February 1, 2006

Yoga Offers India’s Kashmir Troops Peace of Mind

By Sheikh Mushtaq

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - On a cold winter morning a group of Indian soldiers, hardened by months spent fighting Islamic militants in revolt-hit Kashmir, assemble in a camp hall for their first briefing of the day.

There is no senior officer to dictate anti-insurgency tactics presiding over the get-together, but in his place sits a yoga guru tasked with trying to settle frayed nerves and relieve stress in the ranks.

Relaxing body and mind is a serious business in this troubled Himalayan region, where a separatist revolt has left tens of thousands dead since 1989, and where the security forces are regularly targeted by Muslim guerrillas -- and occasionally by their own depressed colleagues.

Indian authorities say yoga sessions are helping ordinary soldiers and officers, who daily face extreme danger operating in difficult terrain and in freezing temperatures, reduce mental and physical stress.

"Any battalion which is inducted in the Kashmir valley for CIOPs (counter-insurgency operations) first has to undergo yoga classes at corps battle school," Lieutenant Colonel V.K. Batra, an army spokesman told Reuters.

"In Kashmir pressure, tension and stress is always there so jawans (soldiers) need to know how to relax," he said.

Amid Kashmir's mountains and passes, stress can kill.

Last week a soldier ran amok in a camp in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, shooting dead four colleagues, the latest in a series of fatal incidents. Local media have reported that up to 100 troops have been killed by depressed or out of control security personnel.

Others have committed suicide.

"Depressive disorders are common among security force personnel in Kashmir," said Syed Abinah Nawaz, a doctor at Kashmir's only psychiatric hospital. "Long hours on duty, living away from home under constant threat to their lives is causing heavy stress."


There are an estimated half-a-million Indian troops and police in Jammu and Kashmir, mainly Hindu India's only Muslim-majority state.

The force -- which includes men and women from all over India -- began anti-militancy operations last year, and is stationed in Srinagar and other towns in Kashmir.

"The daily yoga exercises have certainly helped our troops who are facing a hostile environment," said Rakesh Kumar, a senior officer with India's Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary unit. "It is a part of daily routine for them now and part of the training curriculum."

The security forces are trained by yoga teachers from the Mumbai-based Art of Living Institute, run by one of India's leading spiritual gurus, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, which also works with prison inmates and young people in Kashmir.

Officials say the violence involving soldiers and Muslim guerrillas is on the decline since India and Pakistan launched a peace process two years ago.

But people are still being killed in regular gunbattles, occasional bomb blasts and attacks in the scenic region claimed by both India and Pakistan which has been the cause of two wars between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

"It is an alien place for me," said CRPF officer Ram Prasad, dressed in battle fatigues which include a 25 kg (55 lb) flak jacket. "Most of the locals here don't talk to us and there is a communication problem. And there is always fear of an attack."

"But yoga is helping a lot, at the end of exercise you are a relaxed person," Prasad said, his eyes jerking nervously left and right as he patrols a street in the heart of Srinagar.