Admiral Arun Prakash
Our MPs celebrated the unanimous passage of the bill for three-fold enhancement of their pay and perks with yet another undignified rampage in the well of the House. One was struck by the stark contrast between the facile manner in which our elected representatives approved their own pay rise, and the disdain with which the bureaucracy and politicians have been treating the pleas of ex-Servicemen, the nation’s war-wounded and the widows of soldiers; for their just dues of pension and allowances.
Once he doffs his uniform, an ex-Serviceman (now re-designated Armed Forces Veteran) is technically liberated from the restraints of military discipline, and is free to adopt the demeanor and behaviour of any civilian on the street. But deep inside, the veteran’s soul cringes at the thought of conducting himself in a manner which, in earlier days, he would have associated with civilian agitators and unbecoming of his uniform. But it seems that he has been left with no choice.
He has found that the staff of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, created in 2004, is staffed 100% by civilians, who either do not comprehend or are indifferent to his problems. Therefore his representations to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gather dust for years, before being dismissed in a perfunctory and bureaucratic manner. One rank one pension (OROP) has been a major demand of the veterans, which has been hanging fire with the government for many years. Assurances have been given by successive governments – only to be reneged upon.
Despite repeated pleas by the Chiefs of Staff, based on bitter experience of the past, the government in 2005 adamantly refused to appoint a Service representative on the 6th Central Pay Commission (CPC). As expected, the Commission’s report contained flaws, anomalies and, as some believe, many provisions deliberately incorporated by the bureaucracy to depress the pay and status of armed forces personnel vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts. At the repeated behest of the Chiefs, the government reluctantly convened a committee to review the anomalous CPC recommendations; again, inexplicably, without any armed forces representation. Predictably, the committee failed to resolve many tangles and left the serving as well as retired personnel dissatisfied. On a number of issues relating to pension and allowances the veterans were left with no choice but to approach courts of law. After years of expensive litigation the courts did give gave redressal, but the MoD fought them tooth and nail through appeals to higher courts. In two instances where the Supreme Court eventually gave decisions in the veteran’s favour, the government of India has stubbornly refused to implement them! Can there be a more blunt expression of contempt for its soldiers, sailors and airmen by the State? Yes there can.
In April 2008, the frustrated veterans started resorting to demonstrations in the heart of the national capital, as well as in many states to press their demands. Then they graduated to "relay fasts" at Jantar Mantar, and this was followed by the melodramatic gesture of signing petitions in blood. The participants in all these events ranged from retired jawans and JCOs to General Officers, and they all braved the bitter cold, blistering sun or rain to convey their unhappiness in public. When the government studiously ignored their pleas, they thought that they would take the "ultimate step": i.e. surrender their hard-earned and battle-stained medals to the Supreme Commander; the President of India.
Every commissioned officer of the Indian armed forces swears an Oath of Allegiance which contains the words: "…that I will obey all commands of the President of the Union of India…..even to the peril of my life…" The veterans were confident that the exalted person, unto whom they had sworn this blood-oath, at a tender age, would be deeply concerned that the nation’s soldier, sailors and airmen were driven to such an extremity. And that she would enquire why they were returning their hard-won medals. After all, many of their dear comrades had redeemed this solemn oath by making the supreme sacrifice to defend the Motherland…even to the peril of their lives. But what happened when successive delegations of veterans arrived at the portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan to surrender their medals to the Supreme Commander has shaken all of us to the core. They were met by low level functionaries who received their medals and sent them away. The medals were then packed in cardboard boxes and sent off to the MoD to be stored in a dusty basement.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan appointment diary will, on any day, show that dozens of citizens from every walk of life in this great democracy are freely granted audiences with their President. The fact that our Supreme Commander has, for two years, either not found the time, or not deemed it appropriate to spare a few minutes to meet the veterans who regularly show up at Rashtrapati Bhavan is a sad commentary on the standing of the armed forces in India. The cue has, obviously, been provided by the politicians, who have shown equal disregard and disrespect for the nation’s loyal and patriotic veterans.
The US President misses no possible opportunity to repeatedly convey gratitude to the nation’s Servicemen for defending the country’s freedom and for making sacrifices in its cause. Since assuming office Obama has made it a point to review the passing-out parades at every Service academy. He has used each occasion to make important national policy statements while addressing the Cadets and Midshipmen; such is the regard and respect that the USA holds its Servicemen in.
Like every year, on 15th August 2010 too, all veterans listened raptly to the PM addressing the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort. But we listened in vain. He spoke of many issues but there was not a word about the armed forces; no mention of those who died in action or those maimed for life, or the widows, orphans and grieving parents our soldiers leave behind, ever so often. Military veterans, world-wide are objects of spontaneous respect, affection and admiration because, like the flag, they are national symbols of courage, patriotism and sacrifice; a segment deserving of special consideration by the people and the government. An additional reason is that the nation’s 30 lakh Veterans retain an umbilical connection with the serving personnel; they hail from the same regions or neighbouring villages and many come from extended families, whom they meet when on leave. Every serviceman knows that in a few years he will become a veteran.
During the last general elections, an attempt was made to politicize Veterans issues, and seek support of one political party or the other. In this age of instant news, the essence of whatever happens at Jantar Mantar, India Gate or Rashtrapati Bhavan will be seen and heard almost instantly by the men in uniform.
India’s democracy requires that the armed forces must remain proud, professional and totally insulated from politics. The grievances of our Veterans, must, therefore, be handled with far more sensitivity and responsiveness, than they, so far, have. The need of the hour is to defuse their sense of resentment at the seeming neglect by the government. In a democracy this is easily done – by discussion and dialogue.
We must never again allow our Veterans from taking to the streets, and the best means would be to constitute a multi-party Parliamentary Commission to examine and address the full gamut of Veterans’ issues and grievances on a long-term basis.
By Adm. (Retd) Arun Prakash