Death of a jawan

Last month, the Home Ministry told a parliamentary panel that nearly 700 personnel of paramilitary forces had committed suicide in the last six years, a figure surpassing those killed in action. The Sunday Express on what is pushing these men, posted in some of the toughest terrains and combat zones, with almost no peace postings, to the edge

Written by Rahul Tripathi | Updated: June 26, 2018 11:46:30 am
Officials of the Home Ministry told a parliamentary panel that nearly 700 personnel of paramilitary forces had committed suicide in the last six years. (Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi/Archives)

More than 2,800 studio apartment-like facilities, each with bedrooms, kitchen and TV, where newly-wed Border Security Force (BSF) jawans can spend a couple of weeks with their spouses. As it struggles to contain the suicide rate in the ranks of Central paramilitary forces, the government hopes to have found one solution in these “guesthouses” at the border.

Last month, officials of the Union Home Ministry, led by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba, told Parliament’s Committee on Estimates that nearly 700 personnel of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), posted in some of the toughest terrains and combat zones across the country, had committed suicide in the last six years — a figure surpassing those killed in action.

The ministry had data since 2001 for the BSF, 2012 for the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), 2006 for the ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police), 2013 for the CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) and SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal), and 2014 for the Assam Rifles.

It showed that 189 CRPF personnel killed themselves since 2012 while 175 died in action; the BSF has seen 529 suicides since 2001 and 491 deaths in action; the ITBP has seen 62 suicides since 2006 while 16 died in action; 63 ITBP personnel have ended their lives since 2013 as against one death in action; while the figures for the SSB since 2013 are 32 and four, respectively. It is only the Assam Rifles that has seen more personnel die in action (33) than by suicides (27) since 2014.

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The government told the House panel that while one of the main reasons for suicides was personnel staying away from homes for “10-11 months” a year, contributing to marital strife and domestic disputes and leading to “lack of stability and loneliness”, the nature of their work was a factor too.

They are mostly overworked, often denied leave and frequently transferred. “…They could not stay at one location and do not have any headquarters at a fixed location. Perhaps, this disturbance is also a contributing factor in incidents of suicides,” the Home Secretary told the House panel.

Earlier this month, while announcing the plan for the border guesthouses at each of its 186 battalion locations and a few other stations, BSF Director-General K K Sharma said an average jawan in the force spent “about five years” at home in a service of 30 years. He also said that while there are guesthouses for officers and sub-officers, there was no such facility for jawans in the constable and head-constable ranks.

In a written response to The Sunday Express, the Union Home Ministry said they were trying to tackle the issue of suicides. “In 2016, 92 incidents of suicides were reported, as compared to 125 in 2014 and 108 in 2015,” it said. Home Ministry spokesperson Ashok Prasad also quoted the numbers, saying, “Overall, in three years, there has been a substantial decline in such incidents.”

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On the evening of May 15 last year, Bommidi Divakar Rao shot himself. He was 37. Posted with the CRPF’s 150 Battalion in Dornapal, Sukma, Rao had been transferred seven months earlier from the Rapid Action Force battalion based in Hyderabad.

His wife Bhanumati says CRPF officials told her that Rao had killed himself the day he reported to duty after taking a month’s leave for hernia treatment, and then remaining absent without leave for 10 days. The family is from Lakhamadiddi village in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh

Bhanumati adds that Rao had been taking leave frequently since February 2015, after his father fell ill. “In August 2015, when his father was on his deathbed, Divakar had come home on a 10-day leave but did not return for three months. His mother had passed away in 2011 and there was no one to take care of his father. We had two young daughters to take care of too, so he stayed back.”

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In September 2016, Rao was transferred to the CRPF and posted in Chhattisgarh. In December 2016, his father died. Says Bhanumati, “Divakar came home for a few days and left a day after the funeral. That was the last time I saw him. He told me about the hernia just before he was admitted to a hospital in Raipur in April 2017… On May 13 or 14, I don’t remember the date, I received a call from a senior officer asking if Divakar had come home as he had not reported for duty. I was taken aback because my husband had told me almost 10 days earlier that he was joining duty. On May 15, I received a call saying he had shot himself.”

Bhanumati says she finds it hard to believe that a “healthy”, “cool-headed” and “caring” person like Rao had died thus.

“I never saw Divakar angry or fight with anyone. He doted on his daughters (aged 14 and 8 now),” says Bhanumati. “A month after his suicide, I went to his battalion in Chhattisgarh. Although I was treated with a lot of respect, they blocked all my queries about what happened the day he shot himself.”

Besides a monthly pension that she now gets, Bhanumati has invested the Rs 25 lakh she got from the CRPF in a fixed deposit. Bhanumati, who has studied up to Class 10, says the CRPF also offered her a job, but she declined. “My daughters are very young. I may consider applying again after three or four years,” she says.

As per procedure, the CAPFs provide financial assistance and employment to the families of personnel who commit suicide. “In case of a suicide, a court of inquiry is set up to look into the reasons. We also dip into the CAPF welfare fund to meet any urgent financial need that the jawan’s family may have. Also, either the jawan’s wife or his children can get employed with the force if they fulfill certain criteria,” an official says.

However, none of the CAPFs offers ex-gratia to the families of jawans who commit suicide. The CAPFs recently put up multiple cases before the Home Ministry, demanding ex-gratia in case of suicide.

On February 14, Naranjan Nath, 35, a BSF jawan, killed himself the day he was to leave home after vacation. He had been home for a month, in Bongaigaon district of Assam, and was to join duty in Jammu. But hours before he was to board a train, his body was found hanging from a tree outside his house. He didn’t leave behind a suicide note.

“I don’t understand what went wrong, he was fine. It was just that he was homesick and wanted to come back permanently,” wife Juri Devi says over the phone. She has a four-year-old daughter.

Nath had been in the BSF for about 13 years, and in Jammu for three years. Juri Devi says while Nath had a lot of responsibilities and the family struggled financially, it was work that killed him. “Life in the paramilitary forces is hard. They don’t get time for their families and they are posted in areas with bad living conditions and zero connectivity. Also, the pay is not enough for them to feel that at least their families are happy. He came home twice a year, and often said he would not be able to continue in the job for long,” she says.

Nath earned Rs 38,000 a month, and Juri Devi says she is yet to start receiving pension.

Constable Amit Kumar, 29, posted with the CRPF’s 37th battalion in Gadchiroli, shot himself with his INSAS rifle while on sentry duty at the battalion camp on September 15, 2017. A probe by the CRPF found that he had gone on a month’s leave two months before he killed himself, and had not made any complaints.

Hailing from Mattanhail in Jhajjar district of Haryana, he is survived by his wife Neelam and a daughter, 4. “I do not know why he committed suicide. He wasn’t troubled by anything. Following his death, the CRPF gave me Rs 8 lakh as compensation,” says Neelam.

ITBP Constable Bhawani Shankar was posted in Arunachal Pradesh and living with wife Mamata Jakhad when on February 5, 2017, he committed suicide at his residence. A court of inquiry found his room to be locked from inside and the postmortem said he had strangled himself with a piece of cloth.

While his wife could not be contacted, his father Om Prakash Gora, who was then working in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t believe his son killed himself. “We believe he was murdered. All the people involved have come together and termed it suicide,” says Gora, on the phone from their home in Sikar, Rajasthan.

He adds that he didn’t receive any of the compensation amount. “His wife is no more in touch with us. All the money was given to her,” he says.

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army jawan suicide, paramilitary, bsf jawans, crpf, itbp, ssb, mental health of jawans, union home ministry, indian expressG K Pillai, who was Union home secretary from June 2009 to 2011, says the “primary reason” for suicides is stress. “Unlike in the Army, the CAPF, especially the CPRF, has no peace time. After a tough posting, an Army jawan gets a peace station where he can stay with his family, but in the CAPF, there is no such mechanism. We need to make sure they get a peace station after a hard posting.”

Besides, paramilitary forces find themselves stretched — either assigned to election duty or called upon to assist the state police in maintaining law and order. In certain Maoist-affected areas, CAPFs have almost taken over the frontline from the state police. In Kashmir, where fewer than 40 companies were deployed before the Burhan Wani encounter in July 2016, the Centre had to send nearly 80 companies once the situation spiralled out of control. The deployment was further beefed up ahead of Amarnath Yatra that year.

Former BSF additional DG P K Mishra says the CRPF and BSF are deployed in almost all the conflict theatres. “But unlike any of the defence forces, they do not get the same pay scale, accommodation for families is not on a par and they remain constantly on the move. In the CAPFs, it takes 20 years for a constable to get promoted to head constable. Similarly, CAPF jawans only get 15 days of casual leave, unlike the Army, where a jawan gets 30 days.”

Several courts of inquiry, set up after every such incident, point to how suicides mostly happened soon after personnel returned from leave or around the time their leave was ending.

Former BSF DG D K Pathak, who studied the rising cases of suicides in the BSF while he led the force between 2014 and 2016, seconds this. “The advent of social media and smartphones helps jawans remain updated about developments in the family, which at times worry them. So in the BSF, we started distributing a documentary to jawans going on leave. We told them to watch it with their families so that their relatives could understand the conditions in which they worked.”

There are other such measures in place — from counselling sessions to an app to help deal with stress. Company commanders in the BSF and other forces have been instructed to hold counselling sessions with jawans proceeding on leave and talk to them again once they are back.

CISF DG Rajesh Ranjan says, “We have a combination of measures to identify such problems. Every jawan is assigned a buddy, who is always with him and in a way provides psychological support. We also encourage our troopers to engage in group activities, sports and yoga to mitigate stress levels.”

SSB Inspector General of Police Renuka Mishra says the force has developed an Android application to help deal with stress. “Through the app, MySSB, a jawan can check his transfer profile, deputation, salary, PPF. Soon, jawans will get updates on the status of their leave applications. Another feature introduced recently was Know Your Personnel (KYP). Under KYP, a company commander will interact will all 137 jawans in his company and record their details, including likes, dislikes, problems in family, any ailment. The exercise will help the company commander know his personnel well and help identify any stress or problem in the jawan’s family. For women employees, the SSB has a system where they can lodge a complaint regarding sexual harassment,” says Mishra.

CRPF DG R R Bhatnagar says they recently came out with a manual on how to support jawans undergoing mental hardships.

Yet, on the ground and in the barracks, these measures often fall short in the face of undeniably high levels of stress that come with their job, especially when posted in conflict regions.

“We already work in very stressful conditions, not knowing where the next bomb will go off or when a stone will be pelted your way. What makes it worse is that we are so far away from home. None of these measures (to reduce stress) will work if, say, a jawan has a compelling situation back home, but is denied leave,” says a CRPF jawan posted in Srinagar, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The force does organise some seminars and counseling sessions for its men and talks about stress management. But the entire process is very basic,” he adds.

Clinical psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra, who has dealt with several such cases, says seniors are not trained to empathise. “In these forces, it is almost taboo for senior commanders to deal with juniors emotionally and talk about emotions. Also, unlike in the West, there are few trained professional to deal with trauma,” he says.

Until recently, none of the CAPFs had any in-house counsellors and mostly relied on outside experts. It’s only last year that the ITBP recruited counsellors, but there are no more than two stress counsellors per battalion.

All-India Central Paramilitary Forces Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association national general secretary P S Nair accuses the Central government of not doing enough for jawans. “There is no facility for families of jawans, no admission assistance for their children. Since the command is under an IPS (the home secretary), who has a fixed term, they are not able to associate with the jawan’s plight,” he says.

In 2012, the UPA government had commissioned a study by IIM Ahmedabad on the high rate of attrition in the paramilitary forces. Between 2009 and 2012, as many as 398 had committed suicide as against 328 who had died fighting. Besides, more than 44,000 personnel had left the forces through resignations or voluntary retirement, of whom the CRPF and BSF accounted for 36,000.

The study found that continuous posting in difficult areas, long working hours, sleep deprivation, denial of leave, lack of healthcare facilities, delay in promotions and pay parity, and lack of career progression were all leading to stress among personnel.

Among the most serious issues, the study found, was leave. Personnel told researchers that they were not granted leave on time, with the process taking so long that often they missed out on the function or occasion for which they were seeking leave.

Prasad, the Home Ministry spokesperson says, “All efforts are being made to mitigate the circumstances that compel an individual to take tragic steps. Hardships and risk allowances have been substantially hiked.”

Based on the recommendation of the Seventh Pay Commission, last year, the hardship allowance for counter-insurgency operations was increased from a monthly Rs 3,000-Rs 11,700 to Rs 6,000-Rs 16,900.

Officials, however, admit that a lot of ground still needs to be covered.

Former CRPF DG and currently advisor to the Union Home Ministry, K Vijay Kumar, says, “Post Kargil, certain steps were taken, including giving jawans two months of leave along with 15 days of casual leave.” However, he adds, “Stress works differently on different individuals. Many a time, jawans are not able to cope with the high level of discipline and the hostile atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, the response to the guesthouses at the border, an attempt to make the atmosphere a little less “hostile”, has been encouraging, says BSF Jodhpur DIG Ravi Gandhi.

The facility at Jodhpur, one of 190 such guesthouses the BSF plans to set up, has six rooms, but “a lot of applications” from jawans. “We will give preference to newly-wed couples. They can stay there for a week or two and then we’ll give it out to others on a rotational basis,” he says.

With inputs from Deeptiman Tiwary/Delhi, Sreenivas Janyala/Hyderabad, Sweety Mishra/Kolkata, Bashaarat Masood/Srinagar

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