A 70-year-old army veteran seeking uniform pensions for military personnel died on Wednesday after consuming poison, sparking an ugly political brawl that appeared set to reignite a debate over the Modi government’s controversial retiral policy for soldiers.
Chaotic scenes broke out outside the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital as police stopped top opposition politicians from meeting the family of the deceased Subedar Ram Kishan Grewal, who friends said had unsuccessfully tried to meet defence minister Manohar Parrikar before killing himself.
But Grewal’s death was soon overshadowed by political theatre, as Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia, and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia were detained by police for protesting outside the hospital.
Scenes of pandemonium broke out at Mandir Marg police station, forcing police to move Gandhi and Scindia around in a bus, first towards Parliament Street police station and then towards Connaught Place police station before being finally taken to the police station at Tilak Marg, followed for hours by a horde of supporters protesting against the police action.
“A family that sacrificed for the nation, what happened to them is wrong,” Gandhi told reporters. “The government should at least apologise to the family, say what happened to you was wrong.”
Political workers were also seen scuffling with policemen at the two central Delhi police stations and again at the RML hospital. Gandhi was detained twice before being allowed to go late in the evening. Kejriwal was stopped from entering Lady Hardinge Hospital -- where Grewal’s body was kept for a post-mortem analysis.
Kejriwal was stopped from entering Lady Hardinge Hospital and was detained at the RK Puram police station late into the night. Doctors at the hospital said the post-mortem analysis was delayed as the family was yet to give their consent.
Grewal consumed sulphas tablets on at around 1 pm on Tuesday on the lawns of Jawahar Bhawan, a short distance from Sena Bhawan. He was rushed to the RML hospital by his friends, all ex-servicemen who had travelled with him from Haryana as part of a delegation. He died on Wednesday morning.
The death is expected to provide a handle to opposition parties to attack the government with over the controversial pensions program called One Rank One Pension (OROP), which came into force about a year ago. Critics say the new policy is discriminatory, especially for those taking premature retirement. At least a third of all military personnel take voluntary retirement.
Activist Anna Hazare also threatened to relaunch his agitation over the OROP issue, saying the Centre’s betrayal of the nation’s ex-servicemen resulted in the suicide of Grewal.
The suicide comes just three days after Prime Minister Modi spent Diwali with soldiers deployed near the India-China border and in the middle of the government’s sustained pro-Army campaign following the surgical strikes across the Line of Control in September.
Delhi Police’s special commissioner Mukesh Kumar Meena said Gandhi and other Congress leaders had been held for “disruption of duty”. “The hospital is not a place for demonstration,” he said.
Grewal’s friends said he had been trying to deliver a petition to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in South Block, but had been turned away on two occasions on Monday and Tuesday. A typed application letter addressed to Parrikar, on which a suicide note had been penned, was found on him. “I am sacrificing my life for my country, my motherland and my country’s brave soldier,” it said.
An audio clip surfaced later in which a man said to be Grewal is heard telling his son he was consuming poison as he felt the treatment meted out to jawans was “unfair”.
The Central government’s response was officious and combative. “The reason for his suicide being reported is OROP, don’t know what his mental state was, need investigation,” said Union minister and former army chief VK Singh.
Sources in the defence ministry said Grewal had been drawing his pension benefits as per the Sixth Pay Commission report and had also received the first set of his OROP arrears. They said if there was any problem it was probably at Grewal’s bank. They also said there was no record of any veteran seeking an appointment with Parrikar and questioned why his suicide note was dated October 31 when he committed suicide two days later.
When asked about the Delhi police action against Congress and AAP leaders, home minister Rajnath Singh defended it by saying: “Whatever has to be done for risk reduction, the Delhi Police will do.”