Is there a leadership failure in Indian Army?

Is there a leadership failure in Indian Army?

Harsha Kakar,
All personnel in every unit have a “buddy”, implying a colleague. Photo: Reuters

The recent  fratricide incident in the Kashmir valley, where a jawan reprimanded by his superior officer for using a cellphone on duty, shot him fatally in anger, 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, again due to junior leadership failures. While the loss of even one trained soldier is unacceptable, suicides may still occur and be accepted. Fratricide is and would always remain unacceptable.

The Army has a strength of over one million. With such a large force, there would always be a miniscule who would have problems which could impact mental health. To reduce such incidents, remedial measures including counselling have been incorporated at the grassroots levels. Yet incidents occur. 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 at a fairly young age, when the family at home is secure under the patronage of the patriarch of the family. Most join with the dream of rising to the uppermost levels in their cadre. With passage of time, either the patriarch becomes old or passes away, resulting in 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 colour 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 meeting 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. They are further honed during his training cycle. Hence, untoward incidents among officers are miniscule.

Such a process is never conducted for those joining as jawans, solely because of the vast numbers being recruited. Hence mental robustness and ability to bear stress are 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 immense impact.

To cater for this, all personnel in every unit have a “buddy”, implying a colleague, who is always along, preferably from his near vicinity. Both live, eat, operate and even proceed on leave together. The intention 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 coming from all arms and services. The officer who lost his life in the recent fratricide incident was on deputation from the armoured corps. Officer-man 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 behaviour of an individual, as was the recent incident.

Troops deployed in Kashmir face increased stresses. Family issues continue to dominate their minds, while each day, each operation, only adds to stress levels. Restrictions imposed seeking to avoid accidental casualties to locals places them in greater danger, enhancing pressures. The present period is more stressful as militancy has 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, hence there were clear instructions on avoiding 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, implying its young officers, have always led from the front, proved their mettle in every operation the Army has been involved in, whether it be a war or counter-insurgency.

The officer-soldier casualty ratio has been high, indicating officers lead from the front. The trust between the officer and his command has been the backbone behind its success. Thus, officer-men relations are best at the junior level, increasing in distance at the higher echelons.

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, its suicide cases have risen. Britain figures are one army suicide every fortnight and its army size is much smaller.

The Indian Army loses about a 100 soldiers per year to suicides, mostly related to pressures emanating from unresolved family disputes. This is still well below the national average. Measures are in place to reduce suicides and fratricide incidents, including increased counselling and liberal policies.

However, in a large standing army, with soldiers being inducted without psychological testing, there would always be some with low stress levels, hence untoward incidents can never be completely eradicated, though reduced.

Tough working conditions, better connectivity implying real time communication of family squabbles, 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.