Unflattering information on the internal “atmosphere” in the armed services is seldom made public: the bad-for-morale argument serves to keep things under wraps. Yet occasionally the responses to questions in Parliament rupture the veil of secrecy, and it has just been admitted that “physical casualties” ~ the preferred euphemism for suicides, fratricides and traffic accidents have, over the last three years, cost the forces more lives than battle casualties. That is a truly worrisome situation, more than another cold statistic, given the “hot” conditions the Army faces while defending the frontier in Jammu and Kashmir, and countering insurgencies there as well as in the North-east. Information furnished to the apex legislature speaks of 425 suicides since 2014: with the Army losing nine officers and 326 soldiers, the Air Force five officers and 67 airmen and the Navy two officers and 16 sailors. Any suggestion that all of these were triggered by personal factors would be negated by the response to another query which revealed that during the same three-year time span 803 Army officers and 38,150 officers soldiers had sought premature retirement.
Something is clearly wrong somewhere, a suspicion confirmed by the vague observation of the minister of state for defence that “various steps have been taken by the armed forces to create a healthy and appropriate environment for the officers and other ranks”. If any further information on the unhappy situation were needed it came from the government stating that there was a deficit of 9,259 officers and 50,363 “other ranks” ~ the forces have obviously declined in the scale of preferred career options, even though the huge responses at recruitment rallies and applications to the selection board might suggest otherwise. Since these were “stray” questions they did not deal with the dismay at the award of the last Pay Commission and complications over its implementation. The skewed version of the One Rank-One Pension regime is another sore point: today’s soldier is tomorrow’s ex-serviceman. The losing battle over “status” that the uniforms have been fighting against the bureaucrats of the ministry of defence is another cause for the forces losing their sheen. The recent “cap” on the education support extended to the orphans of military martyrs convinces the faujis that their interests are constantly neglected. All that without even mentioning professional misgivings over persistent shortages of weapons and systems. Combat aircraft, submarines and artillery pieces head the list that trickles down to a reliable rifle, safe helmet and body armour. Although the government waxes eloquent about the defence forces, its rhetoric is hardly translated into action: anxieties are accentuated by soldiers being asked to build railway over-bridges or clean up trash left by tourists in the mountains. Restoring confidence and pride among defence personnel is fast snowballing into a Himalayan exercise, a task for which the political leadership appears ill-equipped.