From Kashmir to Assam and Tripura to Jharkhand, India’s Central Reserve Police Force is stretched, stressed, and still standing tall. But the strain is beginning to show now.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) recently issued a directive saying personnel on Jharkhand election duty will not be allowed to carry liquor. Its official communication asked units that “personnel who have alcohol dependency issues or any psychiatric problem should be immediately withdrawn and never deployed in such duties, in the future.”
The CRPF took the step after yet another incident of fratricide. Two CRPF personnel of ‘C’ company 226 battalion, including an officer, were shot dead by one of their “drunk” colleagues in Bokaro, Jharkhand, on the night of 9 December. Earlier in March, three soldiers were killed in a similar incident in Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir.
There have been other incidents involving different armed police forces, both central and state. But being the largest and the most heavily deployed force in India, the conditions in the CRPF are particularly severe.
First to be called
With about 250 battalions comprising nearly 3.3 lakh personnel, the challenges facing the CRPF are especially concerning. The situation has only worsened in the last few months with increased deployment in Jammu and Kashmir after its special status under Article 370 was abrogated in August, and the sudden spurt in violence in Assam after the amendments to the Citizenship Act. CRPF companies were shifted overnight as opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill went out of control. These challenging developments have only added more stress to the working conditions of CRPF troopers, affecting their morale and their most important demand – leave.
A CRPF trooper confided in me that the Bokaro fratricide incident was all about the non-availability of leaves. And with protests over citizenship law showing no signs of abating, even as police crackdown on protesting students – from Jamia to AMU to Nadwa – take a violent turn all over the country the CRPF troops will likely remain on alert, which will add to the pressure cycle that has already been created.
The CRPF’s working conditions have had a direct impact on their physical and mental health. The Narendra Modi government had told the Rajya Sabha last year that 228 CRPF personnel had committed suicide between 2008 and 2014.
The CRPF and other armed police forces have always suffered from command and control deficiencies on account of their people management policies and types of deployment. Recent changes in the posting policy in the CRPF is a step in the wrong direction and will make working conditions even more difficult for troops.
“Unlike in the Army, where the unit moves as a whole, we are now being posted individually, every three years,” said the trooper mentioned above.
This makes for an unworkable situation wherein CRPF soldiers take time to familiarise themselves with their new colleagues, the operational environment, and deployment duties. By the time they are on top of the things, they are posted somewhere.
Add to that a frequent change of company commanders, and the inefficiency of command become glaringly clear. A company commander is the most important executive appointment in the current scenario, whether it’s related to insurgency-ridden terrain or law and order situations. A company commander is an officer who is supposed to know his or her troops better than everyone else. But due to frequent turnovers, it has become impossible to maintain that credibility of command.
The recent rider imposed by CRPF Headquarters following the Bokaro incident that ‘action will be taken against the commanding officer (CO) if the directives are not followed,’ therefore, is unreal for the simple reason that a CO is virtually out of the command loop now. The deployment pattern is such that a CO has a unit that could be stretched across states, differing operational terrain, and varied duties. When companies are moved singularly, rather than as part of a cohesive unit, and company troopers keep rotating from one battalion to another, people management goes for a toss. There is no formula anywhere in the world that can take care of this command confusion.
The extent of this deployment can be seen from the 215th Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, presented in December 2018. While highlighting the stressful deployment structure of the CRPF, the report declares that 98 per cent of the training companies are deployed. This is a staggering figure, given that training companies are meant for enhancing skills, rest and recuperation. Coupled with poor living infrastructure, this deployment formation makes for a combustible situation.
The parliamentary committee highlighted this in its report: “The Committee notes the high levels of stress to which the CRPF personnel are subjected because of continuous deployment in high intensity conflict areas, where they are compelled to live in pathetic living conditions.” Only 20.7 per cent of the troopers are currently provided peace postings, according to the committee’s report. The latter half of 2019 has only made conditions worse for the CRPF troops, as India faces a severe law and order crisis.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.