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A Force Stretched and Stressed

Prolonged deployment of the armed forces in the "disturbed areas" causes stress among the personnel, leading to killing of colleagues and suicides. This is a reflection of the use of military force in such areas, the solution for which is a shift in the country's politics so that there is an end to military suppression in the "disturbed areas".

A Force Stretched and Stressed

Prolonged deployment of the armed forces in the “disturbed areas” causes stress among the personnel, leading to killing of colleagues and suicides. This is a reflection of the use of military force in such areas, the solution for which is a shift in the country’s politics so that there is an end to military suppression in the “disturbed areas”.


o fight to defend the life and liberty of people and/or their borders is a noble cause for any armed force. But other wars fought by the armed forces are not. Every time the armed forces are deployed, say, for a long duration in what gets notified as a “disturbed area” or when the forces are sent to quell rebellious people, the task becomes ignoble, if not unjust. This is especially so when the residents of a region resent the very presence of a security force that they regard as an alien imposition. The ensuing brutalisation and its impact on the inhabitants of the “disturbed areas” is fairly well documented. However, what is little appreciated is that such wars also begin to degrade the armed forces personnel. Some evidence is available now in media reports on acts of “friend” killing, or what is called “fragging”, suicides, and the rather high incidence of stress among service personnel working in internal combat areas.

In the absence of authoritative studies being available to the public, we do not know how far back does the data base go or how much of a causal link or correlation there is between operating in “disturbed areas” and the incidence of stress, suicides and fragging, among service personnel. We therefore have to use material available in the public domain to make sense of what the evidence suggests.

In October 2006 alone, four incidents of fragging, i e, jawans killing their own colleagues, were reported from Jammu and Kashmir. In Manipur, in the last three months there have been three reported cases of fragging. According to the vice-chief of the army staff, fragging was “very, very rare” (The Hindu, September 17, 2006). However, statistics provided by the army authorities to the media show that since 2002 there have been 150 cases in which their personnel were involved in violence against each other. And, 15-20 murder cases have been recorded every year. In addition to this, the records show that 430 officers and other ranks committed suicide between 2001 and 2005. Also, in 2003 and 2004, 9,414 personnel were admitted to psychiatric centres and 993 of them were released due to psychological problems (Asian Age, October 30, 2006). A study commissioned by the army entitled ‘Impact of Low Intensity Combat (LIC) Operations on Service Personnel’ found stress in a majority of personnel surveyed (Masood Hussain, ‘Every 12th Army Casualty Is Outcome of Disturbed State of Mind’, Economic Times, April 17, 2006). In the light of this, the statement of the director-general of armed forces medical services, V K Singh that “stress within armed forces Is the same…in Delhi as it is in Jammu and Kashmir” is not convincing. And, the contention that one of the causes for this is that “family members of servicemen are being treated badly and in some cases (are) being threatened by local goons and the civil administration...” (Hindustan Times, Chandigarh edition, April 2, 2006) must be taken as a partial explanation.

Counter-insurgency Effects

It has been reported (Tribune, November 4, 2006) that a study ordered by the army chief took another look at composition of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), i e, composition of the units and their service conditions. The RR is the counterinsurgency arm of the army operating in J and K. The study, it is reported, held that mixed class battalions did not work and that the RR should revert to “pure class”

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

compositions. It also recommended “homogeneous” units as against the composition of the units comprising companies of different arms of the infantry and services of the army. According to the study this has a detrimental impact on the cohesiveness of the fighting force. Obviously, the problem must be acute. Or else why should the study address problems specific to the army’s counterinsurgency force, the RR? Why else should it recommend increasing leave from three to four months, enhancement of perks, and that those who serve in counter-insurgency postings be given good peace-time postings. However, by linking the issue to the composition of RR battalions and characterising it as harmful to cohesiveness of the unit, other more pressing issues such as those having to do with the prolonged use of the army in “internal security” operations have been ignored.

Let us go further. It is true that in J and K the ratio of militants to servicemen killed has increased since 1993-94, when it was said to be as low as 2:1. The ratio is said to have risen from 5.63:1 in 2001 to 7.5:1 at present. This is being read to mean that fighting militants cannot be responsible for a deterioration of mental health among service personnel. However, a caveat is necessary. The ratio of actual militants to servicemen killed may be lower because many of those who get designated as militants in official parlance could very well be civilians. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the ratio has “improved”. If the number of militants in J and K is said to have declined from the high of 1990-93, when it was estimated to be above 10,000, to no more than 1,500-2,000 since 2002 (which covers the period for which the army has provided data), the number of operations too must have come down. Then the reason for the abnormality of violence among the armed forces personnel should be located elsewhere. These reasons need not be directly linked to the conduct of actual operations – although such operations were found to have affected 93 per cent of those surveyed by the study mentioned above – but to the very deployment of the troops in the first instance.

When a force is deployed under the Disturbed Area Act, it is empowered with extraordinary powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives it immunity from prosecution as well as the authority to enforce whatever laws are in operation in the notified area. In India, the sanctioned strength of the civil and armed police is around 1.5 million. That is, one police personnel for 717 persons. Of this 40 per cent are armed police. In J and K, a 6.5 lakh-strong security force (which includes army, central paramilitary forces and state armed police) indicates a ratio of one armed police personnel for every 17 persons. Note that in J and K, armed personnel comprise more than 90 per cent of the force in the state. Where there is one civil or armed personnel in every 2.12 sq km in J and K (minus Ladakh, which is not notified as disturbed), the density of armed personnel in that state is one in every 0.31 sq km. These armed personnel are empowered under the AFSPA to suppress militancy, in the words of a former DG of Police Punjab, “within the law if possible, outside it, if necessary” (The Hindu, June 11, 2006). Since the armed forces can neither distinguish between civilians and militants, the very purpose of counter-insurgency then becomes one of subduing the local people who are regarded as recalcitrant. Therefore even when the graph of militancyrelated violence dips there is no relaxing the grip of the forces. Cantonments, camps, checkpoints, bunkers, roadblocks remain, as do regular patrolling and random searches. Indeed, at a time when the army chief says that militancy-related violence has come down by 30 per cent, frisking and search of commuters with long queues and long waits, which were a hallmark of the early 1990s, can again be observed in J and K towns.

The body and spoken language of the armed personnel is intimidating, especially if the residents do not meekly obey commands or are slow in following orders. The commonest abuse is “s**** Pakistani”. In contrast, people waiting in queue to be frisked or whose homes are being searched remain expressionless and mute, not knowing what the personnel will find provocative and invite their wrath.

What Explains the Suicides?

However, treating a civilian population day in and day out with suspicion cannot but leave the forces unaffected. Since they are meant to monitor the public and private lives of people in the area, they have to remain alert. That is where the prolonged presence of units in the “disturbed area”, with long hours of duty when they have to be on their toes, and delayed peace-time posting comes into play. It is understandable that deployment for long stretches among people, who for the forces are the enemy, unless otherwise established, generates considerable stress. Many personnel are aware of the fact that their very presence arouses fear and anger among a large number of the local people. Worse, service personnel do not receive the same accolade or praise when they visit their homes from combat zones inside country’s borders as those who fight external enemies on the borders. Perhaps what the director-general of armed forces medical services says makes sense in this context when he complains about how the families of servicemen are “badly treated” by civilians and how the civil administration remains “unmoved” by their plight. All in all, the fact is that acts of indiscipline are a form of collateral damage due to counterinsurgency operations.

All this may explain the incidence of “fragging”. But what explains the incidence of suicides? And, since a majority of suicides take place in the “disturbed areas”, what should this be attributed to? Perhaps a delay in postings away from the combat zone contributes to stress and drives some to take their lives. It is significant that the study mentioned earlier shows that nearly 70 per cent of personnel surveyed had been in a low intensity conflict area between 13 to 36 months. Thirty-seven per cent of those surveyed had been in a combat zone for between 24 and 36 months! Moreover, the same survey, in response to specific queries, found the following percentages: 24 per cent of the personnel surveyed admitting being troubled by a sense of futility about continuous low intensity conflict operations without the support of the locals and civil administration; 25 per cent were stressed by continuous operations without any end in sight; 50.5 per cent reported being stressed when a colleague got killed; 66.5 per cent were stressed seeing colleagues wounded; 93 per cent were stressed when exposed to live operations; 98 per cent feared injuries during ambush; 98 per cent by patrolling, and so on.

The fact is that sensitive service personnel are bound to suffer grave doubts about the very purpose of the role they are actually expected to carry out. Thus the same condition in which atrocities are inevitable and about which a majority of service personnel may not entertain any thoughts about their role in the “disturbed areas”,

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006 can also cause disillusionment among others and make them want to escape this condition. Apparently, a quarter of service personnel surveyed experience such a condition, a very high figure indeed (Masood Hussain, op cit). As we go to press, Indian Express (November 11, 2006) reports that every year about 2,400 personnel “board out” due to psychological disorders; an estimated 52,000 of them suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Taking account of all the evidence we have presented, the problem ought to be a matter of great concern. The question then is not whether the armed forces can “quick fix” this problem. Doubling or even trebling psychological counselling may be welcome but will this or better remuneration and perquisites for the forces result in turning an ignoble task of suppression into a socially useful enterprise? The point is whether we have the intellectual courage to face up to the reality behind fragging, suicide and stress among service personnel and enable a shift in the country’s politics so that there is an end to military suppression in the “disturbed areas”.



Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

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