Assault on veterans at Jantar Mantar has hit soldier’s faith in govt
“When you take off your uniform, we will serve you as well as you have served us. Because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job, or roof over his head or care that they need when they are home.” These are not the sentiments of the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces (the President of India, who is sitting tight on a letter from four former service chiefs highlighting the dangers of prevarication on one rank one pension) but that of the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces (President of the United States). The Indian politician or his/her wards do not join military service, while 30 former American presidents have served in the military.
See the difference
The rationale for the demand for OROP has been debated over and over again and how, in a sustained manner, the military’s status, pay and pensions have been brought down and those in the civil services jacked up. The more relevant is the early retirement of defence personnel, where 85% retire at age of 34-37 years and the rest at various ages short of 60 years. This ensures the country has a young and fit defence services to meet the exacting demands of combat. A soldier gets 37% of the last pay drawn as pension (because he is sent home before completing 20 years of service to get full pension), whereas his counterpart in the civil services retires at the age of 60 years and draws 50% of the last pay drawn as pension. When both reach the age of 60 years, the one in civil service would have drawn approximately Rs 40 lakh more than the soldier. This amount gets bigger and bigger when one takes into account what the next two to three pay commissions would give the civil service employee and that his life expectancy is almost 10 years more than that of a soldier.
Early retirement, with attendant financial worries and increasing family commitments bring down life expectancy of a soldier to 61-63 years, whereas the life expectancy of his counterpart in the civil services is 71-72 years and those in the Indian Railways is 73 years. So for the civil servant to frighten the political executive that giving OROP to soldiers will lead to similar demands by others is baseless and an exploitation of the former’s (as also some journalists’) ignorance and failure to see the difference between apples and onions.
Ex-servicemen who have been demanding implementation of OROP stage protest at Jantar Mantar. (Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)
Two Indian Parliaments have accepted the rationale and spelt out the definition of OROP in precise terms. The same has been accepted and its implementation promised by the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA, but there has been no delivery on these commitments. When there was no move towards grant of OROP, the veterans from the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and Indian Navy, decided to stage a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi after taking permission from the authorities. This permission is for an indefinite period. When the present government seemed to dither on its promises, veterans turned their protest into a chain hunger strike. The protest has been peaceful and is being conducted in a disciplined manner. It posed no security threat to anybody.
In view of the Independence Day function at Red Fort, the Delhi Police faked security threat from these veterans at Jantar Mantar. So, they undertook to evict them, tearing down their shelter, manhandling decorated and elderly soldiers. It has been the most despicable and disgraceful act by the government against its own former soldiers. The most disturbing scene on TV screens was that of policewoman roughing up a war widow. The image of a policeman pulling at a veteran’s war medals and tearing his shirt in the process will haunt the military for a long time. And who, after this insult to war medals, would want to risk his life to win them or wear them to a government function? This police assault on veterans and sacrilege to war medals could be the last straw to break the military’s confidence in the government.
The stated aim behind this highhandedness at Jantar Mantar was to remove an implied security threat from the veterans on the eve of Independence Day. The national Independence Day function was held at Red Fort, which is miles away from Jantar Mantar, and the continuance of protest at the latter location posed no security threat, in any manner. The bogey of threat is frequently used by security agencies to frighten the political executive and allot varied degrees of cover. It is only in India that one finds a politician surrounded by gun-wielding policemen, some in black uniform with finger on trigger of the gun. How practical is such security against a sniper or a suicide bomber? Indian intelligence organisations are otherwise known for their misses, be it Mumbai, Parliament and other terrorist attacks, including the recent ones at Dinanagar and Udhampur.
The incident at Jantar Mantar has sent shock waves among the veterans on one hand and public on the other. This manner of treatment of veterans will surely have an impact on serving soldiers. The political class, being totally divorced from the military’s ethos, does not seem to know the pivotal role of ‘pride’ in soldiering and bonding between the veterans and the serving soldiers. This one act of the government at Jantar Mantar has done incalculable damage to the trust the soldier has in this government.
Any attempt to create a divide between officers and their troops is fraught with frightening consequences for national security. It is one sure way to render the military ineffective: a point highlighted by the four former chiefs in their letter to the President. This police assault on the veterans was obviously aimed at humiliating them and striking at their pride, and in the false expectation that this would lower the high esteem in which a soldier is held in the country.
Services chiefs must meet the Prime Minister and lodge their protest against this highhandedness of the police and apprise him of the possible fallout of this incident on those still in service. They must demand a high-level inquiry into this incident so that those responsible for this reprehensible act are identified and hauled over the coals.
The writer, a former vice-chief of the army staff, is a Chandigarh-based commentator on defence and security issues. Views expressed are personal.