Politicisation of Military
Lt Gen Balbir Singh had steadfastly resisted attempts to politicise the OROP Movement. Soon after his disassociation from the agitators, the tone and tenor of discourse at Jantar Mantar changed and overtures commenced to woo the serving military personnel even as diktats were issued to boycott military functions. Organisers of the “OROP dharna” at Jantar Manter have been frequently seen hobnobbing with politicians of different hues
Disappointment within the Armed Forces has been simmering for quite some time. The state of affairs went from bad to worse during the UPA regime with fighting formations and units of the three Services crying for armament, equipment, munitions and spares. As if that was not enough, pay, pension and privileges of military personnel were further curtailed vis-à-vis other services. Falling morale in the Army, Navy and Air Force manifested itself in the increasing incidents of suicides, insubordination and other cases of indiscipline. Disgusted at the callous attitude of the government, Navy Chief, Admiral Joshi resigned after successive mishaps at sea for want of equipment. Gen VK Singh, then Army Chief wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bringing to his notice many critical deficiencies of the Army but to no avail. Instead,daunted by a flood of scams at that time, Defence Minister AK Antony black listed nearly all the suppliers of military hardware leaving the military gasping for replacement and replenishment of most essential requirements.
Popularity of military as a career option dipped. The perception of being persistently short-changed at the behest of an unfriendly bureaucracy grew more intensely after the 6th Pay Commission became effective in 2006. Representations to the Government went unheard. Court verdicts in favour of veterans or military personnel were either ignored or opposed through appeals to higher judiciary which also decided most cases in favour of the veterans passing strictures against the Government. And yet, the expediency to implement even the Supreme Court verdicts has been lacking.
Thus driven to the corner by the callous bureaucracy at the Ministry of Defence, veterans came out slogan shouting and rallied at Jantar Mantar for the first time in March 2008 and the option of agitation appeared their only option. Frustration progressively started manifesting itself in many ways—relay hunger strike, fast unto death, boycott calls, angry speeches, abusive messaging against Service Chiefs, ministers, bureaucrats, media and be whoever you are! It’s been a curious upscaling: Disappoint to resentment to anger to madness! Now, in spite of there being a responsive Government at the Centre, the agitating veterans are reacting in a ‘once bitten twice shy’ manner.
The issue of ‘one rank one pension’ (OROP) is no longer a contentious one—at least after the Koshiyari Committee defined it in simple and unambiguous terms in 2011. Since then it has been upheld as every military pensioner’s genuine entitlement by the judiciary, all political parties, two successive parliaments and governments. No one has questioned its justification. Giving effect to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance to deliver it to the veterans, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced the government decision on September 05, 2015 after numerous rounds of talks with the representatives of the agitating ex-servicemen (ESM). Now, with the official notification of the plan on November 7th, it is understood that , nearly 85 per cent of the expectations of the 2.6 million ESM of India would be fulfilled. For the remaining issues, the Government has proposed a one-man commission headed by a Supreme Court judge to deliberate and report within a given time schedule. It shows that the Government is still receptive and amenable to more ideas, talks and solutions in favour of the military pensioners. Whereas most of the constituent organisations of the United Front of ESM (UFESM) led by Lt Gen Balbir Singh (retd), President, Indian Ex-Services League (IESL) expressed their satisfaction at the Government plan, the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM) has continued ‘dharna’ at in New Delhi. Maj Gen Satbir Singh (retd), Chairman, IESM says, “Until September 5, there was no ambiguity. But the Defence Minister’s announcement on that day has introduced unnecessary complexities. What the Government has announced is not OROP.”
There are three main issues that have irked the ESM most: denying OROP to the VRS category; fixing OROP at ‘average’ rather than ‘top of the scale’ of calendar year 2013; and 5-yearly equalisation instead of annual equalisation plan. Even though the IESL and associate organisations led by Gen Balbir Singh have withdrawn from the active agitation, they have also expressed their disapproval of the Government stand on these three issues.
With the Government coming forth with its first step closest ever to implementing OROP, it was largely expected that the ESM would appreciate the government gesture and call off their agitation heralding a phase of conciliatory inter-action between the Government, Service Headquarters and the veterans for resolving the remaining issues. However, the Satbir led segment of the ESM has not only continued their dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi but also turned hostile to the BJP and the Government. Whereas there was a certain restraint and civility in their pre-September 5 utterances at Jantar Mantar and social media posts, their aggressiveness is now turning somewhat inappropriate. Statements like, “It was the previous Government that gave us OROP in February 2014…” “Defence Minister is misleading the country…”and ascribing quotes like “poll promises are not meant to be fulfilled” clearly indicate a confrontational posturing against the BJP and Modi Sarkar. Going a step further, the agitators have also issued tough diktats for the ESM to boycott all Government and even Military functions.Whereas their angst against the Government might be understandable, their arrogance against their brethren on the active list in the military is perplexing. Their common refrain in the social media posts and also frequently heard at Jantar Mantar is “our Chiefs are not exerting enough pressure on the Government to yield. If they can’t they must resign…” There are rumours that some military units and establishments have raised funds and sent cheques and cash to the IESM. Such developments have never taken place earlier in the history of independent India and, if true, it would be the most unfortunate development that could seriously damage the intra military command cohesion besides jeopardising national security.
Lt Gen Balbir Singh had steadfastly resisted attempts to politicise the OROP Movement. Soon after his disassociation from the agitators, the tone and tenor of discourse at Jantar Mantar changed and overtures commenced to woo the serving military personnel even as diktats were issued to boycott military functions. Organisers of the “OROP dharna” at Jantar Manter have been frequently seen hobnobbing with politicians of different hues, like Derek O’Brian, Rahul Gandhi, Capt Amarinder Singh, Brinda Karat, Ram Jethmalani and activists from AAP. Nearly all the wrongs that the military personnel—serving and retired—have ever complained of are rooted in the Congress and UPA regime. Nehru’s snub to military generals led to the 1962 disaster. Indira Gandhi enjoyed the fruits of historic victory of 1971 war but extinguished the pride of military by cutting their pensions from 70 per cent to 50 per cent of basic pay and enhancing the civil service pensions by the same amount in 1973. More recently, the UPA II gave the military pensioners ‘modified parity’ instead of OROP—sweet coating ‘disparity’ by another name! And yet, except for occasional symbolic rallies, the ESM never gave vent to their anger against Congress in the manner they have done in the past few months.
Thankfully, the boycott calls have been hugely spurned by the overwhelming majority of the ESM. In a feedback collected by Utkarsh—The Turning Point, a Noida based NGO, from 1050 military pensioners across the country, only 11 favoured boycotting Military functions, 113 favoured boycotting only Government functions and the rest vehemently opposed the boycott call. Fortunately, this response which is also endorsed by the overwhelming presence of veterans at the Infantry Golf and Lunch held in Delhi Cantt and all military stations throughout the country, is an expression of faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government. Nevertheless, there enough for the Government and the Military authorities to worry and engage themselves seriously to resolve the outstanding issues some of which are briefly discussed here:
(a) The unsettled vexing OROP issues must be settled without delay in the spirit of the definition of the Koshiyari Committee.
(b) There is enough hard evidence of the anti-military mind-set of our bureaucracy. The paramount need is to overhaul and streamline civil-military relationship at all levels by integrating the Ministry of Defence and the Service Headquarters falsely called “Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence” (Army/Navy/Air Force).
(c) Military service has unique features which cannot be adequately comprehensible to outsiders. Therefore, representation of military at all panels including Pay Commissions and government departments dealing with military issues must be ensured and due weightage given to the military opinion in such matters.
(d) Stagnation in career was advanced as justification for granting ‘Non-functional Upgrade’ (NFU) to 58 Group ‘A’ Services. If stagnation were indeed the criterion, no other government service would deserve it more than the military officers. It must therefore be promptly extended to all military officers.
(e) The status and privileges of military which have been unfairly reduced in the past few decades should be restored to reverse and boost up the sinking morale.
Traditionally, the military ethos has shaped the behaviour of not only the serving soldiers but also that of the veterans who like to stick to a value system that so distinct from many spheres of civil life. The apolitical character of the Indian soldiery has been a hallmark of our national pride particularly when democracies have frequently fallen victims of military coups in our neighbourhood. Only now, handful overzealous elements within the ESM community are apparently falling prey to political manipulations of different political parties.It is sad that political parties in India have increasingly become family strongholds relegating national interests to secondary vis-à-vis their own. While there is need to lift and upgrade the political debate to nationalistic plane, the immediate need is that political parties must eschew using military as a political tool. Domains like military, national security, communal harmony and foreign relations must find a common voice and vision cutting across political parties because tinkering with these sensitive issues with a view to make quick party gains could have far reaching ramifications which no nation would afford.
Modern communication technology has enabled information sharing between Jantar Mantar and troops deployed at Siachen glacier or at heights beyond Tawang or on the ships at high seas. While political awareness and exercising one’s political choices is no ‘politicisation’, intrusion of political machinations aimed at shifting loyalty of the serving soldiers against the Government must be ruthlessly nipped in the bud. The fifth columnists responsible for fuelling military resistance to order and tradition must be identified and dealt with sternly in accordance with the law.
The bonding between the serving and the retired military personnel should be further nurtured. Frequent inter-action of the younger military generation with the veterans is the bridge across which military traditions, past experiences and the culture of value-based camaraderie passes from the past to the present.
By Karan Kharb