There has been rising discontent within the armed forces on reports of likely degradation in their status as against other central services. There are fears of it being downgraded to Group B, rather than remaining the Group A service it presently is.
Over decades, governments under the influence of a powerful bureaucracy, have been lowering the status of the armed forces who have silently endured it. Now they have decided that enough is enough and began raising their voice. The ‘Equivalence Committee’ created by erstwhile defence minister Manohar Parrikar is to give its verdict on parity in ranks between the armed forces and civilian employees of the central government.
The committee was set up after the military objected to issue of a letter on 18 October 2016 by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), wherein it brought military officers serving in service HQs down by a notch. The threemember committee is headed by Additional Secretary (Defence production) and includes the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) as a member.
The issue of the letter was an internal unilateral action without even seeking concurrence of the MHA, which maintains the warrant of precedence. The service HQs protested, compelling the MoD to act. In addition, the Cabinet recently created additional vacancies for the Armed Forces HQs (AFHQ) civil service by allocating seven posts of Principal Director and thirty-six posts of Director. Hence, they would need to create additional slots or grab some in service HQs, causing further imbalance. This increase could possibly be one of the reasons behind the proposed downgrading.
There are also reports that attempts are being made to ensure the armed forces are not granted Non-Functional Upgradation (NFU), allocated to other central services. NFU was being scuttled by the bureaucracy despite service HQs regularly raising it through official channels, compelling a few to approach the Supreme Court for justice.
The court saw merit and the battle is presently in its final stage with the government likely to be forced to comply. The only way the bureaucracy can scuttle the case is by downgrading the military from Grade A to a Grade B service. Such an action, if taken, would impact civil-military relations adversely, which the government must step in to prevent. Hence the importance of the ‘Equivalence Committee’ report.
Every day there are reports of aged war widows and war- wounded veterans being compelled to approach the apex court for justice, after the MoD refuses to accept the verdict of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) in their favour.
The army has been repeatedly approaching the MoD saying that soldiers martyred while handling operational issues on any front, eastern or western, deserve the same terminal benefits but to no avail, forcing many to approach courts. The MoD, supposedly the guardian of the armed forces, is battling its own widows and wounded veterans in court for their legitimate dues, solely because it is in competition with its own subordinate HQs. There are also rumours that the AFHQ cadre is seeking a share of administrative member vacancies in the AFT.
The administrative member is tasked to advice the judicial member on military rules, ethos, service constraints and regulations. An AFHQ cadre with zero experience of matters military would only make the provision of justice from the AFT a mockery. The rising discontent within the military is away from public glare as the servings are compelled to maintain silence knowing that veterans would raise their voices on their behalf. The battle for who controls whom stems from misunderstanding the political versus bureaucratic control over the military. Logically it should be the political class alone but in India, inexperienced politicians, holding multiple responsibilities leave it to the MoD (civilian staffed) to manage daily functioning.
Further, most politicians are exposed to defence for the first time and avoid dealing with beribboned generals. They are more at ease with civilian MoD personnel. MoD staffers only seek to enjoy military perks including canteen and transportation, while aiming to control it without responsibility and accountability. Civilian bureaucrats, who have possibly never visited a military establishment other than on a holiday, and have no understanding of tactics, strategy, equipment profile, capacity and capability development sit on judgement on military matters.
They are always at the receiving end of CAG and parliamentary committee of defence reports, yet refuse to act or respond.
By downgrading, they hope to gain more privileges and add insult to serving military officers, senior in age and service with much more experience. Governments have historically been degrading the military, solely because it lacked a voice, was bound by rules and could never agitate. The OROP agitation shook the government and it conceded this demand in part. Another veterans’ agitation if the military is downgraded would hit the government hard, especially with elections around the corner.
Governments are aware that the military would stand tall in its responsibility and never let its guard down. It has been at the forefront in all crises and would continue to remain dependable. Hence it ignores military requests and acts on the seemingly illogical advice of the bureaucracy. The armed forces have never demanded to be senior to other services. They have never demanded higher perks and privileges, despite placing life and limb in danger, while those seeking to control it never leave the safety of their plush offices. They have only requested for equivalence with other central services considering their experience and seniority. If equality in status in the Indian system flows through pay, then so be it.
As Chanakya had advised his king, “To the soldier, O Rajadhiraja you owe a debt: please therefore, see to it on your own, that he continuously gets his dues in every form and respect, be they his needs or his wants, for he is not likely to ask for them himself”. He also warned the king, “the day the soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha.”
Will the defence minister fight for the common solider and take a stand against her ministry? Will the government ensure the military gets its due or support the bureaucracy and let it down once again or will the veterans agitate and shake the government?
The nation is watching.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)