There is something rotten in the state of the Indian Army. Brijesh Pandey decodes why jawans are turning against their superiors and why soldiers are leaving in droves
VISHWAMOHANAN PILLAI was looking forward to welcoming his son home for Onam. Instead, what arrived at his doorstep was his son’s coffin. On 8 August, Arun V, a jawan of the 16th Light Cavalry regiment in Samba district of Jammu & Kashmir, committed suicide with his service weapon. Arun, 30, wanted to visit his family in Thiruvananthapuram during the holiday season, but his leave application was denied approval by his superiors. A frustrated Arun ended up taking his own life.
As soon as the news of his suicide broke, angry jawans protested against the officers concerned. The stand-off lasted for several hours. Additional troops had to be rushed to the spot to keep a lid on the situation and all the officers were moved out of their living quarters. The army ordered two courts of inquiry to probe the incident.
This incident came close on the heels of what happened at Nyoma sub-station at Leh involving the 226 Field Artillery regiment on 11-12 May. An orderly allegedly misbehaved with the wife of a Major, who beat him up. Despite the jawan being in a critical condition, the Major refused to let him get any medical treatment. This led to outrage among the fellow jawans. When the news reached the Commanding Officer (CO), he rushed to the spot and took the Major to task. Infuriated with the public dressing down, the Major and his colleagues beat up the CO. Seeing this, the jawans went berserk and thrashed the officers. Later, the General Officer Commanding in-charge was rushed to Leh to defuse the situation. The army downplayed the incident, calling it a “minor scuffle”, adding that a court of inquiry had been ordered.
When Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh was asked about the Samba incident, he termed the incident as an isolated one in the 1.13 million-strong Indian Army. He added that there was no connection between the suicide and the stand-off. “We are looking into the problems and trying to fix them,” he said.
Since 2009, over 25,000 jawans have opted for voluntary retirement, and 1,000 plus have committed suicide since 2003
The army chief was being economical with the truth. On 3 September, Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament that Pillai’s suicide had led to “unrest” among the troops deployed in the Samba sector and that the suicide and the stand-off were not two different incidents. That was not all. Figures released by the defence minister revealed a scary picture, illustrating the level of disenchantment among the jawans and the officers.
According to Antony, more than 25,000 soldiers have opted for voluntary retirement in the past three years (10,315 in 2011, 7,249 in 2010 and 7,499 in 2009). He added that during the same period, more than 1,600 officers have either sought voluntary retirement or have resigned (this when the army is already reeling under a massive shortage of close to 12,000 officers). He also revealed that since 2003, more than 1,000 jawans have committed suicide.
So, what’s ailing the Indian Army? Why are the jawans and officers treating each other like enemies? Some officers are blaming the shortage of officers coupled with the dwindling quality of the recruits.
“The army has expanded a lot and there is a lack of quality due to it,” says Maj Gen (retd) Afsir Karim. “There is a structural problem in the way officers are recruited. There is also a problem with the higher command. They indirectly affect things like how the men are treated, where they are deployed.”
Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi has a different take. He believes that strong bonds are rarely formed between jawans and officers in a peacetime army. “Combat is the biggest glue,” he says. “It is the combat stress that makes you face death together.”
According to officers, there is a lack of communication between the commanding officers and jawans. One of the reasons is that there are not enough officers and secondly, not enough responsibility is given to the Junior Commissioned Officer, the critical link between the jawans and the officers. There is also a class bias. All financial handlings, court of inquiry, etc. are handled by officers. While a combat battalion requires 21 officers, only one-third of posts are filled on the ground. So every officer is, in effect, doing the job of three officers. That does not give adequate time to an officer to interact with his men as it should have been.
According to Lt Gen (retd) Raj Kadyan, “In our time, we used to have a notebook that had the personal details of every jawan under us such as his likes, dislikes, eccentricities, family, etc. Now, that kind of activity needs a lot of time because of the lopsided men-officer ratio.”
Officers also blame the lack of promotion options. According to a former commander, “Only 25 percent of the officers become Colonels; and only 0.05 percent get the chance of becoming a General. My batch had 1,200 commissioned officers and I was the only one who became a commander. There is plenty of frustration among the officer corps. After spending many years, everybody wants a good rank.”
The bulk of the jawans who used to join the army earlier came from villages, with little exposure. In the past 15-20 years, most of the jawans have been coming from semi-urban and urban areas. They are more educated and highly aspirational. They are not keen on blindly following their superior’s orders.
IN 2007, Antony had asked the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) to investigate suicides and fratricide in the army. The DIPR concluded that high workload, lack of adequate rest and leaves, nonabundance of basic amenities and domestic concerns coupled with inadequate and insufficient support from the civil administration were the most prevalent factors causing stress among troops.
According to Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi, “A lot has changed in the past 20 years. The reality is that there is lack of respect for the army. Earlier, it was a matter of pride to be in the army. People would look up to you with awe. Now, you are a fool, wasting your prime for nothing.”
Senior officers admit that the recent cases of corruption involving top generals have also not helped the cause.
After his statement in Parliament, Antony met the three service chiefs and discussed the issues of suicides, retirements and fratricide. He asked the chiefs to ensure that officers should be liberal while granting leaves to jawans. He also asked the defence ministry to get in touch with the railways to ensure that whenever a jawan goes on leave, he immediately gets a reservation.
While the ministry is making all the right noises, it is for the army to do some serious introspection about effective manmanagement skills that not only treats its jawans well, but also takes into account the society’s changing aspirations.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.