* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many years ago, while out on patrol, a platoon of my Special Forces unit came under fire. Minutes later, an officer lay lifeless from gunshots wounds. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Nothing can prepare a soldier for the death of a comrade – nor for delivering this news to his family. I remember the look of pain and agony on the faces of my fallen comrade’s wife and children, and that memory still breaks my heart.
Every time the media reports on military deaths, I think of the families of those soldiers and wonder if a little more regard for the welfare of troops would inspire us to seek nonviolent resolutions to conflicts.
It has become a quotidian occurrence to be confronted by news headlines declaring, “17 soldiers martyred’ personnel killed” or “three soldiers killed in a skirmish”. But too often, these deaths are shrugged off.
Consider this: India has the largest number of war widows, currently estimated at 25,000, though it could be much more. There may not be another nation-state that has lost so many soldiers to fighting within its own borders.
In banal, patriotic statements, we declare these fallen soldiers martyrs and war heroes, while ignoring the shattered dreams of their spouses and children left behind.
We must consider alternative methods to war: we are heading towards a tragic irony where increasingly more soldiers are taking their own lives than are killed in combat.
Estimates suggest that, since 2003, approximately 100 soldiers have committed suicide every year. In 2007 and 2008, Army suicides reached 142 and 150, respectively. According to one report, 597 military personnel took their lives between 2009 and 2013.
The preponderance of ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder require that we have adequate mental health services freely available for our soldiers. Due to long periods of deployment, many soldiers suffering from such conditions may not get help until it is too late.
This is not the only unseen cost of the thoughtless deployment of armed forces: the families of these soldiers also suffer immensely. Children often grow up with only one parent around, while spouses are left to manage their households unsupported and with the added burden of knowing their partner could be sent into battle at a moment’s notice.
Our administrations must aspire to prioritise nonviolent solutions to India’s problems. It is time to set aside militarism and hone India’s capacity to shape events without resorting to force. Deploying the military should be a last resort. The failure of diplomacy, dialogue, persuasion and consensus is not only felt by the nation at large or by India’s economy; it is felt first and foremost by the people who are asked to sacrifice their lives for their country.
Ending conflicts through diplomacy is a daunting undertaking. However, history shows that peaceful negotiation can resolve even the most obdurate conflicts. For instance, India can learn from the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the long-running Irish conflict.
The road to peace in Ireland was characterized by violence, set-backs and numerous false starts, but the negotiating parties realised that military strength alone would not guarantee peace.
There are parallels between the situation in Ireland and the current conflict over Kashmir. India must be open to third party mediation, including involvement by the United Nations, when bilateral negotiations become deadlocked.
Unfortunately, consecutive Governments have often invoked the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, deploying large numbers of soldiers to troubled states, rather than working to initiate peaceful conversations, improve the economy and establish law and order in those areas. The act sadly legalizes tyranny and human rights violations.
Even now, Indian politicians are quick to boast about the size and strength of our country’s military as a threat to any challenger. This is unhelpful for India’s image as a country that is the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi.
It is time to stop being blind to our differences with those we perceive as adversaries, and to direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. Denouncing them and breaking off dialogue does not solve any problems.
It is incumbent upon our government, politicians, media and citizens to realise that the loss of soldiers is not only a loss for their families and the Armed Forces – it is a loss for their communities and a loss of the potential lives they could have led.
For their unwavering service to the country, the people of India must exhaust all other options before we ask our soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice. That is the best reward for their courage and that is what we must hold our government accountable to.
Major Siddharth Chatterjee, SM (Retd) served in the Indian Army in a Special Forces unit. He is presently the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. These are his personal views.