Reflections on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: FATEHPAL SINGH TARNEY
Janam Da Firangee,
Sikhi Mai Mangee
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) can affect people in every sphere of human activity. I shall focus on soldiering, but in no way am I suggesting that PTSD is less severe or less injurious in other settings.
In World War I, the term was “Shell Shock,” in World War II, “Battle Fatigue,” and in Vietnam, “PTSD.” If one has never been in combat, it is difficult to really understand what soldiers go through.
What are its symptoms? Negative feelings about oneself and/or others; recurrent memories of tragic events; flashbacks which entail reliving those tragic events; disturbing dreams; irritability; hopelessness about the future; feelings of guilt; insomnia; anger; aggressive outbursts, and many others.
For almost forty years now, I have asked myself the following unanswerable question: would I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues had I been a Sikh during the Vietnam War and if so, would such PTSD issues been less severe?
Again, PTSD also affects people in non-military situations that may or may not involve war. These are significant issues, but beyond the scope of my current column. However, some of these are very close to my heart. For example, some of my closest friends are Sikhs of my generation who were children in West Punjab at the time of the Partition of Punjab. They recall walking to a new country called India out of what had now become Pakistan.
Their recollections are quite vivid and quite sad. These dear friends tell of seeing all the death and destruction along the way and also tell of the trains going in both directions with nothing but corpses on them. PTSD is understandable after such experiences.
In my view, three factors might mitigate the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst Sikh soldiers: i gurbani; ii military victories; iii a strong family support system.
We returned from the Vietnam War perceived by many Americans as war criminals and defeated soldiers. The late President John F. Kennedy once said “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
The Indian military, led by Sikhs, won wars with Pakistan. However, let us look at the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Perhaps we can find cases of PTSD at the end of this conflict. Then, let us look at the so-called Indian Peace-Keeping Force (“IPKF”) operations in Sri Lanka.
On October 20, 1962, a Chinese offensive in the Himalayas overwhelmed India’s unprepared and ill-equipped forces. Within days, the Chinese had gained control of Kashmir’s Aksai Chin plateau in the west and, in the east, approached India’s critical tea-growing heartlands in Assam. Then, on November 21, Beijing called a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from India’s northeast, while maintaining control of Aksai Chin.
Indian troops were overwhelmed not because of a lack of courage, but the result of poor equipment and poor direction from the incompetent politicians in New Delhi, including Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and defence minister Krishna Menon. 7000 Indian troops were killed or captured.
The IPKF was the Indian military group performing a so-called ‘peacekeeping’ mission in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. This force was not at first to be involved in combat with the Tamil rebels, but they were attacked and the Tamil rebels used guerrilla warfare tactics, child soldiers, and women in combat. These tactics could frustrate any military force. Key components of the IPKF were Sikh troops such as those from the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment.
While most Tamil militant groups laid down their weapons and agreed to seek a peaceful solution to the civil war there, the Tamil Tigers refused to disarm its fighters. The IPKF then tried to forcibly demobilize the Tigers which resulted in full-scale warfare with them. The IPKF was accused of committing war crimes by several human rights groups as well as by certain entities in the Indian media. The IPKF met not only with stiff resistance from the Tamil Tigers, but with opposition from the local Sinhalese. The Sri Lankan government eventually demanded that India remove its ‘peacekeeping’ troops from the island nation.
Although casualties among the IPKF increased, Mrs. Gandhi refused to remove the IPKF from Sri Lanka. However, following her defeat in Indian parliamentary elections in December 1989, the new Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, ordered the withdrawal of the IPKF. 1200 Indian soldiers and over 5000 Sri Lankans had died during this time.
Support for the Tamil Tigers, of course, dropped precipitously in India after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a Hindu suicide bomber. The theory was that the Tamil Tigers feared that Rajiv might reintroduce the IPKF to Sri Lanka.
PTSD amongst Indian troops after the Sino-Indian War and the Sri Lankan campaign are significant questions to which I have no answers.
The Ugandan writer, Agona Apell, has written with great insight about PTSD.
“One of the great pains of peace is to see the heroes of a thousand battles retreat to a thousand bottles at the doctor's and the barman's. In the snares of alcoholism and PTSD, they who survived the battlefield now fall in the bottle-field.”
One can leave a war, but it never leaves you.
March 1, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: M Kaur (Canada), March 02, 2017, 10:16 PM.
Fatehpal ji, I think you are right, that Indian troops may have suffered PTSD during and after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. My mother was a nurse at the time and the situation was so critical that there was a public announcement for medical staff to come forward as Indian troops suffered many casualties. Yes, you are right in that this was the result of ill-preparedness. I heard that those medical staff who came back were 'changed' by the experience, so I would not be surprised that soldiers were too. Not sure about the Sri Lankan campaign, and I am disappointed to learn that Sikhs troops formed part of the contigent. The Indian Army and Government maintains a deliberate strategy of 'divide and rule' and often troops from different and divergent parts of the country are sent to 'soldier' ethnically different states. For example, I don't believe that the Sikh Regiment has ever been stationed in the Punjab, or at least not during modern times.
2: Arjan Singh (USA), March 04, 2017, 2:43 AM.
Thank you, Fatehpal ji, for this timely and excellent piece of writing. I grew up reading news from around the world and consider myself a student of history. Therefore, I am a bit puzzled as to why I did not come across any news of Sikh war veterans going out on a killing spree in India as the American veterans routinely do. Shooting at the Wisconsin Gurdwara, shooting of a South Indian engineer in Kansas City last week, and numerous other shootings have been committed by war veterans in USA. Maybe Fatehpal ji or M Kaur ji can shed some light.
3: M Kaur (Canada), March 04, 2017, 9:15 AM.
Arjan Singh ji: Sikh war veterans never go on killing sprees. The Sikh Regiment has never been involved in anything dishonourable. What I was trying to say is that I was disappointed the Sikh Light Infantry was implicated in the Sri Lankan conflict. But please also note that, despite the name, the Light Infantry also contains non-Sikhs.