Srinagar: At the headquarters of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Wazir Bagh, Srinagar, housed partly in abandoned villas of a Kashmiri Pandit neighbourhood, a yoga class is in progress.
A group of soldiers of the 117th battalion are lined up in three rows inside a hall. They sit cross-legged on a carpeted floor, staring with military attention at their instructor.
Head constable Vijay Kant Sharma surveys the room. “Lie back,” he says, and the soldiers move as one. “Now slowly, slowly bring your right knee up to your chest.” The men obey.
There’s no sound except for the soft grunts of their breathing as the men change positions. Outside, the evening azan is being sung. An armoured truck grinds by, shaking dust from the rafters of the timber and brick building ringed with razor wire.
“Wiggle your toes,” Sharma says. They comply.
The yoga classes are part of an ongoing effort by the CRPF to combat stress among its personnel.
Faced with the highest suicide rate in the paramilitary forces, the CRPF has made concerted efforts to make life in conflict zones such as Kashmir more bearable for the men (and some women) who serve across India for long periods, away from their families for months at a time.
Last November, the Central government released figures showing suicide rates for the two largest paramilitary forces in India, the CRPF and the Border Security Force (BSF).
Since 2007, 143 of the about 300,000-strong CRPF, and 75 out of approximately 230,000 BSF personnel have killed themselves, the data show.
In Kashmir, a so-called low-intensity conflict zone, the jawans of the CRPF endure more arduous conditions than most police forces.
Last July, a study by K.C. Dixit, a research fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (Idsa), measured the psychological toll such areas take on soldiers, particularly in Kashmir and the North-East.
“Low intensity conflict operations and proxy war have put tremendous professional and psychological pressures on military leaders and troops,” Dixit wrote. “Ambiguity of aim, lack of visible success and disproportionately high casualty rates tend to erode morale among security forces.”
There are other stresses too. The local population tends to look at security forces “as the long and cruel hands of the administration, particularly when there are human rights violations,” Dixit found.
The summer riots of 2010, when soldiers faced crowds of stone-pelting youths in the streets, created just such conditions. Although the violence has subsided, few believe it is over for good.
CRPF guards remain under constant risk of attack by militants, especially in areas such as Sopore and Baramulla, where there have been multiple attacks on CRPF bases this month.
Yet, officials are dismissive about the effect the high-tension environment has on the men.
“Yes, we have seen growth tendency of the stress problem,” says Prabhakar Tripathy, commandant and public relations officer of the 117th battalion in Srinagar. “But there is no problem in their service or duties.”
“The reason is that the jawans are living alone; it’s because of the vanishing of the joint family system,” he says. “In 95% of suicide cases, it has been found that the problem is relating to family issues.”
The experiences of the jawans only partly support this view.
Sharma, who’s in charge of the yoga classes and has been serving in Kashmir since 2005, remembers being on duty for 60-70 hours at a time in the early days of his service.
“We used to have so much of stress that we would be unconscious when we got to sleep,” he says. “The crowd was provoking us and there was nothing we could do—no rest or respite. The yoga is very effective for the small stresses, like standing on the roadside all day. We are physically and mentally prepared for it.”
Head constable Ved Raj, 45, has served since the beginning of the conflict in 1989.
“Then it was very tough,” he says. “We never knew whether we would come back alive from an operation. We would do 72 hours at a stretch; we never even used to take our boots off at night.”
The sleep deprivation and fear took its toll.
“We used to feel that it was better to die than to live like this,” he says.
Living with stress
For the Idsa study, Dixit surveyed 1,085 soldiers and officers deployed in counter-insurgency and low-intensity conflict operations in Jammu and Kashmir. He found 72% of soldiers, and 60% of officers said they felt stressed in their environment.
Moreover, 74.3% in the former category said fear of human rights violations during an operation induces stress and affects performance, and 77% claimed operations were launched in haste without adequate briefing and preparation.
Raj says the leadership has improved over the years and soldiers are much better informed now about their duties. “Then we didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “Everyone around me was suffering from depression. There was no time for these things like yoga and recreation.” He doesn’t acknowledge any long term effect of stress.
Tripathy maintains that although the suicide rate within the CRPF has risen over the past few years, it has stabilized recently due to the force’s various initiatives.
Tripathy is a fastidious man; he wears an immaculate uniform and a neat moustache. His office is tidy: pens lined up precisely on his desk, a number of shiny trophies sit on the filing cabinet behind him. His military berets hang on a triple-hook bracket on the wall.
“We never mind that we are posted to the North-East or Kashmir,” he says, “We know that during peace time we are not needed. That’s the nature of our job.” He sits back and muses, then his frown clears. “We were supposed to be the reserve police force,” he says, smiling at the emphasis. “We expected we would be based in Delhi. But the reserve nature of this force has gone.”
Tripathy says new battalions are being raised this year in response to the growing demand. “The problems are not being solved,” he says. “We have been here 20 years and the men are kept on rotation; we are just transferring them from one place to another.”
Manjesh Yadav is a new recruit to the CRPF and this is his first posting. Yadav, 23, was married in 2009 in his hometown of Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. He spent only a few weeks with his bride before coming back to Kashmir. “It’s stressful to be away from my family, but it’s a need,” he explains, “I’m doing it for my family; to have respect in my village. I talk to them almost every evening, and if there’s a problem, I get more angry. If I was home, I could have handled it.”
(This is the concluding part in a series on how the ongoing conflict in Kashmir has affected mental health among residents.)