Understanding a soldier’s mind

The root cause of suicides in a military unit requires dispassionate professional analysis, rather than salacious media speculation

Suicide is an extremely rare incident in a military unit and is always a cause of serious concern if one does occur. Reports of a soldier suicide in a unit located in a sensitive sector of the Indo-Pakistan border in the Jammu region were accordingly seized upon by the media to speculate about the possible compulsions that could drive an Indian Army soldier to take this supremely tragic final step.

But additional disturbing issues in this case are reports of confrontation between officers and jawans of the unit following the incident. This is a serious issue whose reasons must be ascertained and vigorous corrective measures taken.
Media speculations tend to be open-ended and accounts of the tragedy that have appeared so far have tended towards popular perceptions of the military as a harsh, impersonal and soulless machine, where individual soldiers are considered mere cannon fodder and treated as such. Such conclusions are, of course, widely sweeping and emanate from a general lack of public awareness about the service and its practicing ethos of “Naam, Namak aur Nishan”.
The deceased soldier in this case apparently took his own life because he had reportedly been denied home leave to attend to a domestic requirement. The Army is well aware of adequate home leave as an important factor in maintaining troop morale in a widely deployed force. All commanders religiously try to ensure that under normal circumstances all their troops personnel avail of their full quota of leave every year. Nevertheless, there are also concurrent requirements of basic troop strengths to be maintained in units at all times to meet operational and administrative commitments as well as for surge emergencies, of which the Indian Army has sufficient past experience during its several border wars. Therefore, while requests for leave are always considered sympathetically, the unit and its commitments have to be accorded first priority under all circumstances.
Meanwhile, the system of due process to ascertain the full details of the tragic incident must be well under way if not already completed by now. The root cause of suicides requires dispassionate professional analysis, rather than salacious media speculation. Was the Samba mishap occasioned primarily by the pressures of military life (which, on occasions, can be very demanding indeed)? Or was it the demon of domestic tensions proliferating exponentially on the home front, which affects every household in the country, soldier and civilian alike, and plays an intensely corrosive role in the psychological demolition of a soldier, particularly when isolated in a field? The findings and conclusions will require to be analysed in great detail to determine the reasons which lead to this utterly needless tragedy.
An individual case of suicide does not truly reflect the state of collective morale in the Army. However, it must also be understood that the traditional profile of the Indian soldier, too, has been totally transformed by the spread of education as well as an almost incessant exposure to a probing media which is, at times, witch-hunting. The soldier is no press-ganged conscript, but a long-term volunteer and is the product of the current socio-economic milieu, well aware of the cross currents outside the military environment.
It is in this changed social context that the ubiquitous cellphone has acquired an importance entirely of its own — telephone conversations having long replaced the traditional “letters from home”. The cellphone phenomenon has immeasurably speeded up direct conveyance of domestic news and family gossip from homes in all parts of India to recipients located in even the most remote of forward areas, a web of personal connectivity which plays an important role in maintaining soldier morale. Conversely, it also heightens the adverse impact on the soldier’s psyche when urgent calls from home bring tidings of problems and emergencies which require the immediate attention of the man of the house who more often than not is located far from home, and unable to intervene personally. These problems are especially applicable to troops from peninsular India, deployed in border areas fronting Pakistan in the north and west, or China in the Northeast.
Needless to say that such problems require the highest standards of military leadership. Napoleon’s timeless maxim — “There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers” — has always echoed in the command culture of the Indian Army. It always insists on the highest standards built around the closest bonding between officers and their men at all levels. Nowhere is this bonding stronger or more evident than at the unit level of regiment or the battalion, the critical cutting edge of the fighting machine where the officer and jawans interact and interlock, and comradeship is the strongest. The Indian Army justifiably prides itself on its uniquely exemplary organisational ethos based on a long tradition of positive inter-personal relationships amongst all ranks, developed during war as well as in peace and nurtured for over the past two centuries
Nevertheless, there is a case for government intervention here, to facilitate quick travel for a soldier required to rush home for some family emergency. It is time that air travel is recognised as essential transportation and officially authorised for troops and their families proceeding on leave from locations on the far frontiers of the country.
The soldiers’ mind is toughened to withstand the vagaries of the military environment but domestic issues are often much harder to handle. Complete insulation from the pressure cooker of the real world outside the Army is impracticable because military stations, howsoever self-sufficient, are no longer the sanitised sanctuaries of yesteryear. The real world waits on the doorsteps and cannot be denied entry into the mind of the soldier.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former MP

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