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.
The unabated border tension
The border tension between India and Pakistan shows no signs of decline. On Tuesday, an Assistant Commandant of Border Security Force (BSF) was killed in a ‘sniper fire’ by Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in Samba district of Jammu. Elsewhere, three BSF personnel and an army soldier were injured in separate incidents of firing along Rajouri and Kathua districts. Last week, Pakistan summoned Indian Acting deputy High Commissioner to lodge protest against “unprovoked” firing by Indian army in Shahkote sector which resulted in death of a woman. The number of ceasefire violations (CFVs) and the resultant casualties of soldiers and civilians on both sides along the Line of Control and the international border between India and Pakistan have seen a dramatic rise in the past five years.
Official records say that 2936 incidents cases of ceasefire violations took place, last year, the highest in the last 15 years, making mockery of the ceasefire agreement of 2003 between the two countries. For two years – 2004 and 2005–there was not a single such violation on the border. In 2006 just three incidents of CFVs took place while in 2007 and 08, there were 21 and 77 such incidents. There had been a gradual increase in ceasefire violations 2009 and 2013 with 28 in 2009, 44 in 2010, 62 in 2011, 114 in 2012 and 347 in 2013. After 2013, the CFVs witnessed serious rise. Since 2014, the border tension hit new levels with the Line of Control and International Border brimming with artillery and firearm sounds. The seriousness of the situation can be understood from the latest threat by army chief Gen Bipin Rawat. He said that India would mind to strike inside Pakistan if the need arose. Pakistan army has viewed it as a direct threat from Indian army and retorted that they were ready for war if it was imposed on them. It is no exaggeration to say that the current level of hostilities is the most dangerous escalation since the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Though the ceasefire violations never ceased on the LOC or working boundary but it had never been so threatening as it is today.
The numbers of dead on both sides, civil and military, is rising. Indian and Pakistani armies, some time back, released videos of attacks on each others’ positions on the LOC claiming heavy losses on both sides. The most unfortunate part is that there is no agency or process or set of protocols that appear to be able or willing to stop or at least bring a pause to what is now dangerously close to outright warfare. The provocative statements by military and political leadership and incensed media propaganda on both sides go on un-endingly.
It is now an admitted fact that political factors play a major role in determining the relations between the two countries. Vajpyee, who was seen as a man of peace, and General Musharaf, despite serious provocations from hardliners with the government and the deep state, sorted out a strategy to lessen the tension between the two countries which worked quite successfully. It was Vajpayee’s political sagacity that brought Gen Musharaf on board who put a stop to what India called cross border terrorism. The present dispensation however has different priorities. They are using external trouble for political gains internally. That way they have developed a vested interest in border tensions. It is most likely that the tension may escalate further given the political compulsions ahead of the ruling party at the centre.
The general elections in India are being held in April/May, and BJP would desperately need heightening India-Pakistan tension to woo electorate on its side. That might help BJP gain electorally but India, as nation, would have to bear its fruits.
Kashmir is reeling under yet another deadly disease—Swine flu also known as H1N1. The valley recorded the year’s first casualty last week when two persons died of the disease in the premier SMHS hospital. One more patient is battling for life in the hospital with H2N3 virus. The H1N1 or swine flu is now considered a seasonal flu which mostly survives in cold humid conditions. At least 30 people died due to swine flu in Kashmir Valley where a total of 147 cases were reported last winter season. In the past three months, 12 people have fallen victim to the fatal run of the swine flu till date. The first death of this season occurred in September, last. Official record shows that 50 people have been admitted in SKIMS under the influence of the disease out of which 42 have been discharged after the treatment while eight are still being treated. Doctors in the hospital have warned that H1N1 is a contagious disease and can transmit from one person to another. They have asked for taking precautionary measures to escape the disease. This is matter of serious concern. The even more alarming is the shortage of medicines. Report says that the valley hospitals are without proper medicine.
Barring SKIMS and SMHS hospital, there is no flu vaccine available in any hospital in the valley. This leaves SKIMS and SMHS as the only testing and treatment centre. Experts say that the swine flu outbreak can be contained but only if medicines reach the affected on time.
When the hospitals are not equipped with the testing and treatment drugs, how the disease could be contained. There is every reason for the people to feel panicky and authorities need to take the problem seriously and equip hospital with adequate medicine before the panic take over the valley. The panic has gripped even the medical fraternity as well as the lack of relevant vaccines has put the lives of doctors at risk. Doctors at SKIMS, who are dealing with patients at the Emergency and the OPD of the hospital, too are vulnerable to the disease and could catch infection in the absence of immunization and protective gear. Doctors and other hospital staff are not provided with personal protectionequipments while dealing with H1N1 patients thus putting them also at risk of contracting the virus.
There are no H1N1 vaccines which are to be given to high-risk persons with diabetes, elderly, children below 5 years, pregnant women, chronic diseases, immuno compromised and healthcare workers as the virus can be fatal in them. The designated laboratory for testing at SKIMS does not have the desired Biosafety-3 level for handling and processing H1N1 samples which is dangerous to staff and community. No sensitization and awareness programmes are conducted in hospitals with the result majority of H1N1 patients are overlooked. What is even more criminal is the silence by the concerned authorities. They have maintained complete silence over the deadly contours of the disease and the non-availability of the medicines. It is no less than criminal that despite these disturbing realities, some sections in the government would give false hope to people and come out with advisories of ‘no-panic’. The state administration should, in first place, take note of health hazards in the wake of fast spreading swine flu and activate the administration to take necessary measures, provide relevant vaccines and other medicine and expertise for the disease.
Instead of keeping the lack of medicines a secret, the administration should approach central government for immediate help by providing medicines. An awareness campaign through advertisements in the media should also be launched to keep people abreast of the dangers of the disease and measures to be taken at individual level for self protection.
Graveyard of reputations
For the past few days Shah Faesal, the former IAS officer, has been at the receiving end of a barrage of social media mélange of praise and ire for his decision to give up bureaucracy. The 2009 IAS topper hit media headlines on Wednesday last week when he announced his resignation from the Indian Administrative Services “in protest against the unabated killings” in Kashmir. Some political and peoples’ sections welcomed it as “voice of conscience”. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Omar Abdullah too were among those who were impressed by Shah Faesal’s decision. Mirwaiz sounded cautious saying “hope his outrage over killings and his sentiment that #KashmiriLivesMatter guide his choice of politics”. But the way Omar Abdullah reacted to Shah’s decisions, it looked that he was already in know of it and he knew about Shah’s future plans as well. He called it “bureaucracy’s loss is gain of politics” and welcomed Shah to the “fold”.
Omar’s reaction was a clear indication that Shah was eyeing to enter mainstream politics after giving up a thriving bureaucratic career. Some later statements of Shah also corroborated the fact that he is contesting upcoming parliamentary election. Profession is a personal choice. Politics is not a forbidden profession. Like any other person, Shah Faesal is free to try his luck in politics. How he is going to pursue this is a matter of time, which he has asked from the people. On Sunday, Faesal asked Kashmir to give him six months and then “judge” him. His post on Facebook read: “People who have seen nothing but betrayals for last seventy years can’t be expected to trust someone easily. In fact I am totally against blind-faith in individuals and uncritical follower-ship. Kashmiris know what agencies can do and again, the agency angle is also totally understood. Kashmiris are not paranoid, Kashmiris are angry and heartbroken. So I won’t ask you to trust me at once. I have given up a lot to be here and at this moment I am not even claiming that I did it for you. Let the time decide who did what and for whom. I want you to give me six months and then judge me. Just six months. Will you?”
Kashmir, being a graveyard of reputations that it is, can, however, afford to give Faesal these six months. Only time will tell that whether the state lost a cut-above-the-rest bureaucrat or gained a politician whose words and deeds are in sync with each other. Only time will tell whether this young blood will bring any positive changes or he, like scores of others, too will be sucked into the political marshland of Kashmir: a space that, for now, involves only mudslinging, desertion and broken promises. Will Shah Faesal be able to inspire the young minds of Kashmir the way he was when he made it to the top rank in exhaustive IAS examination? Or will those youth find themselves on the wrong side of the spectrum once he takes a formal plunge into politics? Only time will tell…