Recently, a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel posted in the Sumka district of Chhattisgarh allegedly opened fire on his own collogues, killing four and injuring a few. He was said to be suffering from emotional distress which led to a “sudden” psychological imbalance and a fit of rage culminating in fratricide.
This is not an isolated instance. Around one hundred deaths by suicides and fratricides take place every year in the Indian Armed Forces. Due to the increasing occurrence of such cases, the CRPF has decided to organise Chaupals in the evening for Jawans. The intention behind this initiative is to provide an open and comfortable space for the army personnel to converse and address their mental health.
John D. Rich, an educational psychologist and professor of psychology at the Delaware State University, in his article titled Strict Gender Roles Hurt Men, too, mentions that, “Repression is the main method that we develop for defending ourselves from judgment for having an unacceptable thought or desire. The repression of these thoughts and desires that we have is developed into an inner censor that judges them as shameful or impolite. If we have internalised a need to be masculine, any thought, desire, or feeling contrary to what “masculine” has come to mean must be censored.”
Thus, facilitating a platform like a Chaupal where CRPF cadets can find a release for their repressed thoughts and feelings is a welcome decision. But the situation also demands some systematic changes which must be anchored on a holistic, nuanced understanding of the problem at hand.
Gendered society and institutions
The members of the armed forces belong to the society and hence, are affected by all the problematic things we uphold as a society. They too are conditioned according by the patriarchal gender norms which position any kind of display of emotional vulnerability by a man as a sign of weakness. The performative nature of manhood prepares our men to act in a particular manner in order to ensure their legitimate claim to the so called ‘masculine‘ ideal.
Emotions like vulnerability, nurture, inwardness and the like are assigned to women, and for men, there is no place for any behaviour that is considered ‘feminine‘. Thus, in our society that runs on the foundation of toxic patriarchy and hyper masculinity, displaying traits that are considered feminine is not only demeaning, but considered a betrayal of manhood itself.
As Rajiv Bhargava, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies notes in an article, to be born a boy is a privilege but one that can be lost if one is not properly initiated into masculine practices. These practices nurture boys to be tough, courageous, dominant, violent, and ‘anti-feminine’ while women are expected to be docile, soft, submissive, and dependent. Being tough and anti-feminine does not permit men to express their feelings and sensitivities.
Many psychological studies have suggested that men who experience gender role stress are more prone to suffer from depression, anxiety, toxic substance abuse and aggressive behavior. They tend to hide any emotion that will make them feel vulnerable such as anxiety and sadness.
Our patriarchal society gives power and privilege to men, who then establish institutions with power structures that reflect their own self image and philosophy of hierarchy. Most of the institutions we have imbibe manly traits and demand machismo in the way they operate in terms of their structure and treatment of gender. The armed forces is an example of this. An army man who displays ‘feminine‘ traits will not be accepted as man enough for the job in our society.
A statement made by the Army General Bipin Rawat reflects this reality where he states that homosexuality is a western concept and the army will take punitive actions against any such activities. Similarly, women aren’t yet allowed to join the combat roles in the military and previously while debating the plea to grant permanent commission to female officers, one of the reasons cited against this was that the men in the army aren’t yet comfortable with taking orders from female officers. This is how a clear demarcation and hierarchy is maintained institutionally between different sexes and through this, the non-adherence to strict masculine ideals are not permitted.
Operational and non-operational stress factors
There are several operational and non-operational factors that contribute to the increasing mental health concerns among army personnel. According to a paper published by Dixit (2011) the operational factors entail living conditions like recreational facilities, service conditions including food, leave, promotion, pay and allowances, tenure, as well as postings in high altitude, difficult terrains. Most of the events of fratricide and deaths by suicide happen in areas where counter-insurgency operations take place.
Among the non-operational stress factors, domestic issues such as marital discord, education of the ward, financial disputes and medical conditions of the family members and inability to resolve these issues due to physical absence, induce high level of stress and anxiety. The government and the army have often been seen associating domestic factors to the cases of mental health and citing them as the cause for violent behavior among members of the forces.
By doing this, the State and the institution have been absolving themselves from addressing other service-related inadequacies. Moreover, the failure of our armed forces to address the underlying causes of severe mental health issues among employees, despite the rising instances of deaths and violence is concerning.
Merely providing a platform to convey feelings in a larger environment that looks down upon those who expresses themselves in terms of their vulnerabilities will not serve any good and will be reduced to tokenism. No sufficient data has been collected in India regarding the reasons for the deteriorating mental health of army personnel. Some studies indicate that more than 50 per cent of the CRPF jawans suffer from severe mental health crisis. This, combined with the stigma attached with the mental health and the social pressure to perform masculinity makes things extremely stressful.
In this context, though a platform like the Chaupal is promising, it is inadequate in redressing the social and structural roots of the problem. We must ensure that the armed forces shake off patriarchal notions and treat the personnel as fully functional, emotional beings who face personal and mental challenges that need full expression in a safe and non-judgmental environment. In modern times, when warfare is not primal and powered by technology, varied roles can be efficiently performed by any individual who is patriotic enough to take on the task without essentially being masculine, the way patriarchy envisions it.
While some jobs may require emotional discipline and a sense of sacrifice, it does not have to happen at the cost of mental health or the furtherance of toxic gender roles. We must understand that emotions have no gender, and every person, irrespective of gender must have the space to be in touch with their emotions and cultivate healthy coping mechanisms. The State must recognise its role in facilitating this, and intervene wherever necessary.
Featured Image Source: On Manorama