Early on Tuesday morning, a 49-year-old sepoy of the Indian Air Force’s Defence Security Corps in Mumbai took his rifle and fired at his colleagues, killing two of them and injuring two more. According to the police, he was frustrated with his co-workers for allegedly verbally and physically abusing him.

Two days before, on May 25, a soldier from the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry in Poonch shot two of his colleagues and then killed himself, allegedly after an argument.

These are not the only fratricidal killings in the Indian defence forces this year. On February 27, in Jammu and Kashmir, an army soldier killed five colleagues before committing suicide.

Given the high levels of stress in an armed forces job, it is not unheard of for some soldiers to snap and turn their guns on themselves or, at times, on their co-workers. There were at least 83 cases of fratricide in the army, navy and air force between 2000 and 2012, according to figures submitted by the defence ministry in Parliament. Almost all of these cases have been recorded in the army, which has more than 1.13 million personnel.

After 2006, which saw 13 of these killings, the number of fratricides had been gradually reducing and had come down to just two cases in 2010. But this year, the graph has shot back up, with at least nine cases already reported.

According to veterans from the field, it is the intense stress and tension of barrack life that pushes some vulnerable soldiers and officers over the brink. “In most recent cases of fratricide, the cause of stress for army men has been mainly domestic, but strenuous service conditions do accentuate the problem,” said an official source from the defence forces who did not wish to be identified.

Many defence personnel tend to work without a break for several months and, expectedly, get frustrated when they don’t get adequate leave or promotions at the right time. “In certain high-altitude regions like in Kashmir, the lack of oxygen and a sense of isolation also tends to increase stress among soldiers,” said retired Major General Afsar Kareem.

The prolonged deployment of the armed forces for counter-insurgency purposes has been adding another layer of stress in the past few years. Instead of dealing with an identifiable enemy, which is the primary task of a soldier, counter-insurgency duties involve acting against one’s own countrymen. “Here, militants mingle with civilians, often using the latter as human shields, and collateral damages inevitably occur, attracting criticism for the army,” said Lieutenant General Raj Kadyan, a former deputy chief of army staff.

Kadyan also points out that the Indian Army is currently facing a 30% shortage of officers, which forces staff to perform additional duties. Typically, officers are the ones in charge of keeping an eye on the well-being of junior soldiers in each team. “But the extra duties leave the officer relatively less time to spend with soldiers, hear their problems or alleviate their stress,” said Kadyan.

The work-related stress is compounded by domestic tensions a military man might have, of which he is constantly reminded about through the mobile phone. “When some vulnerable soldiers then get into fights with their colleagues and lose their temper, they might use their weapons on them,” said  Kareem.

The defence forces, say veterans, have been taking such situations very seriously in the past decade. They have taken up preventive measures by attempting to improve interpersonal relationships between officers and soldiers, bringing mental-health professionals on board to identify vulnerable individuals and organising stress-management workshops.

“Although the army may not have professional counsellors or psychiatrists on board, each unit has religious teachers, trained in basic counselling, for people to talk to,” said Lieutenant General HS Panag, a retired army commander.

Panag believes the number of fratricide cases in the Indian defence forces is not alarmingly large in relation to the total strength of the forces, but it is the paramilitary forces that perhaps need more attention. “The Central Reserve Police Force is worse off, because their standard of living is poor compared with the army and they are constantly living in a high-tension atmosphere,” said Panag. “However, the Indian armed forces do need reforms to improve their overall efficiency as an organisation.”