Soldiers of misfortune

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Before the Home Ministry raises new paramilitary battalions, it needs to ask why the old ones are quitting in droves. Raman Kirpal reports on a brewing crisis

SURINDER KANG joined the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) as a constable in 1990. Twenty years later, he’s risen no more than just one rank: he’s a havaldar now. What has risen dangerously over the years, though, are his chances of dying on duty.

SITTING DUCKS Jawans look out after a car-bomb explosion near a CRPF camp in Srinagar
Photo: AFP

So Kang, at 40, has sought voluntary retirement. He wants his pension (even if it is just 2/3rd of what he would otherwise get), an easier job — and he does not want to die. Needless to say, Surinder Kang has a different real name.

What makes Kang’s story extremely disturbing is that it is not an individual story of disillusionment: it is symptomatic of a rampant and growing feeling in the paramilitary. At a time when the Home Minister is speaking of raising dozens of new paramilitary battalions, apart from Kang, hundreds of other men with real names and real fears and real grievances are queuing up to quit the services. In fact, according to official data, an unprecedented 14,422 jawans applied for premature voluntary retirement from service (VRS) in 2009 — up 85 percent from the previous year and 112 percent from 2007. Compare this with the fact that only 4,622 soldiers sought voluntary retirement from the Indian Army — which is three times larger than all the paramilitary forces put together — in the same period, and the contrast becomes painfully stark.

So, why the exodus?

A few days ago, EN Rammohan, former Director General of the Border Security Force (BSF), submitted his one-man enquiry report to Home Minister P Chidambaram on what went wrong in the recent Dantewada massacre, in which Maoists ambushed and killed 76 CRPF jawans. Predictably, the report blamed “leadership failure” and “a lack of coordination between the CRPF and the state police”. Based on this, a few individual heads down the ranks will roll. But if the government stops at that, it will have misread the crisis and lose a crucial opportunity for introspection and drastic overhaul.

The truth is the Dantewada massacre is only one kind of cautionary tale about what ails the Indian paramilitary. The cautionary tale of Surinder Kang runs much deeper and is more alarming.

Kang has realised that India doesn’t honour its jawans. He’d rather be a private guard

IF ONE were merely to read the surface signs, it might seem a fear of dying is propelling the exodus. The year 2010 has barely begun and already 79 CRPF men have died. The number was 58 in 2009. The stark contrast with Indian Army VRS figures also seems to suggest that battling one’s own countrymen has become much tougher and more wearisome than battling enemies outside — both physically and psychologically. As Gautam Kaul, a retired IPS officer who served as Additional Director General of CRPF in 1997-98, says, “Both death in action and voluntary retirement are higher in the CRPF and BSF than in the Army. The spurt in political and civil unrest in the country does not match [the] planning and preparedness of these paramilitary forces. The demand is massive and the paramilitary forces just can’t meet the demand.”

But fear of dying does not seem to be the key reason Surinder Kang wants to leave the CRPF. Something deeper nags him. Kang has 20 long years of fighting guerilla wars and insurgencies. He has been posted thrice in Jammu and Kashmir, twice in the Northeast, and two times each in Lalgarh and Bastar. Besides this, he has been on election duty in Gujarat, Bihar, Delhi, West Bengal and Orissa. Kang is 40 now and has grayed a little. He is extremely fit and no amount of training can bring you his experience. But Kang has queued up for VRS. He is resolved to leave the forces and work as a small-time private guard at some ATM or private industry. Kang has realised the country does not honour those who serve it. Now, he wants to be with his family at any cost.

Disillusion simmers like an epidemic. 14,422 want to quit the paramilitary forces

“I spent one third of my 20 years in the CRPF just travelling. Of these 20 years, I could spend only three years with my children. I took medical leave to get married. I could only reach my village five days after I received news of my father passing away. I am the eldest in my family but I couldn’t even perform the last rites. I couldn’t attend three of my four sisters’ marriages. I had to arrange a separate house for my wife and kids after my father’s death because my brother threw them out from the joint family house. But if you take any of these problems to your officers, they just shoo you away.”

Kang is not the only one. Disillusion is simmering like an epidemic beneath the disciplined skin of the paramilitary, and its reasons straddle a wide spectrum: poor work conditions; demeaning terms of service; long years away from families; arbitrary orders and a niggling sense that their life is cheap and death would come without honour.

JUST WALK around the paramilitary headquarters in Delhi and this honour fatigue begins to unravel. Talk to a constable under a tree and word spreads that someone is asking about their troubles. The jawan inside the canteen, the jawan walking with heaps of files to the grievance department, the jawan loading trucks, all stop to listen in. Everyone wants your number on a scrap of paper. They can’t talk now, but they all have a story to tell. Of how they have lived in torn tents with no drinking water. Of how the holes were big enough for heat waves and pouring rain. Of how the officers live in concrete houses with three servants. Of how it’s not the government, but their own departments that ensure the welfare schemes never reach them. Of how salaries are cut even when they are injured on duty. Of how a jawan does not get paid if he is in hospital for more than six months. The recurring theme is “pressure: — of how there is too much “dabav” from commanders to blindly follow orders. Of how most of these orders are things that fall outside the purview of duty. Of how they are never consulted even while their lives are at stake. Of how they all plan to take voluntary retirement as soon as they complete 20 years of service.

There’s a jawan from Uttaranchal who has been trying to get a transfer to his home state of Gujarat for the last five years. His wife is mentally ill and unable to look after his three young children. “The officers tell me to get my wife treated in Uttaranchal,” says he. “But our camp is in the mountains, in the middle of a jungle. How is this possible?” Once he returned a few days late from a visit home. His wife’s ill-health was not a good enough shield. He lost an entire month’s pay.

THE FALLING RANKS
While the army, which has more personnel than all paramilitary forces combined, has seen a gradual fall in attrition rates, it has shot up exponentially in the latter

Another jawan has spent 16 years in the CRPF — six in Jammu and Kashmir, three in Assam, three in Tripura, and three in Manipur. Too scared to talk at the CRPF headquarters, he calls late at night to share his story. During a posting in Srinagar, he was charged with indiscipline and lost 15 days of pay for daring to complain about inedible food and cockroaches in his dal. When he fell sick in Tripura, he couldn’t get a car to get to hospital. “I had to hire a jeep,” says he. “Only if 15-20 constables fall sick and need a car together, there’s a chance of us getting it. Otherwise the cars are busy ferrying the officers’ children. This country got independence in 1947, but we still live like slaves. Our officers order us to do unauthorised things; we have no right to express ourselves. They tell us to barge into people’s homes and pick up bricks and cement and construct our quarters. They pocket lakhs of welfare money; they take commissions from ration shops.

We pay Rs 1,326 per month for food. The bills are for A-grade rations but we get C-grade food. The commander is like the king of a battalion. He runs it the way he wants. As a driver, I am sent all the time for unauthorised pick ups. All the risk of being caught is on me. You live under so much pressure, you either shoot yourself or shoot someone else. I am just waiting to complete 20 years so I can get a part of my pension and then I’ll quit.”

HE ANGRY stories duplicate endlessly. A jawan from Gorakhpur with 17 years of service behind him speaks of how he was not granted leave to be in time for his first child’s delivery, though he was posted just a few hours away in Allahabad. When he reached a week later, his son was dead. “After the 6th Pay Commission, we were supposed to be given Rs 2,000 education allowance and a travel allowance, but I haven’t got it yet,” says he. “The officers find ways to make sure we don’t get this education allowance. Just a school certificate is not enough. They ask for bills for the child’s uniform, shoes, notebooks. How are we going to run around getting all this when we barely get leave?”

A wise administration would retain these men, but the dominant mood is complacency

(A jawan is entitled to two months of earned leave in a year but they rarely get leave on time. “A battalion has seven companies and all the seven companies are located at different locations. The battalion commandant sits at Chandigarh. How can a jawan get leave on time if he is located in Dantewada and his commandant is in Chandigarh,” says Gautam Kaul. “Better systems have to be thought through.”)

Clearly, the issue of family — and an inability to provide adequately for them — looms large for the jawan. “We had witnessed an exodus in the paramilitary forces in 1991 too when violence had escalated in Jammu and Kashmir,” says Prakash Belgamkar, retired DIG (Operations), CRPF. “We had discovered then that a soldier’s motivation revolves around his family. But he becomes a nomad after joining the forces. The nucleus of his nuclear family goes away. He has no fixed address, his life gets fragmented.”

‘The Naxalites never repeat mistakes, but we never learn from ours,’ says a forlorn jawan

But no lessons seem to have been learnt since 1991. Far from any internal memos in the Home Ministry sounding alarm signals about the surge in VRS applications, or directives in paramilitary headquarters urging officers to motivate jawans, the dominant mood seems to be callous complacency: there’s more where those came from. “Yes, we have seen a spurt in voluntary retirements,” says CRPF spokesperson Ajay Chaturvedi. “But there are enough applications coming in of boys who want to join. We have filled in the vacancies. We have raised six new battalions in a year. We don’t have a crunch anymore. There’s nothing to worry.”

A wise administration would stop men like Kang, if it could. Their experience is hard won, and no training course can duplicate that. But the official position seems to be just about numbers. Building morale, quality and pride in work is not on the radar. Retaining experience seems unnecessary. In a poor country, there will always be replacements. There will always be fresh fodder for all cannons.

No Respite CRPF jawans patrol in Gaganpalli village in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district
Photo: Mishra V

TO GET a real sense of the implications of the diving morale of the paramilitary jawan, one needs to understand first the nature and work of the paramilitary forces. India has about 7 lakh paramilitary forces which include the Central Reserve Police Force (strength 2.30 lakh); Border Security Force (strength 2.15 lakh); Central Industrial Security Force (strength 1.12 lakh); Assam Rifle (strength 50,000); Indo- Tibetan Border Police (strength 74,000) and a Sashastra Seema Bal (strength 29,000). The tasks of these battalions range across fighting internal counter-insurgencies, protecting heritage sites and national installations, providing relief during calamities, controlling riots, providing VIP security and executing election duties. (Their motto is ‘Any Task, Any Time, Any Where’ and ‘Duty unto Death’ — as opposed to the army’s which is ‘Shoot to Kill’. But far from pride, this seems to evoke cynical scorn in jawans now.)

Though law and order are State subjects that, ideally, should be handled by the State police, the National Crime Record Bureau confirms there is a shortage of two lakh policemen in the country. This places an added burden on the paramilitary forces. As former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta says, “There is a diversity of challenges from terrorism to insurgency today, which has affected rotation and training of these paramilitary forces. This does lead to stress. The private security business has also attracted them away from the forces. This is an evolving situation and the government has to take major initiatives to improve things.”

The story about the diving morale of the jawan then is not just a story about individual griping. It should be of national concern. The jawan is the primary interface between civilians and the State in a conflict zone. Their conduct is crucial to the history of these conflicts. They need to be sensitised not brutalised. Kashmir, the Northeast, Chhattisgarh, Lalgarh (in West Bengal), Narayanpatna (in Orissa) are all rife with stories of malafide behaviour by jawans. But how can any virtuous cycles set in? As a jawan in Lalgarh says after his friend was refused a visit to his pregnant wife, “I was so angry, I wanted to shoot someone.” (See box Case Study 1)

Difficulty in getting leave and family anxieties though are not the only reasons jawans are quitting in droves. The terms of service, over all, seem to need a major revision. A retired IPS officer who has served in the CRPF, ITBP and CISF in different capacities says, “Why shouldn’t the paramilitary jawans leave? I pity them for sacrificing their lives when our pay commissions do not even recognise them as ‘skilled’ workers.”

Transit Home Paramilitary forces at a local school in Lalgarh, West Bengal. In conflict zones, the troops are stationed inside unused government buildings, schools, old godowns and cloth tents
Photo:  Indian Express Archive

This seems merely the tip of a huge iceberg of service dissatisfactions. Army men are considered skilled workers, while paramilitary jawans trained to fight in some of the most dangerous and difficult circumstances are not considered “skilled” enough. A jawan gets a salary ranging from Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 (same as a civilian clerk); and an additional Rs 3,000 if he is on a ‘hard posting’ in a ‘difficult area’. (It is typical of Indian bureaucracy that while J&K and the Northeast are considered ‘difficult areas’, Chhattisgarh, Bastar and Lalgarh are yet to feature in this category though many more jawans have been killed in service here than elsewhere.) A jawan also gets Rs 1,100 — Rs 1,300 for rations but has to pay for his own mess expenses on the field, often having to find rations and cook for themselves.

Apart from these living conditions, many veterans say the essential command structure of the paramilitary forces is flawed. Kaul believes too many agencies have authority over a jawan and that contributes hugely to the low morale. “As director general of a paramilitary force, I am only entitled to perform house-keeping jobs for a jawan. I can train him and monitor his service record, but I have no powers to decide on his battalion movement and deployment,” says he. Only Home Ministry officials perform this critical job: they have the list of battalions, they assess the demand and assign locations.

This can lead to many Kafkaesque situations. One retired jawan remembers a tortuous journey in 2004 that stretched 8,000 kilometers over two months as the Home Ministry ordered his company like a pawn to move from Agartala to Gujarat via Bangladesh, Delhi, Kashmir and back to Agartala. Crowded trains, no reservations, no accommodations, no sense of why they were being deployed anywhere, and, most of all — no sense of respect. “I have fought insurgents for 20 years,” says the jawan bitterly, “but this one journey showed me my standing in my country’s eyes. How can you fool around with so many human beings on the pretext of an emergency situation?” (See box Case Study 2) Other jawans speak of being summoned to places for six months and being asked to stay for six years.

“Battalion movements are very frequent in the CRPF and this often leads to individual hardship. The very nature of their duty is temporary and is bound to dislocate them constantly. In the army, soldiers undertake an operation then go back to the base camp; the CRPF jawans have no fixed place to return. They are always on the move,’’ says Kaul.

Body Count A jawan on guard outside a barricaded CRPF camp in Lal Chowk, one of Srinagar’s high-risk zones
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

THIS SENSE of the ad-hoc permeates every aspect of their lives. (For instance, it appears the Home Ministry had no idea that the CRPF had only three satellite phones till former Home Minister Shivraj Patil went to Amarnath and had a sudden desire to speak to his family from the shrine. A phone was found with great difficulty for him. This is the only reason he came back to Delhi and remembered to sanction 68 satellite phones for the CRPF and an equal number for other paramilitary battalions.)

But often, this can have much more ominous implications. Kang speaks of his dread in being asked to go on an ‘area domination’ exercise in Chhattisgarh. “We hadn’t slept for days. We landed, and our induction was cut short midway, because there were no policemen for patrolling. We had no clue about the local language, culture, terrain, and most importantly, we had no intelligence about the enemy. We were there physically but had to rely on local intelligence. The paramilitary does not even have its own intelligence. So if the input is good, we succeed; if not, we become sitting ducks.”

This idea of being a ‘sitting duck’ is a powerful and repetitive leitmotif. Another retired jawan who has seen service in J&K, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, says, “Naxalites fight with military precision. They commit mistakes but they never repeat them.” He recalls an incident in Erabore in 2005 when 200 Naxalites tried to bomb a police armory and the CRPF bunker near it. The jawans resisted the attack and informed their base camp. Help came quickly and the Naxals were repulsed. Three months later, the CRPF battalion raided a Naxal hideout and found a document titled: Why we failed in the Erabore Police Armory Operation. The document said they had failed because they had underestimated the strength of the armory and bunker wall, and so had taken insufficient explosives, and, secondly, they had not anticipated that the CRPF’s base camp could send help that fast. A few months later, Naxals killed 23 CRPF jawans in a landmine attack. The jawans were on their way to rescue policemen trapped in an attack: the Naxals had anticipated this and laid landmines to blow the vehicle.

“We are never debriefed so thoroughly,” says the jawan. “We are constantly pushed into mindless ‘area domination’ exercises without any intelligence. We never seem to learn from our mistakes.”

What can reverse the tide then? What can stop the attrition and turn this force into a humane, yet proud and efficient line of defence? Former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta says some initiatives were underway in his time: raising more police force, providing housing, reducing telephone rates for calls home, and counselling (when more than 10 jawans from a company apply for VRS). Prakash Belgamkar re-emphasises the need for this: “A jawan has other alternatives today. If the State wants to retain him, it has to free him of his worries about his family. If this is done, he’ll be yours for the rest of his life.” That might be only the first of many urgent correctives. The most primary one will have to be an essential change of attitude — wherein retaining men begins to matter more than merely replacing them.

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“My Patriotism Is Dead”

ANONYMOUS, West Bengal

AFTER 12 YEARS of serving in the paramilitary forces, Ashok Ray, 34, wants to quit. He joined the forces in 1998, inspired by his grand father — a freedom fighter who later served in the Indian Army. Ray’s father, a CPWD electrical operator in Howrah, West Bengal, had warned him against it — “It’s a terrible life away from your family.”

Today, serving as a constable holed up in a broken house in West Bengal’s Naxal-hit forests, putting up plastic packets on his window to keep away the scorching heat, Ray wishes he had taken the advice. Ask Ray what it’s like working in these jungles, searching for the elusive Maoist, and he repeats the one word you didn’t expect to hear from a jawan — human rights. “We have no human rights,” he whispers, asking you to ensure his identity remains hidden. “If an officer wants water or cold drinks, 10 cars will go to get it. But if a jawan wants to go on leave, it’s a big risk to give him a car to get out of Jangalmahal.” Ray earns a salary of Rs 15,000 a month and stays in a camp with 100 other jawans. They were offered cloth tents and two old godowns with no ventilation. The squad found an old house, once used for a government scheme, and converted it into a camp. Four people stay in a room. Those who couldn’t get these rooms sleep outside in tents. There are no toilets. Ray bathes at the nearest well and pays Rs 32 a day for rice and dal cooked in the mess, run by the jawans themselves.

One of the defining moments for Ray came when he had a motorbike accident as he was returning to his base camp. “I could have died of a haemorrhage,” he says. “My eyes were bleeding and my bones were fractured.” It was past sunset, and too late to make the 15 kilometre journey through dense forests. When Ray tried to stay at the nearest police station, he was turned away. “We need orders,” he was told by the inspector.

But the lowest point came when he was returning after treatment in Howrah, having spent Rs 50,000. Still weak from surgery, he asked his brother, a security guard in a private company, to accompany him. After a train and bus ride, he reached a point in the forest where public transport ends. From here, jawans must call their base camp for a vehicle. “The inspector refused to send a car if I came with my brother and luggage.” Ray had to spend his own money to hire a taxi. Once at the camp, his brother was refused a place to stay. “Where would I find him a hotel in this dense Maoist area?” The human rights violations didn’t end there. The doctor had issued Ray a medical certificate that said he could do “light” work. “The inspector asked me to get a certificate saying I am fit.”

Another shocking incident Ray remembers is when a colleague asked for leave to see his pregnant wife. “Will you deliver the baby yourself?” the jawan was told. “Tell her to go to her in-laws.” That’s when Ray began to lose all faith in the system. “I was so angry, I wanted to shoot.”

‘As jawans, we have no human rights. I feel i will be dying for nothing,’ ray says, ready to quit the job

His most recent tenure in Jangalmahal, West Bengal, has made Ray question the old ideas of patriotism. “I always wanted to be a sainik to serve my country,” he says, “but now I feel I will be dying for nothing. I have seen so many illegal things happening. We have to blindly follow orders. When we go for operations, we don’t know who a Maoist is. Poor Adivasis are being beaten and innocents are being killed. I don’t feel that I am doing anything for the nation. My patriotism is dead.”

Clearly disillusioned, Ray admits the morale of the forces is at the lowest. “What is this operation? What is success? What have we achieved in all these months of being here,” he asks. “There is no intelligence and we don’t know what the strategy is.”

The latest orders from the West Bengal DGP have perturbed him further. After the Silda attack, the jawans were told, “If you think he is a Maoist — kill him.”

“I have not yet beaten anyone yet because I don’t know if he is a Maoist,” Ray says. “All I can see is that he is poor and one of our known. But some of the villagers are also with the Maoists. If we sympathise, it’s a problem, if we don’t, it’s a problem. I don’t know what to do.”

Tusha Mittal

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“We Felt Like Pawns”

ANONYMOUS, Chhattisgarh

I NURTURED a dream to travel the world one day. I had never stepped out of my village in Hoshiarpur, Punjab until I was 15, when I finally boarded a bus to an inter-college event. But a train was still a distant possibility. I had little contact with the outside world.

My dreams were fulfilled in 1990, when I joined the CRPF as an Assistant Sub Inspector. I knew that the life in the paramilitary forces is tough, but you get a chance to travel the world if you are lucky. 20 years later, I feel miserable, having spent half my life aboard a train. Even now, as I say this, I am supposed to be in transit.

While defending the nation against terrorists and insurgents, one incident showed me where I really stood. It was an endless journey that lasted two months, covering 8,000 km. It began in 2004. I was posted at Agartala, Tripura. Besides insurgents, the place was full of deadly mosquitoes, which had already killed two jawans. We used to religiously swallow two tablets of quinine every evening during the roll call.

One day we were ordered to go to Gujarat on election duty. The prospects of not taking quinine sounded convincing, and so our 100-strong company set off, going around Bangladesh to reach Lumding, Assam, driving in rain. It took us more than a day, after which we took a meter-gauge train to Guwahati 16 hours later.

We had no reservations on the train and there were no extra bogies available. The railway authorities would not be bothered about adjusting us in any of the trains going to Mumbai or Delhi. Despite the huge demand for berths, we managed to get on a Delhibound train, which was supposed to leave three days after our arrival at Guwahati. So five days were lost, and we were still stuck in the North-East.

We stayed in a makeshift transit camp in Guwahati, which was as good as the station platform. Finally, we managed to make the three-day insurlong journey. We had barely touched the Delhi railway station, and had just informed our superiors about our location, when we were asked to divert to Kashmir, as there was an ‘emergency’ situation.

We collected new travel warrants and requested our headquarters to use their influence in getting us on to any train going to Jammu. Luckily, we got an overnighter to Jammu the very next day, reaching Jammu on the morning of our tenth day of nonstop travel. 100 jawans needed at least three trucks to move in a convoy to the Valley. For this, we had to wait for another two days. When we finally got going, the 15-hour journey became a 24-hour crawl due to the Vaishno Devi pilgrim rush.

I had stopped counting days after I reached Kashmir. In one word, it was ‘pathetic’. The Kashmir police did not require our service, as the situation was under control by then. We were given some space in Police Lane and were told to sort out where we should go next.

We contacted our field commander and sought further directions, which came after three days: “Gujarat’’

A hundred of us started packing. We requested for trucks again and rolled back to Jammu, to spend two more days at a transit camp near Jammu Railway Station. We reached Delhi and then began the long wait for space in any train that goes to Gujarat.

We never get reservations in the train, and unlike armymen we don’t have the honour of having special bogies. We have to request the Railways and convince them how important it is for us to reach our destination. The Railway officials are kind on most occasions, but they are also helpless during rush seasons.

We then spent a few days in a Delhi transit camp and finally headed for Gujarat. On our arrival at Ahmedabad, we were told that we were late. We had already been replaced by another company. The election duties were already assigned. “Go back to Agartala,’’ were the next orders.

How mindless can one be! Please don’t calculate financial and man-hour losses that this journey entailed. Think of us. We were used as ‘dead material’ and were kicked around like football.

My blood boils, when I think of it even today.

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With inputs from Tusha Mittal

[email protected]

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