Last week a soldier committed suicide by shooting himself with his service rifle in Qazigund area of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Identified as Sepoy Kulvinder Singh of 10 Sikh Regiment shot himself at army camp in MughalGund area of Qazigund while he was on duty. This is not an isolated incident which could be overlooked by any means. Suicide and fratricide incidents among armed forces are not uncommon. However, over the past few years, these incidents have increased dangerously. Only this month three other soldiers have committed suicide in Kashmir. On March 7, Sepoy Birender Sinha of 30-RR camping at Langate ended his life. On March 10, constable Prukha Sukhdev of the 79 Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), posted in the Sonwar area of Srinagar, shot himself with his service rifle inside the camp. On March 5, another jawan Naik Shankar Singh of 18-RR shot himself dead at Warnov Lolab. According to the data compiled by the defence ministry of India, one person on duty from Armed Forces commits suicide every three days. Information given to the Rajya Sabha last year revealed that since 2014, there had been 425 suicides in the armed forces – 335 in the army, 18 in the navy and 72 in the IAF – and that there was a deficit of 9,259 officers and 50,363 other ranks in the armed forces. The data says that for the period January 1, 2014 to March 31st, 2017 three hundred and forty eight personnel committed suicide while on duty. OF these 276 were from the Army, 12 from Navy and sixty from the Air Force. In the preceding four years 597 personnel of Army committed suicide: 116 in 2010, 105 in 2011, 95 in 2012 and 86 in 2013. The Ministry of Defence blamed personal reasons including land related disputes back home and apathy shown by civil authorities towards such problems for the recurring occurrence of suicide. But a very significant point missing in the defence ministry’s argument is missing. Most of the suicides and fratricides occur while on duty have been reported from Jammu and Kashmir or the North East. The link between suicide with stress and trauma related to their active duty in operations cannot be discounted. While prolonged deployment in counter-insurgency operations in J&K and northeast takes its toll on the physical endurance and mental health of soldiers, it is compounded by other problems such as ineffectual leadership and sometimes humiliation at the hands of their officers. Last year (on the night of July 18), an army soldier pumped five bullets into Major Shikhar Thaha of 71 Armoured Regiment in Uri causing the Major’s instant death. The soldier was miffed for being reprimanded by the Major for using a mobile phone while on duty. Few would dispute with the fact that the prolonged violence in Kashmir has put the armed forces on duty in a serious stressful condition. They feel death always around. It is for this fact that the soldiers (of all forces) on occasions make no difference between a civilian and a militant and treat them with equal measure of bullets. The killing of civilians, which ultimately, cause public anger and finally catch up with the personnel involved only but adds to their mental disorder. There are reports that many a soldiers involved in suicides or fratricides even in other parts of India do have service background of working in Jammu and Kashmir and north east. It may not be going overboard to say that Kashmir is writing a new script for armed forces. Government of India needs to take note of this serious trend among armed forces. Government cannot live under the so-called comfort that suicide rates in armed forces are less than in general population. Suicide is a rough measure that can be beaten with right measures. In the first place, government should address the very fundamental cause that creates stressful situation. It is the duty of the political leadership to take measures that could lessen the burden of prolonged duty in stressful areas. This can be done only when government reaches out to the peoples’ sense of alienation by reaching them out politically. Kashmir and other areas of conflict need a sincere political outreach that only can lessen the burden on armed forces.
BJP’s poll pangs
As India is in the thick of parliamentary elections, and polling for 302 seats (out of total 543) has already been held, the ruling BJP finds itself on a fiercely challenging wicket. The social engineering by regional parties, in UP and Bihar in particular, and MumtaBannerji’s assertive position in West Bengal, is likely to upset the BJP’s calculations. BJP’s position in southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh Orissa too is reported to be fragile. Rahul Gandhi’s rise from ashes is another factor that is casting shadow on BJP’s electoral prospects. Mocked as “Pappu” for being a novice and inexperienced in politics by the Prime Minister NarendraModi and his party colleagues, Rahul Gandhi appears to have come of age. He is putting up a valiant fight against the BJP and in the recent past has defeated the ruling party in three crucial states—Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—in assembly elections. The Congress president—heir of Nehru-Gandhian dynasty—has made a careful departure from the party’s rhetorical and symbolic commitment to secularism and minority rights. He is taking on the Prime Minister on the agenda set by the BJP itself. To establish his Hindu identity, Rahul Gandhi visited hundreds of Hindu temples in the past few months leaving little scope for the hard-line Hindu detractors to call him a “non-Hindu”. Rather than stand against BJP’s majoritarian and Islamophobic politics, Rahul Gandhi chose to fight the electoral battle on the terms set by the Hindu right. He stayed silent about the violence and hostility encountered by the Muslim citizens. He essentially agreed with the terms set by Hindu nationalists that to speak of equal citizenship and political rights for India’s 165 million Muslims is no longer acceptable in India. Rahul Gandhi regularly posted on Twitter but he avoids references to India’s Muslims.
This seems to have paid for the Congress president in this new Indian frame of politics where inclusiveness is no more a virtue. It has rattled the BJP and its leadership, and they are finding themselves on quite a sticky wicket. Though it is premature to draw any conclusion about the outcome of the elections but the desperation in the BJP camp is visible. It is for this fact that the BJP leadership is trying hard to renew and revive the communal polarization ahead of four other phases of polling. There are two main indicators of this BJP plan. Prime Minister NarendraModi is trying to invoke Pakistan and nuclear bomb in his poll campaign to attract voters to his side. The other day he warned Pakistan of nuclear bomb saying “our nuclear bomb is not for Diwali”. Addressing an election rally in Rajasthan, he said that India could no more be frightened or blackmailed by Islamabad’s threats and said its nuclear capabilities are not being kept for Diwali. “Every other day they used to say ‘we have nuclear button, we have nuclear button’. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?” he said. The other major indicator of BJP’s growing frustration is fielding of terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur as party nominee from Bhopal parliamentary seats. She is challenging the Congress strong man Digvijay Singh. Singh is the main accused in 2008 Malegaon blast case in which six people had died and around 100 others injured (all Muslims). The trial court had in October last year framed charges against Pragya and other accused under the UAPA and other sections of the Indian Penal Code for murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between religious groups. If convicted, the maximum punishment would be life imprisonment or death. Pragya and the others facing trial in the case are charged with “hatching a conspiracy” to “strike terror in the mind of the Muslim community, to create communal rift….” Currently she is out on bail on health grounds. It goes without saying that charges against her have not been proven yet but the moral and political propriety had it that she, for the seriousness of the charges, should not have been considered for such a place in the party. By owning and fielding her, BJP has played out a game of polarization of voters on religious lines.
Collapse of Afghanistan peace talks
The hope for end of the war in Afghanistan has suffered a major blow as the peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government have collapsed. A key meeting of Taliban leaders and Afghanistan government officials was scheduled to take place in Qatar on April 19 but a last minute row over the large number of delegates Kabul wanted to send culminated in the fall down. Taliban leaders refused to accept the Afghan government delegation in such a large size. The peace talks have been postponed indefinitely. The talks have collapsed at a moment when bloodshed continues in the war torn country. On Saturday suicide attackers stormed the Ministry of Communications in the capital Kabul trapping thousands of people inside the building for hours while security forces battled the assailants. At least 10 people died in the fighting. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attack, which came a day after U.S.-led peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders broke down in Qatar, with no immediate plans to reschedule negotiations. Taliban indeed is the major power group in Afghanistan. It now controls or influences more than half of Afghanistan. The government writ has largely been squeezed to Kabul only. A recent United Nations tally revealed that around 4000 civilians were killed across Afghanistan last year. The United States, which is leading an effort to end the war, signaled its disappointment and urged both sides to return to the table, though organizers gave no hint about when the conference might be rescheduled.
Efforts to end the Afghan conflict have accelerated since the appointment of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September last year, who has since been shuttling across the region to revive Afghan peace talks. He has held several meetings with the Taliban leaders at their political office in the Gulf country of Qatar. American President Donald Trump’s letter, in recent past, to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking Islamabad’s support in establishing peace in Afghanistan too has helped in reviving the peace efforts in the decades old war torn country. Trump had earlier tried to terrorize and pressurize Pakistan through intimidating measures, and in the process stopped all the military aid the country was supposed to get as its share for being a partner in America’s war on terrorism. Trump directly accused Pakistan of harbouring and sponsoring the terrorists, and wanted Pakistan to fight the America’s war in Afghanistan. Trump issued threat and warnings to Pakistan with the intention that like in the past it would succumb to such pressure. But as it saw Taliban capturing more and more areas, Trump stopped all military and economic aid to Pakistan to make Islamabad more pliable. America even threatened Pakistan of military action if it did not comply to the US orders. But the rise of Imran Khan to power saw a new and confident Pakistan refusing to toe the American line. American officials have now admitted that the Taliban control more than 60 per cent of the territory in Afghanistan. Hence, the Trump administration has finally come to the conclusion that there is no other option but to talk to the Taliban. The U-Turn by Donald Trump is a huge indicator that no country, howsoever powerful it could be is invincible. In the new scenario, America’s interests in peace in Afghanistan are growing as the US wanted complete withdrawal of its forces from the country. There is no other alternative to peace. Irrespective of what America or other interested powers want, peace should restore in Afghanistan in the interests of its people. More than anyone else, it is the people of Afghanistan who need peace. It is imperative on all stakeholders to restore peace talks without any delay so that peace returns to the war-torn country.
Easter Sunday shock
On Sunday Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of deadly blasts that killed more than 200 people and injured around 500 more. At least eight bombs ripped through three Churches and two high-end hotels in the capital Colombo causing widespread casualties. Seen as one of the worst terror acts in the island nation, the bombing were struck at a time when large number of Christian devotees had gathered in Churches to celebrate Easter. The day is celebrated by Christian across the world as a mark of reincarnation of Jesus Christ three days after his crucification. In a country of 22 million people, Christians form around 10 percent of the population. The scale and savagery of the attacks that clearly targeted Christians have left Sri Lankans devastated and confused. The country has a long history of disenfranchisement among minority Tamil groups, who are largely Hindu, at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhists led to a civil war in the 1980s. The Tamil Tigers, an armed insurgent group that identified itself as secular, launched deadly attacks, including some of the earliest use of suicide bombings as a tactic of insurgency. The group was active in northeastern Sri Lanka, in areas such as Jaffna. The LTTE was a highly motivated insurgent group which is the first separatist militant group in south Asia to introduce suicide bombings as a means of its campaign. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also killed by this group by human bombing. In response, the Sri Lankan Army carried out brutal campaigns, largely focused on the Tamil stronghold in the northeast. The civil war ended in 2009 after a large-scale operation by the army that defeated the Tamil Tigers and killed its leader—Velupillai Prabhakaran. There is no exact casualty toll, but the United Nations has suggested that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last stage of the war alone.
No group has claimed responsibility for the latest devastating attack. The police said they believed the bombings were the work of one group but declined to identify it. At least 35 of the victims were foreigners, including several Americans. For years, as Sri Lanka has climbed away from war, it has been building a robust tourism industry. The bombings were the deadliest attack on Christians in South Asia in recent memory and punctuated a rising trend of religious-based violence in the region. In recent years, there have been clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, and in March last year the government imposed a 12-day state of emergency to quell anti-Muslim riots. Christian groups have also complained of increased harassment from hard-line Buddhist groups. Buddhists form around 70 percent of the country’s overall population. Sri Lanka is known for its tremendous natural beauty, which attracts millions of tourists every year. The country gained independence from British rule in 1948 as the dominion of Ceylon, and became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Its people have long borne a burden of violence. It is yet to be seen who are behind the Sunday bombings and how it does fit in the country’s turbulent history. Much to the credit of the Sri Lankan government, the island nation did not react in panic. Though the authorities had to impose curfew as precautionary measure but the overall situation is reported peaceful. But few would dispute with the fact the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has resulted in sectarian divides that is growing menacingly, and the country has experienced new waves of violence. A rise in intolerance has been attributed in part to the postwar triumphalism of some Sinhalese majority politicians. The Sri Lankan government needs to look into the Sunday bombing from all angles.