Under the banner of IESM (Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement), India’s armed forces veterans propose a nation-wide movement, starting with a rally on December 1, 2012, at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. This article examines whether, in addition to pressing for their rightful demands, veterans have a national role that will simultaneously help their cause and achieve better governance.
Veterans are physically fit (barring those disabled during military service), disciplined men, experienced in work in difficult, risky and dangerous conditions. The bulk of them have special economic problems because of their young age (32-40 years) at retirement with less than adequate pensionary benefits. The things that occupy the minds of veterans depend upon their experience during military service and the conditions to which they are exposed when pitch-forked into civilian life on retirement.
These past decades, the Indian soldier has carried his vaunted service discipline into retired life, raising individual issues and problems through normal official channels. But recently, the anomalies in the recommendations of the Sixth Central Pay Commission (6CPC) have caused acute discontentment among serving military personnel (all ranks of the armed forces, referred to as “soldiers”) and among veterans, whose decades-long demand for One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) has been neglected. There was no member in 6CPC to represent soldiers, who form not merely the single largest segment affected by the decisions of 6CPC, but also form the only segment that is denied fundamental freedoms under Articles 19(a) and 19(c), and have conditions of service, promotion and retirement that are adverse when compared with other categories under consideration of the 6CPC.
6CPC’s skewed award caused veterans to consolidate and form IESM, a movement to oppose continued neglect and stone-walling by successive governments influenced by bureaucratic machinations. That the bureaucracy is implacably hostile to veterans is evidenced by several factors, perhaps the most galling of which is that every judicial ruling favouring veterans is contested by government in higher courts. The Department of Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare within MoD, headed by a bureaucrat, has no representation of veterans. Such active discrimination against veterans, or at best apathy, does no good to the morale of serving soldiers, who are tomorrow’s veterans.
After months of respectfully but unsuccessfully petitioning government for OROP, as a mark of protest at not being given a hearing even after eight visits, thousands of IESM veterans handed their precious gallantry, war and service medals to the President of India (then Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil) who is the Supreme Commander of India’s military, along with a petition signed with their own blood. Yet the President did not see fit to grant the veterans a hearing, and the petition was not even accepted by her staff. Government, influenced by senior bureaucrats, remains unmoved by veterans’ agitations. It is not clear how long the veterans’ patience and forbearance will hold out, and what may be the effects on serving personnel when it gets exhausted.
What is certain is that government neglect of veterans’ problems can have an irreversible negative effect on serving soldiers and thereby on the security of the nation.
Government’s continued neglect of veterans is actually costing the country doubly, because on the one hand valuable trained manpower is being lost, and on the other hand impecunious soldiers are joining the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed and exacerbating the current high levels of country-wide discontent. One of the ways to minimize waste of veteran manpower is to institutionalize lateral entry of retiring soldiers into government organizations, the present opportunities for which are very limited.
Recently the union government has issued a notification to rename retired personnel of the CPOs (Central Police Organizations) as “Ex-Servicemen”.
Admitting ex-police personnel into this category is objected to by armed forces veterans as removing the distinction between military and police pensioners, when the terms and conditions of service are entirely different.
Public view of veterans’ concerns
A large section of the literate public, especially legislators, are ignorant of soldiers’ working conditions – early retirement, non-family stations and long separations, life-threatening stressful situations, risks on-the-ground and in-the-field, high casualty rate, strict disciplinary regime under military law, etc. When veterans demand OROP and post-retirement employment opportunities, and request for more effective and efficient health care, they are demanding only what is their rightful due.
But the public observes the ostentatious life-style of some officers, and reads about senior ranking officers involved in shameful scams. Aware of canteen grocery and liquor facilities that are available to soldiers and veterans, they get the impression that the military has a “good time” and veterans have really no reason to complain. This writer has been told by persons who should know better, that soldiers are a pampered lot, and veterans’ demands show them up as self-centred and demanding. Veteran senior officers have a large responsibility in correcting this unfortunate opinion, but unless veterans as a group begin to participate in public life beyond pressing their own demands, the public is unlikely to view them differently.
Veterans’ involvement in aid of civil power
Under Article 246 of the constitution, Parliament makes laws concerning the deployment of the Armed Forces “in aid of the civil power”, defining the powers, jurisdiction, privileges and liabilities of soldiers during such deployment. The AFSP Act (AFSPA) is one such law. Governments invoke this law to deploy the military in its secondary role for IS duties including CI operations. The military is also frequently deployed for accident relief and natural disaster management, and even civic problems to rescue children from borewells. Soldiers and veterans recognize that these deployments are because of the inability of central and/or state governments to handle situations created by their own political chicanery or administrative incompetence. This comment is not targetted at any particular political party, but at the politician-bureaucrat-police nexus in general.
Army deployment on IS duties follows government declaring an area as “disturbed” and invoking the AFSPA, without which the soldier cannot use weapons against civilians. The AFSPA has been in force for years at a stretch in some states, and people are demanding its repeal since it restricts their freedoms, besides causing them immense suffering due to its misuse. This is a politically degraded scenario, where people’s problems and basic needs remain secondary in the vicious power game between armed militants and government that uses the army against its own citizens, instead of the political tools of civilized dialogue, debate and consensus [Ref.2]. Irom Sharmila’s historic 12-years-long protest fast for repeal of the AFSPA, is in reality a call for the army to withdraw from its CI role, and return to its primary role of defending the borders, making the hated AFSPA irrelevant.
It would be an act in favour of their in-service brethren if veterans peacefully agitate for governments to withdraw the army from CI operations, and engage in legitimate political processes to address the long-standing social unrest. This will support people’s freedoms and constitute a demand for better governance by governments, for larger public benefit.
Such veterans’ agitations even without neglecting their legitimate on-going demands will bring four issues to the attention of the general public, the media and governments, and earn them a positive public image, creating empathy for their causes.
One, social unrest due to decades-long neglect of people’s genuine concerns and needs cannot be solved by the use of military force;
Two, the use of state force as a substitute for honest political efforts only raises levels of violence, making situations more complex and solutions more difficult;
Three, veterans have faith in genuine democratic processes;
Four, the army has no institutional stake in its deployment for CI operations.
It is nobody’s case that it is easy to improve governance to solve social problems. But such participation by veterans can achieve the following things:
Note 1. Communication – December 16, 2010. “The IESM is trying its best to ensure that all rallies organized by it remain peaceful, but the opposition to its peaceful ways is gradually rising among the veterans. IESM Governing Body and its conveners at state, district and lower levels are hopeful that at least the IESM rallies will continue to follow the ethos of Indian Military – but for how long?”
** Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service over 5 years in Ladakh. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. He coordinates and lectures a Course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students of University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their Studies Abroad in South India. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.