Is there a leadership failure in the Indian Army?
Recently, there was a fratricide incident in the Kashmir valley. A jawan (soldier) was reprimanded by his superior officer for using a cell phone on duty. In return, the jawan shot him. This unfortunate incident has been quoted in sections of the media as an example of junior leadership and man-management failure.
This has been linked to reports that the Indian army has over 100 stress-related suicides per year due to junior leadership failures. While the loss of even one trained soldier is unacceptable, suicides may still occur and be accepted but fratricide is and will always remain unacceptable.
The Indian army is over one million strong. With such a large force, there would always be a junior who would have problems which would eventually impact his mental health. To reduce such incidents, remedial measures including counselling have been incorporated at grassroots levels, yet similar incidents keep occurring. Most cases, when investigated, are a result of family tensions which at times are beyond the mental ability of the soldier to bear.
Most soldiers come from rural or semi-rural areas. They join the army at a fairly young age, while at home their families are secure under the patronage of the patriarch. Most join with the dream of rising to the uppermost levels in their cadre. With the passage of time, the patriarch either becomes old or passes away, resulting in the division of property, mainly land.
The share of the serving jawan is impacted as he is unable to look after it due to exigencies of service, thus facing enhanced pressure from his immediate family. It is for this reason that many seek to retire once they have completed their basic service.
The process of selection of soldiers at their time of joining is vastly different from the officer cadre. The potential officer undergoes a four-day Services Selection Board (SSB) where he is minutely observed and judged for his suitability. His positive approach, physical courage, leadership qualities and mental robustness must be of high order.
Only those who meet the desired standards are selected. His background has no impact. Psychologists would confirm that most of the desired qualities are engrained in an individual at a very early age and he is further honed during his training cycle. Hence, untoward incidents among officers are a rarity.
Such a process is never conducted for those joining as jawans, solely because of the vast numbers being recruited. Therefore, the mental robustness and ability to bear stress is never judged. Some aspects are engrained during training; physical courage, camaraderie and leadership qualities being the major ones. Thus, every individual has different levels of stress which he can bear.
For most serving personnel, maximum stress flows from the home front. The individual has the same affection and regard for his family as any of us. He has similar responsibilities towards them, though he is disadvantaged by being away for prolonged periods. Hence, problems at home always have an immense impact.
To cater to this, all personnel in every unit have a ‘buddy’, a colleague who is always around, preferably at close vicinity. Both live, eat, operate and even proceed on leave together. The intention behind this is that every soldier has someone he can trust and share his problems with, thus reducing stress levels. This has succeeded and helped control potential suicide cases.
The last fratricide incident took place in a Rashtriya Rifles (RR) battalion deployed in Kashmir. RR battalions are not homogeneous troops belonging to one regiment, though the basic structure remains from one regiment. Most would have not served together earlier nor would they after their RR tenure. Thus, the level of bonding is lower as compared to a regular battalion.
Officers in RR units are mostly on deputation from different arms and services. The officer who lost his life in the recent fratricide incident was on deputation from the armoured corps. Officer-soldier relations in RR battalions are close, since they live and operate together, always as a team. However, stress levels due to multiple reasons can bring about a sudden change in the behaviour of an individual.
Troops deployed in Kashmir face increased stress. Family issues continue to dominate their minds, while each day and each operation only adds to their stress levels. Restrictions that are imposed to avoid accidental casualties of locals place them in greater danger. Thus, further enhancing the pressure put upon them. The present period is more stressful as tensions have risen and encounters are frequent.
Troops deployed on guard duty are responsible for the safety and security of their comrades who are resting. Laxity on guard duty can lead to casualties, which is why there were clear instructions on avoiding the use of mobiles, which could be a distraction. When the officer checked the individual for using a mobile, it was with the intention of conveying that a distraction may result in a fatal incident. The manner it was conveyed in or accepted by the soldier is unknown.
To blame junior leadership is making an accusation with minimum knowledge. The Indian army junior leadership is its hallmark. Its junior leaders have always led from the front, proved their mettle in every operation the army has been involved in, whether it is a war or counter-insurgency.
Suicides due to stress are high in every army which is employed in operations. The US army has over 200 cases per year and is almost double its national average. In recent times, since its involvement in Afghanistan, the US army’s suicide cases have risen. There is one army suicide every fortnight in the British army and their army is much smaller.
Tough working conditions, better connectivity, enhanced operational stress and, despite liberal leave policies, prolonged periods of absence, all affect an individual.
It is not leadership which alone can be held accountable, societal changes and individual behaviour have an equal impact. However, the army needs to conduct studies to determine workable solutions at the grassroots level to reduce untoward incidents.
For those unaware of the working environment of the army, there is a need to comprehend its realities, before blaming the junior leadership and its man-management policies.
This post originally appeared here.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.