The Indian Army has been surprisingly candid in releasing figures of the suicides and fratricides that have wracked the force in the recent past. A report out of Kashmir in the Himal of December 2006 carries the revealing statistics that in October this year there were ten fratricide cases as against only three deaths in combat operations. All told, in the first ten months of the year, the army lost 55 soldiers to terrorism in Kashmir, while one third more took their own lives. It is not a figure that any army would release of its own, since morale related security reasons would have stymied such openness.

That 500 defense personnel have reportedly either committed suicide or were killed by colleagues in the past four years indicates that the problem has crossed the threshold in which it could be treated as internal to the army. The Ministry of Defense has had to write to the Army to act more liberally in the grant of leave to its soldiers as a stress relieving measure. This is the first issue that the newly appointed Minister of Defence, A K Antony, has involved himself with, indicating the concern in South Block.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

Among the many measures being taken on a war footing include recruitment of 400 psychiatrists by the Army, liberal grant of leave, a missive from the Defence Minister to state governments to act purposefully on complaints from servicemen on problems faced back home etc. Clearly, with the ministry involving itself, the problem, of which suicides and fraggings are but a symptom, has received the attention it deserves, but only along predictable problem solving lines.

Much of the problem owes to its most challenging engagement in Kashmir lasting over the last decade and half. That it has succeeded considerably can be seen from contrasting statistics on annual fatalities of the past two years. These are down on every indicator by about 30-50%. While in 2005 the figures, taken from the website of a leading think tank, were 1000 and 218 for terrorists and security personnel killed respectively, the figures are 512 and 186 for this year.

The army has apparently delivered on its mandate of ensuring the return of an environment infinitely more conducive to law and order than what it started out with in the early nineties. The symptoms of stress on display are evidence of the strains on its rank and file in this effort. One incentive for its exertion is that the political process would take over after a point and thereby release it from further strain. If the political end game does not get energized now there is the danger of a slide.

For the political leadership to rely only on the army would be an abdication of its responsibility.

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The army has repeatedly retrieved the situation after terrorism has got a fresh lease of life due to our own misstep such as the Charar e Sharif episode (the loss of the sufi shrine to fire in an army operation resulted in the assembly elections being put off by a year), or later through Pakistani incitement through its Kargil venture. The army's capacity for such endeavour afresh may be under stress, in light of the strains that beset it at the moment. This should be a consideration informing the political leadership and its bureaucratic advisers in their charting the course of the future.

Though there are no palpable similarities between the situation of the Indian army and of the US army in Vietnam, lessons from the latter experience may be worth recall at this juncture since the term 'fragging' made its first appearance in that war. A landmark study on the Vietnam quagmire was that of Gabriel and Savage 'Cohesion and Disintegration in the American Army' (Journal of Armed Forces and Society, 1976) that culminated in the well-known book 'Crisis in Command' (1978). They make three points. The first was that senior officers did not supervise the junior level to the extent required in countering insurgency since in such operations, tactical actions have political implications. Second, that officer quality was poor in relation to the complexity of the task on hand. Lastly, that the system of rotation through a tenure of 13 months in Vietnam did not permit the required levels of cohesion to develop in the teams.

The Indian army also has potential for such problems. It expanded its officer intake after the Kargil war in which problems resulting from shortage of officers surfaced. However, whether it has managed to maintain quality in light of the pulls on otherwise competent candidates from other sectors of an expanding economy is debatable. One of the American problems in Vietnam was that the low quality of majority of its junior officers resulted in infamous incidents as at My Lai in which Lt Calley, the officer in charge, was found to have been of a remarkably poor caliber.

Another aspect is rotation. The Indian army's unique counterpart to the American rotation system has been the paramilitary force Rashtriya Rifles. This measure has however not resolved the problem of lack of cohesion. This is because its ranks are drawn from disparate divisions and services and are rotated through tenures that are not coextensive in the primary group, which the major avenue of horizontal bonding for army members. Notable studies in military sociology have highlighted that the primary group is where the primary psycho-social needs of members are best catered to. If this is weak or disrupted, there is a heightened demand on the officer corps. To this, added an expanded intake of lower quality junior officers. This further accentuates the levels of supervision of junior officers being exercised by the senior leadership. Whether the seniors have been mindful of this problem is not known.

That the army has read its military history adequately is evident from the army preventing Kashmir from being India's Vietnam. Formidable armies have fared worse in such circumstance earlier, be it the French in Algeria, the Pakistanis in East Pakistan and the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, for the political leadership to rely only on the army would be an abdication of its responsibility of bringing strategy – the utilization of instruments of state power - back into the reckoning.

An additional consideration is that other areas requiring the military attention are on the security horizon. Presently the cease-fire in Nagaland is happily extended every year. By their very nature, cease-fires are taken as breathers in which both sides firm in their military flanks. The Sri Lankan experience with the LTTE is a case to point. This is one reason why a cease-fire has not found favour in Kashmir since it was last attempted over five years ago. Taking cue, from this it would be strategic prudence for India to address one front at a time. Whether the next call on the army is in the North East or in Maoist Central India, there would be a need to extricate it partially at least from Kashmir.

It is encouraging that the pace and direction of the peace process is promising poised as it is at the offer of President Pervez Musharraf on making the LOC irrelevant being welcomed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is the moment for the political leadership to seize and take the peace process further along the several lines aired by the two sides: self governance - maximum autonomy, joint management - institutional arrangements etc. Waiting indefinitely for the 'right moment', defined as one in which negotiations are from a position of strength, may not be appropriate in the circumstance of a military under strain. In light of the problem diagnosed here from a reading of the symptoms, it is not as capable or ready an instrument it has been in fixing problems that politics has given rise to and thereafter been unable or unwilling to resolve.