The recent killing of Maj.Shikhar Thapa by Naik (trooper) Kathiresan over the use of a mobile phone in Uri on the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir, has revived worries over discipline at the unit level of the India’s vast army of 1.2 million, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com
Investigations into incidents of this type in the last decade or so have shown that the roots of the problem lie in extra-military socio-economic factors rather more than in challenging operational conditions in counter-insurgency or forwards areas.
To be sure, the number of incidents of fratricide (killing of officers by soldiers); violent clashes between officers; and suicides by soldiers; have come down due to steps taken by the Indian government to address the management and socio-economic issues underlying these incidents. But the problem persists and has to be attended to. And give the deep rootedness of the underlying cases, it will not go away soon.
The number of cases of fratricide was 23 in 2006. In 2008, the number of suicides was as high as 150. Between 2012 and 2015 the number of fratricide cases had come down 12. But suicide still remains a major problem, with over 100 taking their lives every year. As a senior officer said: “The Indian army is losing more men through suicides than in confrontations with the enemy.”
Recent Cases of Office-Solider Brawl
In April 2010, over 200 officers and men of the 45th. Cavalry stationed at Gurdaspur, on the India-Pakistan border in Punjab, were subjected to disciplinary action because they had clashed. In May 2012, officers and men of the 226 Artillery Regiment stationed at Nyoma in Ladakh, on the border with China, fought each other. In August 2012, men and officers of the 16th. Cavalry were involved in a brawl at Samba on the border with Pakistan in Kashmir.
In October 2013, men of the 10th. Sikh Light Infantry, the unit of the former Army Chief Gen. Bikram Singh, beat up a couple of officers after differences over a boxing match.
In another incident, Majors Danny Sweden, Arjun Patil, Deepankar Jain, and Apurva Patil, beat with rods and kicked Lance Dafadar Vikram Singh in the stomach damaging his kidneys, because he refused to open the bar for them after closing time. Vikram Singh’s wife had to go to court to seek justice.
Enforcement of discipline has always been an issue in the Indian army, as indeed in any other army in the world throughout history. But the problem and the ways of tackling it, have changed over time due to changes in conditions.
It was strict enforcement of discipline which led to victory of the British-led Indian armies over the armies of the Indian princes in the 18th. and 19th. Centuries in the innumerable wars which the British fought to establish their power in India. Disobedient soldiers were flogged or tied to cannons and blown up. Mutinies had led to dissolution of whole regiments.
But while enforcing brutal discipline, the British officers always made it a point to mix with the Indian sepoys; learn their language and know and respect their customs. In the early days, many British officers lived like natives as there were few people of European stock in India those days for them to mix with. In campaigns in distance lands, the trooper was allowed to bring his family with him so that his food and other needs were met to his satisfaction.
But this changed in the Victorian era. In which the British tended to look down on Indians. The number of British in India also increased as did the number of White women because shipping services between Britain and India had improved with better, safer and faster ships. This resulted in the widening of the gap between the British officer and the Indian men under his command.
Imbued with Christian missionary zeal, the Victorian British were doubling up as evangelists and began to show disregard for the religious sentiments of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers under them. Indifference to their taboos on about beef and pork led to the Great Indian Mutiny in 1857, which swept through North India, shaking the very foundation of the British Indian Empire.
The mutiny was crushed with the greatest severity over a period of a year, in which “hanging by the nearest tree” of hundreds of suspects every day was the norm. During World War I, there was manifest disaffection among Indian troops posted in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). That ended only after the government attended to the troops’ grievances.
During World War II, the entire Indian force stationed in Singapore, joined the Indian National Army (INA) formed by Indian political leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, to fight against the British along with the Japanese army. After the war in 1945, the leaders of the INA were tried, but were let off due to Indian nationalist pressure and also because the British were preparing to leave India. Immediately after World War II there was a naval mutiny over the issue of demobilization, which was inspired by political changes in India at that time.
In 1947, The government of independent India decided not to take the INA men back in order to maintain discipline inculcated by the British. The Indian army remained apolitical, in contrast to that part of it which was allotted to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the army was co-opted into politics by politicians in the early 1950s. And by 1954, the first military coup had taken place giving rise to the phenomenon of army takeovers.
As for India, it was only in 1984 that the phenomenon of ‘mutiny’ appeared on the Indian scene after a long time. Following the army’s attack on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple, several Sikh units in the army mutinied and had to be disbanded.
Fratricide and Suicide
While mutinies of this kind did not take place after 1984, a new phenomenon of soldiers and officers clashing on a variety of issues began to occur. Soldier suicides also became common, triggering concern, if not alarm.
Among the main reasons for the unrest in army units are the shortage of officers; fall in the quality of officers; and the lack of respect for officers in their units and the society at large. As Napoleon said: “There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.”
Since there are better career options for a young man of today in the corporate and government sectors, few qualified and bright men join the army. With the result, a battalion of 1000 men is commanded by 8 or 9 officers and not 23 as it should be. Command is also given to officers with only two years’ experience. Officers serve in their units only for two to three years – too short a time period to know the men and develop esprit de corps. Inexperience leads to mistakes in command and in handling men. Bad officers irritate the “jawans”.
And the social gap between the officer and his men has also become narrow. Today’s trooper is at least a high school pass and comes with aspirations which are not very different from those of the officers, who now come, not from the elite classes, but from middle or lower middle classes. Under these social circumstances, the trooper does not feel very inferior to the officer and tends to get into arguments with him. In tense situations characteristic of areas in which counter-insurgency operations are conducted and in areas bordering China and Pakistan, irritation could lead to violence and fratricide.
Conditions Back Home
However, studies have revealed that the roots of the tension and violence lie more in the domestic circumstances of the solider than in the operational conditions in the troubled areas. Family issues, disputes over land, family aspirations not being met, create mental tension and irritability in the soldier which at times makes him defiant and rebellious. As one officer said: suicides take place typically, after soldiers come back from leave.
There is therefore an urgent need to attend to the socio-economic problems of the soldier. Also, government should make the officer cadre attractive by increasing its pay and perks.
(The featured picture at the top shows Indian troops fighting insurgency in Manipur)