It was a regular morning at the 144 battalion headquarters of the Border Security Force (BSF) in Amritsar on March 6 this year — with men training in the grounds, operational units preparing for duty, and administrative units in their offices. Suddenly, around 9.45 am, shots rang out, fired from an INSAS rifle. A half hour of mayhem followed, and in the end, four BSF personnel were dead, and a fifth lay seriously wounded.
The four BSF men had been killed by one of their own — a constable suffering from mental illness, whose cries for help had been ignored.
Constable Satteppa Siddappa Kilaragi had been released from the unit hospital at 9.30 am, barely 15 minutes before he started shooting indiscriminately. Among those he killed was his close colleague Constable Rattan Lal, who had taken care of him and served him breakfast only an hour earlier.
Satteppa himself was hit by a ricocheting bullet, and died during treatment.
A BSF Court of Inquiry (CoI) has now recommended departmental action against five officers and men, including the chief medical officer and deputy commandant of the unit, for ignoring Satteppa’s condition.
The CoI has found that even though Satteppa suffered from multiple mental health ailments including schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, anxiety, sleep disorders and epilepsy, apart from diabetes and blood pressure, he was given a Shape 1 certificate — the highest health certificate — during medical check-ups.
Despite reporting ill health and having been advised rest, Satteppa was assigned sentry duty between 1 am and 3 am on the night before the mayhem. He was taken off duty only after he reported ill health again.
Satteppa, perhaps, had been suffering for over a year. His leave records show he overstayed on leave on almost every occasion during the past year. Being separated from his family may have hurt him even more — even after being allotted housing on paper, he didn’t actually get one because of the non-availability of quarters, and his family had to move back to his hometown in Karnataka.
Satteppa’s story captures a lot of what is wrong with personnel management in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), where high levels of stress have led to high attrition rates, suicides, and incidents of fratricide. It also lays bare the absence of systems within the forces to identify mentally ill personnel, and to extend adequate professional help to them.
The CoI report has noted “there was no system” in place at Satteppa’s unit to monitor treatment or the advice rendered by doctors of civil hospitals, unless the patient himself approached the BSF hospital.
In fact, the history of Satteppa’s mental illness was revealed only after the incident, when his bag was opened and medicines and prescriptions for mental illness from a Dharwad hospital were found.
Sources said the CoI report has also noted that lack of effective supervision at the lower level, and the absence of coordination among key officials in the unit led to Satteppa being assigned night sentry duty despite reporting ill and being advised a day’s rest and light duties thereafter. This happened because the hospital failed to communicate the advice to the BSF duty clerk, sources said.
According to the inquiry, on the night of March 5, when Satteppa was put on sentry duty, he told his colleague that he was feeling unwell. This was reported to his superior, Deputy Commandant Satish Verma. When Verma enquired about his health, Satteppa spoke at length about his domestic problems. Following this, he was sent to the hospital with two attendants.
“The fact that the DC thought he must be accompanied by two attendants shows he saw something amiss. Yet he did not act on it appropriately,” a BSF officer said.
In the hospital, despite knowing that a patient had reported with two attendants, the chief medical officer (CMO) Dr S K Verma did not even pay a visit, and allowed his release the next day, the CoI has found.
The CoI has found lapses on the part of the CMO and DC, as well as ASI Ram Niwas, Constable Birendra Mishra, and Nursing Assistant Gaji Sheikh for failing to spot Satteppa’s problems, not appropriately engaging with him, not coordinating among themselves, and eventually not providing any help to Satteppa.
As many as 25 instances of fratricide have taken place in CAPFs between 2019 and 2021. In the same period, 428 suicides have been reported in the forces.
Sources said while the Home Ministry has issued many directions to relieve stress among jawans including rationalisation of leave to grant them a minimum 100 days off duty in a year, the forces have found it difficult to implement them on the ground.
“If a unit has a shortage of manpower, there is no way a company commander will grant leave to his men. His primary duty is to secure the border. Also, paucity of manpower leads to even the unit head being overburdened, and thus ignoring the health issues of his men. Satteppa did not disclose his mental health treatment to the unit. But it should have been spotted,” a BSF officer said.
As on March 1, 2022, there were 357 vacancies in the officers’ grade and 22,558 vacancies in the below-officers’ grades in the BSF.