Saturday, April 30, 2011

India: soldiers under stress

A soldier turned on his own unit in Kashmir, killing 4 and raising specter of morale crisis in Indian army.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - April 30

NEW DELHI, India — An Indian soldier stationed in Indian-administered Kashmir opened fire on his own unit Thursday, killing four comrades and again raising the specter of a morale crisis in the world's second-largest standing army.

“In an unfortunate incident today [Thursday] morning, Havildar [Sgt.] Abhay Kumar, for unexplained reasons, fired at his own colleagues resulting in the death of one junior commissioned officer and three other ranks," local newspapers quoted army spokesman Lt. Col. J.S. Brar as saying.

Apparently triggered by Sgt. Kumar's anger over a public dressing down he received from a superior officer, the alleged fratricide was the first incident of fragging in Indian-administered Kashmir in two years. Various measures have been implemented to ward off such incidents and to boost troop morale "such as constant counseling by superiors and religious teachers, regular rest, yoga and other such means," according to Brar.

But as India simultaneously reduces the numbers of boots on the ground in the disputed territory and seeks a better engagement with the local population to win hearts and minds, the shooting raises concerns that despite a lull in militant activity, the psychological pressure on soldiers is as great as ever.

"The soldiers come to Kashmir from mainland India," said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor at Kashmir University. "They come from a different sociocultural context. They have no empathy with the people, and the people have no empathy with them. The people of Kashmir don't trust them and they don't trust us."

After a rash of fragging incidents in 2006, which saw 23 cases of fratricide among the country's armed forces, the Indian army took a number of measures to relieve the pressure on soldiers in fraught areas like Kashmir, where the government is battling separatists.

Along with a pay raise and an increase in food rations for troops stationed above 12,000 feet, the army liberalized its leave policy to allow soldiers to deal with family problems — a major source of stress, according to a study by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research.

And though both suicides and fratricides continued — there were 520 such cases between 2006 and 2009, according to a statement given in parliament by the defense minister — as of last year the new measures had brought suicides down to an all-time low and virtually eliminated fragging.

But according to Dr. Rajat Mitra, a psychologist who specializes in violent behavior, the army's efforts have been mainly cosmetic. Untrained and inexperienced psychologists were dispatched to treat troops in the field and counseling programs were designed to meet deadlines rather than to provide real help, he said. One military officer asked Mitra to recommend someone less-experienced when he objected to the timebound, goal-oriented therapy program, Mitra said.

Moreover, even though introducing yoga classes might sound touchy-feely, no effort has been undertaken to change the culture of command — in which officers are disdainful toward the feelings of their men and reluctant to treat them humanely.

"In this situation, the [soldier] was humiliated in front of other people and he was teased about it," Mitra said. "The same thing could have been done by him in a more gentle and empathetic manner, and it would have been more effective."

Interestingly, there is little correlation between the fierceness of combat and these incidents, as suicides and fratricides spiked in Kashmir even as militant violence waned. In fact, studies found, it was most often grinding problems with family members left back home that drove soldiers to violence — not the fear of battle or post traumatic stress disorder.

Through interviews with around 200 officers and 900 soldiers stationed in Kashmir, Col. K.C. Dixit, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, found that most cases of violence and suicide stemmed from problems like marital discord, property disputes and heavy debts rather than stress related to policing an insurgency-affected region.

In 2008, for instance, 13 out of 18 suicides and attempted suicides resulted due to domestic problems, two from failed love affairs and two due to previously diagnosed psychological disorders. Only one case was traced directly to the stress of active duty.

Nevertheless, in at least one respect, so-called "operational stress" is likely to get worse before it gets better as India seeks to turn its million-man army into a modern fighting force.

There is a wide cultural gap — sustained by an inherently prejudicial system — between soldiers and officers, though it has never been linked officially to morale problems.

According to Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta of the Brookings Institution, India suffers an "acute shortage" of junior officers because the country's economic rise has made a military career less attractive for the middle class. The army leadership has resisted reforming the system to allow enlisted men to win commissions based on performance in the field.

"Even if you are good, you cannot hope to rise, so there is a deep sense of frustration," said Mitra. "There's a feeling of us versus them. That runs very deep."

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