Soldiers under stress

The Indian Army and associated paramilitary forces fighting in Kashmir are losing more men to stress than to militant attacks. The capacity of the 1.3 million-strong army – an estimated 600,000 soldiers of which are stationed in J & K – to cope with stress came dramatically into focus during October this year, when the incidents of 'fraternal killings' suddenly spiked. During that month alone, ten Indian soldiers were killed by colleagues, while only three died in combat operations. Similarly, during the first ten months of this year, the Indian Army lost 55 soldiers in anti-insurgency operations in Kashmir, but 86 more took their own lives. These figures are all the more striking against a recent report that violence levels in Kashmir are actually down by around 20 percent this year. Although the military has long denied that its ranks suffer from systemic stress problems, army chief General J J Singh recently admitted to the pressure faced by soldiers, and ordered an investigation into the deaths. As for suicides, official statistics show that 66 Indian Army soldiers took their own lives in 2002, 96 in 2003, 100 in 2004 and 71 through November in 2005. The number of recorded 'assault and affray' cases – including battery of officers and violence among troops – is also said to be significant. Murders within the army also rose during the same timeframe, with six in 2002 and between 16 and 18 each year for 2003-05. Experts generally describe suicides and fraternal killings among soldiers as being 'panic reactions'. These are attributed to a plethora of reasons – work under hostile conditions, experience of a continuing threat to one's life, lack of recreational options, and homesickness due to long separation from families. Theories abound as to why the trend in suicides and inter-personal violence has suddenly gone up at this particular time. But as stress among army and paramilitary troops is now an official truth, it becomes obvious that the Indian Army does not have adequate systems in place to combat the growing problem. The army brass has recently decided to train 50 counsellors to cope with this 'emergency', 40 of whom will be sent to J & K. In addition, military officials are hiring psychologists to be sent into the field, as well as experimenting with meditation, exercise and yoga programmes.  "Yoga has worked wonders for troops," says Prabaker Tripathi, a public-relations officer with the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF) in Srinagar. "It keeps their minds under control during hostile circumstances, and helps them to remain controlled persons and behave properly with civilians." There are generally two reasons that soldiers commit suicide or turn their weapons on their fellow soldiers, Tripathi suggests. "One, pressure related to family affairs, and two, round-the-clock duty. Investigations into cases have revealed that in the wake of domestic pressures, soldiers take such steps mainly over denial of leave or altercations with officers or fellows." The army is also placing emphasis on strengthening officer-soldier relationships. "We focus on officer-man relationships, and try to develop personal contact among the soldiers in order to make them feel them relaxed," says Colonel Hemant Joneja, defence spokesman in Srinagar. "We have also employed entertainment techniques. During extreme conditions, when we feel that a soldier is not showing signs of improvement, we seek the help of psychiatrists."   Dr S Khrushid-ul-Islam, who teaches behavioural science at the Institute of Management and Public Administration in Srinagar, says that fatigue may be one crucial reason for the recent rise in suicides and fraternal killings. Top military officials have admitted that the ongoing war in Kashmir is taking its toll on troops, who are reportedly increasingly questioning their role in the conflict. In addition, Dr Khrushid believes that regular exposure to media transmissions from the outside world could enhance mental disturbance rather than act as a palliative. "With the introduction of the Internet and cable TV, these people get exposed to the other side of world, where life looks rosy," he says. "Away from their homes and amidst constant tension, they begin feeling that people outside are enjoying life at their expense. Desperation sets in and they search for an escape." Uncaring bureaucracy Almost all incidents of suicide and fraternal killing have taken place within barracks or camps. Invariably, soldiers who shoot colleagues and superiors also turn their weapons on themselves. On the few occasions in which soldiers have been overpowered or shot in self-defence, it has been found that they have been aware of the consequences of their actions.  A health worker working on psychiatric disorders in J & K, who wishes to remain anonymous, attributes the recent increase in stress levels not just to the environment of chronic conflict, but also to the cold weather, long working hours and frustrating bureaucracy. An enormous amount of paperwork is involved even for a small clearance, she says. She adds that the crucial first step was for military officials to admit that troop stress had become a problem. Now that this has been done, she suggests a restructuring of duty hours and vacations, incorporating counselling as a part of mandatory training, educating soldiers on what stress signals to watch for in peers, and administering personality tests before placement in high-risk stations. She also refutes the army's claim to have employed stress-coping techniques among its soldiers. Yoga classes may look good on paper, she says, but are difficult to find on the ground.   Dr Mushtaq Margoob, a noted psychiatrist in the Kashmir Valley, says that stress in the armed forces has to be considered an expected outcome, and should be planned for as such. "They too are human," he emphasises. "Being on the forefront, they are witness to severity, and are exposed to traumatic experiences. When facing life-threatening incidents, their coping mechanisms give up, and they fall prey to psychological disorders. Here you have no shortcuts – you have to address the problems by addressing the grievances of every soldier to avoid further episodes."  Even as military officials are slowly waking up to the reality of stress levels among their troops, this is a problem that Kashmiris have faced for a long time. Among the population of Jammu & Kashmir, it has been a while since stress-related disorders reached alarming heights. In 1987, 775 patients visited the government's psychiatric hospital in Srinagar for treatment. After 1989, that number increased dramatically. More than 65,000 have sought treatment through last December – more than 4060 per year. The soldiers are experiencing now what civilians have for long.

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