When the Government Becomes an Adversary of its Ex-servicemen
10 Jun 2010 Maj Gen Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD:
The growing adversarial relationship between the Government and ex-servicemen is a matter of grave concern. For the last few years, an impression is gaining ground that the Government is becoming increasingly intolerant and biased against ex-servicemen and is treating them unfairly. The military is an instrument of the Government. How can a Government let itself be seen as an adversary of its own constituent? More so when the affected constituent consists of retired soldiers who have given the best part of their lives to the nation and now, in the twilight of their lives, look up to the Government for support to be able to lead a respectable life. They do not seek favour or pity but ask for compassion, understanding and equity. They want their Government to acknowledge the severity of their service conditions and their contribution to nation safeguarding.
The vindictiveness and wickedness with which the Government is contesting court orders given in favour of the ex-servicemen has shocked even die-hard supporters of the Government. Three sets of recent cases are recalled hereunder to show Government’s intransigence and obduracy.
Grant of Rank Pay
The 4th Pay Commission had granted Rank Pay in addition to basic pay for officers up to the rank of Brigadier. There was no ambiguity at all. However, while fixing pay in the integrated scale, an amount equal to the Rank Pay was deceitfully deducted by the concerned bureaucrats from the total dues, thereby causing heavy financial loss to the officers. It was an act of betrayal of the trust of the armed forces. No other country in the world is known to have conspired and connived so blatantly to deprive its own soldiers of their rightful dues. Even DA, pension, gratuity and other related entitlements of the affected officers were adversely impacted. With one clever stroke, the Government had nullified the recommendations of the Pay Commission.
As all equivalence of appointments in the Government is based on pay scales, bureaucracy employed this stratagem to keep the comparative status of officers down. All pleas to the Government fell on deaf ears.
Major Dhanapalan approached Kerala High Court for justice in 1996. The Hon’ble Court ruled in favour of the petitioner and directed the Government to refix his basic pay with effect from 01 January 1986. Instead of accepting its mistake gracefully and ordering refixation of pay of all eligible officers, the Government appealed against the award to a larger Bench of the same court. The appeal was dismissed.
However, the Government was not done as yet and brazenly filed an SLP in the Supreme Court. The Hon’ble Supreme Court found no merit in the appeal and dismissed it. MoD grudgingly refixed the pay of Major Dhanapalan and sanctioned payment of arrears. Although the issue had wider application, the Government failed to show required magnanimity to extend the same dispensation to other affected officers under the specious plea that the Court orders pertained to the applicant only.
Dismayed by the apathetic attitude of the Government, many officers knocked at the doors of various courts in the country. The Hon’ble Supreme Court admitted a petition for transfer of all the writ petitions pending before the various High Courts in 2007. The matter was heard and finally disposed of by the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 08 Mar 2010. The Apex Court held that the judgment of the Hon’ble Kerala High Court was correct and reasonable and as such the benefit of this judgment be extended to all eligible officers of the Armed Forces. Additionally, the Hon’ble Apex Court awarded 6% interest on the amount due to the officers.
The level to which the Government can stoop can be gauged from the fact that it has recently moved an application in the Apex Court for directions seeking modification/ directions/ recall of the said order of 08 March 2010. It is obsessively resisting grant of overdue arrears to its officers despite clear-cut court directions.
Fixation of Pension
In the case of Union of India and Major General Vains and Others, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had, vide its judgement of 09 September 2009, directed that the pay of all pensioners in the rank of Major General and its equivalent rank in the two other Wings of the Defence Services be notionally fixed at the rate given to similar officers of the same rank after the revision of pay scales with effect from 01 January 1996. The Apex Court ruled that similarly placed officers of the same rank should be given the same pension irrespective of the date of retirement and that no defence personnel senior in rank can get less pension than his junior irrespective of the date of retirement. Thus, principles governing fixation of pension were unambiguously laid down by the Hon’ble Apex Court.
The Government should have accepted the above directions in the correct spirit and applied them across the board. Instead, it continued with its hostile approach and grudgingly readjusted pension only of pre-1966 and their equivalents in Navy and Air Force. Disparity between pensionary benefits of pre-2006 and post-2006 Major Generals continues. Most dishonestly, the Government decided to ignore the principles enunciated by the Hon’ble Court and applied its directions only to the barest inescapable cases.
It was left to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) Chandigarh, when approached by the aggrieved parties, to rule, vide its judgment dated 03 March 2010, that the SC ruling dated 09 Sep 2009 be applied to pre-2006 retirees as well and that the judgment be implemented in three months time.
Concurrently, in another case, AFT Chandigarh, vide its judgment of 08 March 2010, ruled that the state cannot lay down different criteria for grant of pensions to officers, JCOs and Jawans on the basis of cut-off date of retirement. No defence person can draw less pension than his junior in rank irrespective of the date of retirement. All pensioners of the same rank and service irrespective of the date of retirement are entitled to the same pension. The above directions were ordered to be implemented within four months.
Although the Hon’ble Supreme Court has been counseling against frivolous and unjust litigation by governments and statutory authorities in a callous and highhanded manner, it is learnt that the Government is planning to appeal against the above judgments – a sad illustration of pettiness getting better of a sense of equity and justice. Strangely, it does not appear incongruous and absurd to the Government that it pays lesser pension to a Havildar than a Jawan who is two ranks his junior. Similarly, a Brigadier is getting lesser pension than a Colonel, only due to different dates of retirement.
The case of C S Sidhu, a Short Service Commissioned Officer whose right arm had to be amputated due to an accident while serving on the border in high altitude area in November 1970, is symptomatic of the disdain and viciousness with which an apathetic Government treats its brave soldiers. His pension was fixed at Rs 1,000 per month. Directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court to pay higher pension were challenged by a unabashed Government in the Supreme Court. While dismissing the appeal on 01 April 10, a bench of Justices Markandeya Katju and A K Patnaik slammed the Government for treating army personnel like "beggars" in respect of emoluments and pension and asked the authorities to adopt a more "humane approach" towards those bravely defending the country's borders.
"If a person goes to any part of Delhi and sits for begging, he will earn Rs 1000 every day and you are offering a pittance of Rs 1000 per month for a man who fought for the country in the high altitudes and whose arm was amputated? Is this the way you treat those brave army officers? It is unfortunate that you are treating them like beggars." observed the Hon’ble Court in verbal comments while passing the order.
It noted, "The army personnel are bravely defending the country even at the cost of their lives and we feel they should be treated in a better and more humane manner by government authorities, particularly, in respect of their emoluments, pension and other benefits.”
In its written order, the Apex Court stated, “We regret to say that the army officers and army men in our country are being treated in a shabby manner by the government. In this case, the respondent (Sidhu) who was posted at a high altitude field area and met with an accident during discharge of his duties was granted a meagre pension. This is a pittance (about Rs 1000) per month plus D.A…..If this is the manner in which the army personnel are treated, it can only be said that it is extremely unfortunate."
An Attitude of Hostility
Having failed to move the Government to accept their genuine demands, ex-servicemen felt compelled to resort to peaceful protests like ‘dharnas’. Not a single Government leader or functionary thought it necessary to meet the protesting ex-servicemen to understand their problems. Nearly 6,000 ex-servicemen signed in blood to express their frustration. The Government remained totally insensitive and indifferent. Over 22,000 medals were returned by the dismayed ex-soldiers to the President of India on six occasions as a mark of protest against their total neglect. Medals earned during active service are the proudest possession of soldiers and their being driven to surrender them would have made any government sit up and take note. But the Indian Government, true to its wont, remained unconcerned. This episode will certainly go down as a dark chapter in the history of Independent India, wherein ex-soldiers were treated so disdainfully.
It is a matter of shame that the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, the President of India, has not been able to spare a few minutes to meet a delegation of ex-servicemen despite repeated requests for a meeting. She can meet all and sundry but not the soldiers due to whose sacrifices India continues to exist as an independent nation. Compare this with what President Obama said at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention at the Phoenix Convention Center on 17 August 2009, “You have fulfilled your responsibilities. And now a grateful nation must fulfill ours. And so long as I am President of the United States, America will always fulfill its responsibilities to you”, he declared. He termed America's commitment to its veterans as sacred bonds and a sacred trust Americans are honour bound to uphold. It is no wonder that America has been the undisputed world power whereas every foreign invader succeeding in enslaving India.
Purportedly to solve the problems faced by ex-servicemen, a new Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DEW) was raised in the Ministry of Defence in 2004 with much fanfare. It was with the ostensible mandate of dealing with resettlement, welfare and pensionary matters of ex-servicemen. DEW has turned out to be a cruel joke played on the hapless ex-servicemen by self-serving bureaucracy. DEW is headed by a bureaucrat and there is no ex-serviceman in the whole department at all. The opportunity has been utilised to create another Secretary level appointment. Needless to say that without first-hand experience, DEW has degenerated into another bureaucratic quagmire where no proposal ever fructifies.
A comparison of DEW with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) will be enlightening. All the top officers of DVA are ex-servicemen. It is headed by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Ric Shinseki, a lifelong soldier and a wounded warrior from Vietnam. Under the direction of the President, he is responsible for administering benefit programmes for veterans, their families and their survivors. He is a member of the President's Cabinet. His Deputy Secretary, W. Scott Gould is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having taken active part in Operation Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. He was awarded the Navy Meritorious Service Medal. John R. Gingrich, Chief of Staff of DVA, is an artillery officer having retired in 2001 as a Colonel after completing 30 years of service. Most of the subordinate functionaries also possess military experience.
Regrettably, the Government has failed to appreciate the intensity and criticality of the relationship that ex-servicemen enjoy with the serving soldiers. It is a unique umbilical cord that binds the two into an everlasting bond. Not only are the ex-servicemen treated as repositories of unit traditions but also considered as conscience-keepers of the battalions. In no other organisation are the retired personnel treated with so much of respect and due deference. Therefore, the way a Government cares for its ex-servicemen has a profound effect on the morale of the serving soldiers. Shabby and apathetic treatment meted out to ex-servicemen by an ungrateful Government can never motivate a soldier as he sees himself as an ex-serviceman of the future. He starts entertaining doubts about Government’s sincerity in fulfilling its commitments to him after superannuation.
It is time the Government reviews its stance and tries to regain its lost credibility amongst ex-servicemen. For that, it should institute proceedings against the officials who connived to deprive the officers of their Rank Pay. They must be exposed for their nefarious act and shamed publically as anti-national elements for demoralizing the armed forces. Secondly, officials who recommend filing of revision petitions should be identified and made accountable for wasting public money and bringing disrepute to the Government. Finally, all judgments issued in favour of ex-servicemen should be implemented in letter and spirit in a convivial manner, without any past rancor.
Today, ex-servicemen are a disillusioned and disappointed lot. They feel let down by their Government. Their exasperation and plight of helplessness can be best described by recalling the poignant lines of lyricist Anand Bakshi –
“When an enemy inflicts a wound, a well-wisher comforts the heart;
But when a well-wisher inflicts a wound, who will heal it?
If a boat is trapped in midstream, helmsman can row it ashore;
But when the helmsman sinks the boat, who can save it?”