Suicides in the 1.1 million-strong Indian Army have come down marginally in recent years. From an all-time high of 129 in 2006, they dipped to 102 in 2011. But until July 31 this year, 62 Indian soldiers have taken their lives. Every such incident will remain a cause for concern. The suicide of a soldier at an Army unit in Samba in Jammu and Kashmir led to a round of tensions involving officers and soldiers this month. The case of an Army man who spent five days atop a mobile phone tower in the heart of Delhi to highlight his grievances — he threatened to jump but was somehow brought down safely this week — seemed to epitomise the crisis. Incidents of ‘fragging,’ or the fratricidal killing of fellow soldiers or superiors, also continue. It is clear that measures that were put in place by the armed forces after a study done by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research to identify stress-points are not efficacious enough. Some senior officers have contended that more than the physical and mental strain that extended deployment in counter-insurgency roles exerts, domestic, family and financial problems account for much of the distress. Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who is known to have taken a personal interest in the issue, has written to Chief Ministers to make the administration more responsive to the grievances and complaints of serving soldiers and their families. The Ministry of Defence appointed more psychological counsellors at the unit level, introduced yoga sessions and also issued guidelines to liberalise leave-granting practices. But more needs to be done. The armed forces have to introspect on how far the issue of the quality of its leadership at multiple levels may be involved here.
It is cold comfort that in India, suicide rates in the armed forces are less than those of the general population. The argument that in affluent countries such as the United States, military suicide rates have been rising at an alarming rate does not help the debate either. While the U.S. military reported 301 cases of suicide through 2011, this year the rate seems set to reach one a day. In fact, in the U.S. armed forces, suicide as a cause of death has overtaken combat deaths and motor vehicle accident deaths. At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question of the general morale of a force. Suicide is a tough enemy, but one that can be beaten with the right measures. At the force level, individuals need to be aided to improve their resilience and helped to cope with what life throws at them. The military, it seems, also needs to battle some demons within.