Urging the Indian Army to maintain "constant vigil" against cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, Defence Minister AK Antony on Friday assured the armed forces he would "aggressively" argue their case for improved salaries and allowances with a government panel considering the issue.
"Cross-border terrorism has by and large been controlled but the irritants still exist and this calls for constant vigil on your part," Antony told the officers and soldiers of the Indian Army's 14 Corps on his maiden visit in Leh after assuming office last October. The formation was raised after the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan and is tasked with guarding both the border with the western neighbour as well as China.
The visit is part of his familiarisation tour of key locations of the armed forces. He has so far visited the northeastern region, the Jammu region of Kashmir, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Southern Air Command of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Antony has also spent a day at sea with the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard service and has interacted with scientists of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Next on the cards is a visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to inspect conditions on the India-China border.
On his arrival to Leh, Antony was accorded a traditional Ladakhi welcome, after which he interacted with the officers and men of the IAF's 114 Helicopter Unit. He was then briefed on the operational plans of 14 before addressing its officers and men.
During his two-day visit, Antony will also travel to the Siachen Glacier that has witnessed an over-two-decade-long conflict between India and Pakistan but where the guns have been silent since 2003. He returns to New Delhi on Saturday.
"By and large, the border (with Pakistan) is tension free. The cease-fire is continuing, but the irritants are still there. Eternal vigil is necessary. Cross-border terrorism is a real threat to the country's unity," said Antony, who is accompanied by a high-level delegation.
Indian Army chief Gen JJ Singh, Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt, Secretary (Defence Production) KP Singh, the prime minister's special envoy Shyam Saran, Border Roads Organisation director general Lt Gen KS Rao and the director (China) in the external affairs ministry are among those accompanying the minister.
In the context of the eternal vigil, Antony also spoke of the need for modernisation of equipment, as also improvements in training methods and man management.
"Unfortunately, we lost 10-15 years due to the controversies (over arms purchases) that erupted in the 1990s. Things have been moving in the last three-four years and in the next few years, you will get the most modern equipment of your choice. You will chose that equipment, we will not dictate what you should get," the minister promised.
Among the pending big-ticket deals are an IAF order for 126 combat jets and an Indian Army order for 400 155mm artillery guns, as also for missiles, radars, and air defence systems for the three services.
"We are not in an arms race. We are not preparing for confrontation with anyone. But we cannot close our eyes to what is happening in the region. If others are getting modern equipment, so must we," he asserted.
"We consciously want to improve our relations with our neighbours so that we can concentrate on economic development," he added.
According to Antony, "if today, there is an atmosphere of peace and stability in the country it is because of the security cover you have provided. If India has progressed very fast in the past three to four years, it is because of this peace and stability. If we can maintain this progress for another 10 years, India will be equal to many advanced countries."
"The sacrifice, commitment and dedication of the armed forces is tremendous. We owe a lot to you," Antony contended, adding that it was now payback time for the country.
"The country must now reciprocate. It is the duty of the government of the day to do something for you in return," the minister stated.
"I want to assure you that I will personally and aggressively do whatever is necessary to ensure that you get a better deal from the (sixth) Pay Commission," he maintained.
The commission was set up last year to examine the pay and allowance of government allowances. The government, however, did not agree to the armed forces' demand for a separate pay panel for men in uniform.
Be that as it may, Antony noted that for the first time the three services had submitted a joint memorandum to the pay commission.
"They sat together and did their homework. They made me a presentation and I was most impressed by the homework they had done. I know you are dissatisfied with the reports of the previous pay commissions but we are trying to ensure you get better treatment this time," Antony maintained, adding: "We have to look at the changing scenario and take steps to look after you well."
During his earlier interaction with the IAF, Antony enquired after their welfare and asked them to be "brutally frank" with him about their problems.
"Your problems are my problems. This is why I have brought my senior officials along with me to order immediate corrective measures," the minister stated.
The only complaint he received was about the lack of fresh vegetables in winter. Antony said he would look into it.