Raisina Hill Still Short-Changing India's Soldiers

by Jay Bhattacharjee - Jun 4, 2015 06:56 PM +05:30 IST
Raisina Hill Still Short-Changing India's Soldiers

Why One Rank-One Pension is a non-negotiable right of our soldiers, and why any delay in its implementation is unacceptable. 

Pericles : Funeral Oration : “But none of these Athenian soldiers allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance, and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped, not from their fear, but from their glory.”

This oration was recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides in the second book of his epic work, History of the Peloponnesian War. It is the classic ode to soldiers in a democracy (as Athens indisputably was) who fight for the protection of their country’s ideals. Many centuries later, Abe Lincoln, drawing upon the oratory of Pericles, made his historic speech at Gettysburg on the 19th November 1863, that resonates in our minds even today.

“…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground … It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us… The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

The relevance of all this in the India of the second decade of the twenty first century is something that  will  be  apparent  to anyone who wants to reflect on the issue. This is because the soldiers and defenders of the Indian Republic are today in a different frontline and fighting a war that they would never have wanted to – a war against their political masters and their bureaucratic henchmen, for something that is their right and ought to have been granted to them years earlier. Why have things come to this pass ?

When the Narendra Modi government assumed office just a year ago, it generated hopes and aspirations among hundreds of millions of the country’s citizens. This was notwithstanding a few semi-academic exercises by some self-professed psephologists that labelled the electoral verdict as a minority vote. However, even among voters who were not supporters of the BJP-NDA combine, there was genuine goodwill for the new regime and expectations that it would deliver results, after ten years of appalling misgovernment and graft.

Among the groups that pinned their hopes most enthusiastically on the current occupants of Raisina Hill were the nation’s soldiers and defenders, retired and serving. This group of brave warriors, although not more than 7 to 8 million citizens in numbers, had been among the primary victims of seven decades of Nehruvian / Congress neglect and discrimination, and even outright perfidy, as many would say. The Prime Minister, in his earlier avatar as a candidate for the PM’s post, had made the most welcome gesture of addressing a large number of rallies of ex-servicemen, where he had categorically assured the brave warriors who had given their best years to defend their country, that their legitimate demands would be met by him and his party if they were voted to power. The oldest and most justifiable demand of the retired faujis was the One Rank One Pension (OROP) policy. This had been hanging fire in the fiendish corridors of power in Delhi’s North Block and South Block and other assorted offices in the capitol’s Lutyens zone for decades. I will shortly come to the basic definition of OROP and its legitimacy.

(Credits: AFP PHOTO/MOD/VIJAY KUMAR )
(Credits: AFP PHOTO/MOD/VIJAY KUMAR )

When Modi first announced his public support for OROP in a rally in Haryana in September 2013, preponderantly attended by ex-servicemen, I enthusiastically applauded him. Thereafter, OROP was featured in the BJP’s election manifesto. After taking over as Prime Minister, Modi reiterated his and his government’s commitment to OROP a number of times.

However, the scenario at the operational level was quite different. The two nodal offices that are key to the implementation of OROP are the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Finance Ministry (MOF), not necessarily ranked in any order of priority. The three Services chiefs (Army, Navy and Air Force) are quite peripheral in the entire exercise. That is another story altogether.

For the benefit of the general reader, it would now be appropriate to define OROP, explain its history and analyse the reasons why it is such a genuine and legitimate demand of our soldiers and warriors. Shorn of all complexities and verbiage, OROP means that the same pension would be paid to armed forces personnel in the same rank who have retired at different times, after having put in the same years of service. In other words, a Naik or Subedar Major who has hung up his boots in 1998 (and is drawing a pittance of a pension) will be paid the same pension as their counterpart retiring today. Also, future increases in pensions will also be extended automatically to past pensioners. Naturally, this policy would also be equally applicable to officers of all ranks in the three services.

To explain this a bit further, so that the enormity of the crime being committed by the babus and the netas in Delhi becomes more apparent, it should be emphasised that an Indian soldier, airman or navy person retires at around the age of 37 approximately, while a civilian factotum (irrespective of his / her position in the pecking order) retires at 60. Officers, too, below the rank of Lt. General (and equivalent) retire much earlier than their babu peers. Therefore, the jawan and the middle-aged officer who left the forces 15 years ago, had to contend with enormous pressures to sustain their families and rear their children. And they still continue with the pittance of the pension they received. OROP merely makes up for the deficit of all these years, a deficit that was not merely financial but was equally a moral failure.

OROP has been exhaustively studied and researched for more than a decade. Around 12 years ago, in 2003, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence recommended it, and said most categorically that it was “a debt” the Indian Republic had to discharge, a debt that the Union Government must honour and pay. Eight years later, the Koshyari Committee was set up in March 2011 to study OROP in depth and make its recommendations. This Committee submitted its detailed report to Parliament in Dec 2011, unequivocally and robustly supporting the grant of OROP. It was hardly surprising that the UPA bunch of Manmohan Singh, Anthony, Chidambaran and the rest of the cabal sat on the matter and basically told the armed forces to take a running jump.

Therefore, Modi’s promises and assurances came as a breath of fresh air, even to cynical analysts like me and others in my group. However, the huge hopes built up during the election campaign and the change of guard in Raisina Hill a year ago, started withering and evaporating pretty quickly. Paraphrasing the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, we started wondering whether “there is always a degree of ridicule that attends a disappointment, though often very unjustly, if the expectation was reasonably grounded.” Even worse was the nagging doubt whether the new government was following Francis Bacon’s dictum that a government can “hold men’s hearts by hopes when it cannot by satisfaction”.

The first blow was struck by the new regime’s part-time Defence Minister Arun Jaitley a few months after the change of guard. A delegation of senior retired warriors who met the Raksha Mantri (RM), as the position is referred to in the terminology of Delhi’s babus, was stunned by the encounter. From all available accounts, Jaitley breezed into the scheduled meeting more than an hour late, made no effort to have eye contact with the visiting group and then moralised and hectored to them that they should reduce their expectations of what OROP entails, or words to that effect. The man’s stint as RM lasted a few months more and there is almost unanimous consent not just in the armed forces but in the country as a whole that the five odd months that Jaitley spent as RM were completely wasted.

Manohar Parrikar’s appointment as a full-time RM on the 9th November 2014 was widely welcomed. He came to the capital after building up an impeccable reputation as Goa’s Chief Minister. He had other things going for him as well – his simple, non-VIP style of functioning and his credentials as an IIT-trained engineer. The country’s fauji’s were cautiously optimistic, but after Jaitley, anybody else was an improvement. Even I was rooting for him, until Parrikar was struck by the deadly Delhi virus, a.k.a. the Raisina Hill syndrome. At a media interaction, Parrikar made a bizarre statement that only “80 per cent of OROP will be paid… because there is never 100 per cent in everything”.

Since then, the Modi government has been behaving as if it is participating in one of the tamasha performances in the Maharashtra of yore or the Bengali jatra shows that were once so popular in rural Bengal. Everything is a caricature, including the periodic homilies by the sutradhar, the off-stage commentator who explains the nuances of the play’s plot to the less-than clued-up audience. Periodic deadlines are announced or subtly hinted to the waiting media. The poor soldiers and warriors are treated like the proverbial serfs waiting to be fed crumbs from the tables of the masters. The piece-de resistance, sadly, has been two recent pronouncements by the PM and the RM after the 26th May (the first anniversary of the change of guard in the country) came and went.

Basically, the two worthies have now stated that the entire issue has still not been settled and there is no clear time-table for the implementation of OROP. The PM’s homily was the more disturbing of the two – he said that the definition of OROP was not clear. No, Mr. PM, this just won’t pass, simply because your stand is completely incorrect and factually wrong. OROP has been defined so clearly and categorically that any ordinary mortal, let alone someone of your abilities and stature, will never take this stand. I am afraid you are being disingenuous or the babus have taken you for a gigantic ride. I will be the happiest person on earth if my assessments spelt out here are proved wrong,

The Indian veteran is not somebody you treat as a doorman, Mr. Prime Minister. To say (quite correctly, I may add) that the Congress cabal did nothing for our veterans for many decades does not absolve you and your cabinet. Your babus are trying their best to sell you the lemon that OROP is vague, unworkable etc. but do please rise above their level and call their bluff. Remember the words of Harry Truman, who after being one of the world’s most powerful figures, left for home in his own car when he retired as America’s President, refused all benefits from his country’s exchequer and used his own funds to post his letters : “A president either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him.”

The Indian jawan, who has done his best for our country, expects, nay demands, that you do your best for him now. You and your government should stop treating the veterans as if they are asking for hand-outs, when all they are doing is demanding their dues that they were promised. Indeed, you and your administration should realise that there would be nothing for you to hand out if these intrepid warriors had not sacrificed their lives and limbs. Let me end by reminding you, Prime Minister, of Chanakya’s adage on the Emperor’s duties towards his soldiers. For a man of your erudition and knowledge of Indian history, I surely do not have to provide you the exact words.

But for your babus educated in various institutions that set great store by Western thought, let me remind them of the English saying about adoring God and the soldier in times of war and danger. The good poet goes on to add that “when the danger is passed and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted”.

Surely, the BJP-NDA government would not like to be remembered in the annals of history for having committed this cardinal sin.

Jay Bhattacharjee is a policy and corporate affairs analyst based in Delhi.
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