A few conflicting reports over the last week have widened the distance between the government and veterans. The recent announcement of the defence minister to not withdraw the cases presently in courts against pensions and disability claims by veterans and war widows has angered the armed forces community, both serving and veterans. Similar has been the case with no forward movement on the OROP issue.
The sloganeering and heckling of the Minister of State for Defence, Dr SR Bhamre, by some veterans at the veterans’ rally in Delhi on 14 January, on delay in implementing OROP, has been criticised by most. It turned a respectable event, aimed at honouring veterans for their service, into a circus, which angered most present. The OROP agitation, which was once supported widely, will never be the same again. A few may continue to spearhead it but the majority would think twice about supporting it, because of the incidents at the veterans’ meet.
The non-attendance of the Prime Minister and the Defence minister at the Army Day tea, hosted by the Army chief, was baffling. Some reports have attempted to link this to the incident at the veteran’s day, which is baseless. The two events are unrelated. Similarly claiming that both were busy with prior engagements, including the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister or planned events is equally unbelievable. Both chose to avoid attendance, possibly considering the event to be a run of the mill one.
Ignoring such events conveys a wrong message, especially as the army is presently the force effectively countering Pakistan along the LoC and battling its militants in the valley. Presence of the Prime Minister and Defence Minister would have conveyed solidarity with the service and done a lot for morale. The Defence Minister is also, as per protocol, meant to receive the President when he arrives. Their non-attendance raises more questions than answers.
The decision of the defence minister that the government would contest pensionary and disability cases of veterans in court, raises questions about the sincerity of her assertion on assuming the appointment of caring for veterans. Certainly, some cases of disability pensions may be fake, however these can easily be segregated. In a reply to an RTI enquiry, it was revealed that out of the 749 cases fought by the MoD since 2014, only one has gone in favour of the government. Deciding to challenge all pending cases in courts conveys a wrong message.
Firstly, by challenging cases of pensions involving war widows or aged veterans, the message being conveyed is that the MoD remains heartless and unrelenting, ruled by inhuman bureaucrats. It is willing to force those seeking a meagre justifiable increase to expend money and time only to obtain what is their legal right. Refund of costs may be granted, but many do not possess initial investment essential for such cases.
Secondly, if it challenges decisions of the Armed Forces Tribunals in the Supreme Court, then it has no faith in the tribunals, entities created and staffed by the government. Thirdly, based on the number of appeals and zero positive decisions, it is likely to be a means of providing income to lawyers who represent both sides. Finally, it is adopting an easier approach of delaying implementation by pushing it into the hands of an overburdened judiciary.
No inputs being released on the Reddy committee report which has been with the MoD for over a year angered the veteran community, which led to the heckling of the Minister of State. While it was a sign of frustration on the part of the veterans’ community, which has spearheaded the agitation for the last few years, it was unforgiveable. Silence on the part of the MoD on the report is equally confusing.
The heckling was against military ethos and customs. It also embarrassed those present who had come for the event expecting it to be a dignified show of military custom and courtesy. The serving who graced the occasion would have been equally embarrassed; however out of respect for veterans they have made no comment on the issue. The first phase of the agitation at Jantar Mantar, which had mass attendance, was because it was a dignified one in keeping with military discipline and ethos.
Since the announcement from the Congress platform during the Gujarat elections on voting against the BJP by General Satbir Singh, there have been increasing doubts on the apolitical stance of the agitators. With the government unrelenting on demands, there appears to be an increasing desperation creeping into those still agitating. The incident at the veterans’ rally increased the distance within the veteran community, amongst those spearheading the agitation and the rest.
Resorting to twitter to convey their greetings and appreciation and ignoring attendance at Army Day, where it truly mattered, would impact military sentiment for a long time. The veterans’ community is being told in a sense that it is dispensable, its demands – whether it be OROP, pensions or disability – mean nothing. The government is willing to battle them in court and will not bend or relent, despite any action taken by veterans.
The message conveyed to the army is that the government considers the forces with disdain. Its successes will continue to be exploited for political gain, but its dues and status will not be considered. It can be tasked with everything, ranging from clearing garbage to constructing foot bridges and show platforms for mega events to battling terrorists, but it will be denied rights. Likewise, by acting in an un-military manner the OROP agitators have lost the right to remain spokespersons for the cause.
The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army.