. The physical hardship, abysmal conditions, celibate life and constant fear of death are hard to describe in words and harder still to endure for 20 years.
Consider the job description of a soldier. He has to be physically tough and mentally robust. He has to master complex weapon systems, attain proficiency in unarmed combat, explosives, demolition, construction, navigation, communication, tactics and leadership; be prepared to be thrown into battle without notice or adequate resources, separated from his family for a minimum of nine months a year for up to 20 years, and endure every extreme condition that nature can throw at him, and more. He will have to stay in places unfit for animals, eat food most of us would not touch, and be out patrolling in weather conditions that we see only on TV. He will also have to jump out of aircraft, dive into the sea, and operate behind enemy lines.
During his career, a typical soldier of the army or paramilitary forces will be deployed in the blazing deserts of Rajasthan, fight in sub-zero temperatures on mountainous terrain, battle insurgency in the jungles of the North-East, and fight militants in the valley, with the odd major posting such as in the Indian Peacekeeping Force, Kargil or United Nations operations thrown in. In addition, he will be called in to quell riots, run trains, mount rescue missions, assist during floods, earthquakes, fire and landslides, and pull kids out of boreholes. In short, he will do anything—anything at all—for the society represented by a small flag stitched on his uniform. The question is: what will that society do for him?
The irony is that more soldiers kill themselves in peace postings than while serving in combat zones. And while there are causes for this that the forces have to deal with internally, the one major reason that soldiers are in this state is the apathy of the civil society.
Even those of us who are stationed at permanent locations and have access to resources and contacts know how difficult it is to battle daily issues such as school admissions, registrations, land disputes, court cases, etc. Imagine the life of a soldier who has just a few days in a year to tackle the apathy, corruption, hostility and indifference of a society that expects him to lay down his life for them.
With social structures breaking down in villages, and increasing estrangements, soldiers are finding it hard to manage the domestic front. Constant haranguing from home, beamed real-time in a cellular world, and the frustration of not being able to do anything about it create a pressure-cooker environment in which something is bound to go off. Unfortunately, at times it is the soldier’s service weapon.
While the forces are doing what they can, there is a role that society needs to play as well. Non-governmental organizations and citizen support groups could champion the causes of serving soldiers’ families. Companies or cooperatives could “adopt” districts and help soldiers. Their children’s education could be sponsored, and vocational training and job preferences could be given to wives of serving personnel. There are a multitude of ways in which society can show its concern if it wants to.
The point is—our society has been largely insulated from the dangers lurking on almost all of our borders, as well as internally, because of these security forces. Most Indians don’t have a clue about the realities of war or combat, and they don’t realize their good fortune in not having to face those realities, because someone else is doing it for them. It is time to realize that someone else needs help too.
Contrary to the adage, soldiers don’t march on their stomach; they march on the support of the nation. It is a pity if that nation stands by while a soldier turns a weapon, meant for the enemy, on himself.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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