Pankaj Jha, a medium-level officer in the Indian army, shot himself with a service revolver earlier this month. He was 38.
Nobody quite knows why Lt Col Jha pulled the trigger on himself – he had been serving in the military for the past 14 years. According to his mother, Lalita Jha, “there was no tension, no problems. I just can’t understand why he did it”.
He is far from the only soldier to take his own life this year – Capt Sunit Kohli, Maj Sobha Rani, Lt Sushmita Chatterjee… the list goes on.
In fact, the Indian army is losing more soldiers in these incidents than in action against the enemy.
The army has lost 72 soldiers to enemy attacks so far this year. But over 100 soldiers have already taken their lives. In addition, another 32 have been killed by their colleagues.
What is happening to the army?
The million-strong force is clearly under tremendous stress.
Most experts attribute the growing stress to low morale, bad service conditions, lack of adequate home leave, unattractive pay and a communication gap with superiors.
Retired Maj Gen Afsar Karim, who has fought three wars, says that the stress may be high among soldiers because of lack of leave.
“The army is involved in a [difficult] long running internal security environment. There is lack of rest and they get very little leave. Lack of leave increases his stress,” he says.
“Soldiers get angry when they are denied leave and their officers themselves take time off. It triggers a reaction, they are well armed and they take their own lives.”
Then there is the question of what many say is low pay – starting salaries in many jobs in middle-class India are double that of a new soldier, and for many of them the army no longer holds out the promise of a good life.
Retired Maj Gen Karim suspects that with the increase in numbers of soldiers, cohesiveness is being eroded.
“In our times, we used to know the names of our soldiers, where they came from. We used to meet their families, but now the army has expanded manifold and this cohesiveness is gone,” he says.
The army says it is worried about this disconcerting trend.
Spokesman Col SK Sakhuja says soldiers kill each other when one of them perceives that they are being harassed by superiors or when they have heated arguments among themselves.
”We have strengthened formal and informal interaction between soldiers and officers. Leave policy, especially for soldiers posted in difficult areas, has been liberalised so that a soldier can go home to sort out his domestic problems,” he says.
“Also, counselling by officers, psychiatrics and religious teachers is being undertaken.”
Delhi-based psychiatrist Achal Bhagat says a combination of stress and high alcohol consumption could lead to frayed nerves.
What is needed is confidential counselling, creating a support system for the soldiers working in adverse conditions,” he says.
The army is confident that this is a “testing time” for the force and it will pass.
“Our foundations are strong,” says Col Sakhuja.
The problem is that there is not enough clarity still on what precisely is causing these soldier deaths.
Lalita Jha, mother of Pankaj Jha, hopes that she will find out more about her son’s suicide.
“I am sure the army will look into the matter and find out what happened,” she says.
Before more soldiers take their lives, one hopes.