One Rank One Pension

A different battle

Print edition : September 18, 2015

Ex-servicemen staging at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on August 25. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

A section of the protesters. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Veterans of the 1965 war with Pakistan being felicitated at the protest on August 28. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The One Rank One Pension demand of ex-servicemen is causing the Narendra Modi government embarrassment as the veterans are planning to intensify their agitation by taking it to election-bound States.

EVEN as the Narendra Modi government kicked off a month-long celebration on August 28 to commemorate India’s “victory” over Pakistan in the 1965 war, the ex-servicemen’s relay hunger strike demanding speedy implementation of One Rank One Pension (OROP), which began on June 14 at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, entered its 75th day. At the time of going to press, various rounds of talks between government representatives and leaders of the ex-servicemen’s movement to resolve the OROP imbroglio remained inconclusive, making the veterans reinforce their demand. The government tried to persuade the veterans to dilute their demands and be more flexible as the talks reached stalemate.

Major General (retired) Satbir Singh, chairman of Indian ex-servicemen’s movement, said categorically: “No more bargaining. We are not shopkeepers, hence we want no bargaining.” The veterans have decided to “intensify” their agitation, which would include holding rallies in election-bound Bihar against the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and boycotting award functions, causing a political embarrassment to the NDA and taking the sheen away from its electoral promise of acchhe din.

Meanwhile, three of the eight veterans who began a fast-unto-death on August 16 have been hospitalised following deteriorating health conditions.

The ex-servicemen were hopeful that the Prime Minister would make some announcement on August 15 on the implementation of OROP, which has long been accepted “in principle”, but were dismayed when he asked for more time to tackle the complications. This dilly-dallying on the part of the Prime Minister and the unceremonious handling of the protesters by the Delhi Police, who tried to evict them on August 14 citing security reasons before Independence day, have brought matters to a boil. In an unprecedented move, 10 former services chiefs—Generals V.N. Sharma, Shankar Roy Choudhary, S. Padmanabhan, N.C. Vij, J.J. Singh, Deepak Kapoor and Bikram Singh; Air Chief Marshals N.C. Suri and S.P. Tyagi; and Admiral Madhvendra Singh—have written an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to resolve the issue.

The former service chiefs have warned the government of the implicit dangers of ignoring the demand of the ex-servicemen. “We have full faith in our political leadership but their inability to clinch the issue leaves us dismayed. We stand steadfastly by the side of our colleagues and fully support their just cause. Our silence so far was due to the need to observe propriety. As much as the OROP, the respect and dignity of the soldier is at stake here and let it be known that we have extreme concern for the veterans’ long-pending demands. We would strongly urge the government to settle this issue expeditiously and in an urgent time frame. Any further delays, in our considered view, will be at the cost of damaging the pride of the veterans and lowering the morale of the armed forces. The nation can ill-afford such an imbroglio,” the letter signed by them stated.

But the government has not responded to the letter. It is a moving sight that one witnesses at Jantar Mantar every day as the elderly and disabled veterans make their way to the site of the agitation, assisted by their kin. Some come in wheel chairs, some hobble around on crutches and walkers. Widows of war veterans sit uneasily hoping that their measly monthly pension of Rs.3,500 would be enhanced to a respectable amount. There are entire families, too, waiting in the crowd.

The OROP demand is an emotive one. The agitation is going on at 60 places across the country, impacting more than 400 districts. By ignoring the issue, the Modi government might pay a heavy price both politically and in terms of defence as the agitation is affecting the morale of those in service, too.

Modi, in his capacity as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, made a categorical promise when he addressed a meeting of ex-servicemen at Rewari in September 2013 that OROP would be implemented “within a month” of the BJP coming to power. But even after a year in power, the government headed by him has not made any headway in fulfilling the promise.

When the BJP did not show any inclination to act on its promise, the veterans organised a rally on February 1 at Jantar Mantar. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar invited a delegation of veterans and assured them that OROP would be implemented by March 31. Satisfied with this assurance, the ex-servicemen withdrew the agitation only to resume it on June 14.

Maj.Gen. Satbir Singh said: “This time we will not withdraw our agitation until the government announces the implementation of OROP. We will gradually intensify our agitation across the country. We will hold rallies in election-bound States like Bihar to expose the government. Basically, it will be about increasing our visibility across the country and this will be the biggest movement against the government.”

He said retired service personnel were “not against the government per se, but against the injustice meted out to soldiers in pay and perks and the persistent degradation of their services by the executive”.

Divided rank

With no let-up in the agitation, what may come as a respite to the government is the fact that soldiers other than officers within the ex-servicemen’s group have become restive and started raising their voice separately, demanding equitable distribution of funds meant for OROP. Non-commissioned officer (NCO), junior commissioned officer (JCO) and other rank (OR) pensioners have formed a group called Voice of Ex-Servicemen Society and presented a separate memorandum to the government alleging that the officers had usurped their rights. They pointed out that if OROP was implemented, the officers would stand to gain.

Bir Bahadur Singh, national coordinator of the society, said, “They are firing their guns from our shoulders. The British left India long ago, but the officers of the Indian Army continue to treat us like their slaves. They have always pocketed the major chunk of all benefits, leaving only a pittance for us, be it gallantry awards, medals, monetary benefits or perks.” According to him, JCOs, NCOs and ORs are a much-discriminated lot in the military and it was high time the government took note of their exploitation. As an example of the high-handedness of officers, he lined up the family members of jawans who are facing court-martial proceedings in the infamous Nyoma case of scuffle between officers and jawans of 226 FD REGT on May 10, 2012. The family members submitted an appeal to the government on August 2, alleging that their kin were sentenced to 10-12 years of imprisonment by the officers conducting the court-martial on the basis of trumped-up charges without any evidence, while the officers involved had been acquitted of all charges and sent to postings outside the State.

Deshraj Singh, father of Havaldar Lokendra Singh who has been awarded 10 years in prison in the Nyoma episode, came all the way from Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, to submit a memorandum to the government demanding justice for his son. Deshraj, a daily wager, broke down, saying his son was not involved in the fight and was not even present when the fighting took place. “He has three daughters, all of marriageable age, and a young son. He was the only earning member. How are we going to survive now?” he asked. Sangita Singh, wife of Havaldar Amit Kumar Singh who is facing court-martial, said her husband was not involved in the incident. Akhtar Hussain, brother of gunner M.D. Hussain, said his brother was falsely named in the scuffle and faced court- martial. He has petitioned the Supreme Court demanding justice. Similarly, Rajni, wife of Lance Naik Jai Prakash Sharma, said her husband was not involved but was being tried at the behest of officers who were trying to “save their own skin”. Frontline has a list of 164 JCOs/NCOs/ORs who are being or have been tried while 11 have already been sentenced to 10-15 years in prison.

“Only four or five jawans at the most were directly or indirectly involved, yet at the behest of the officers, the entire unit is being punished,” Bir Bahadur Singh said. The other office-bearers of the society, Purushottam Kumar Vaishnav and S. Varadarajan, wondered how the officers who sacrificed the jawans in a crucial matter could be trusted on the OROP issue. “We want the government to consider our share in OROP separately. We don’t trust the officers,” an office-bearer said. The Army spokesman, however, denied the jawans’ charges on the Nyoma episode and said that “due process of law is being followed and all factors will be taken into account”.

According to people familiar with the state of affairs, the government could make the jawans’ representation an excuse to further delay the OROP announcement, although the Defence Ministry spokesman maintained that the matter was under consideration at the highest level. The agitating veterans, however, dubbed the jawans’ representatives as “Jaichands” (Jaichand betrayed the Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan) among the ranks and said if the government made this an excuse to delay OROP, it would have to face the consequences.

“It will be unfortunate and will cost the government dearly. We plan to intensify our agitation,” Maj.Gen. Satbir Singh said. He also rubbished the charges that jawans were discriminated against.

That the agitation is causing embarrassment to the Modi government became clear when Mrinalini Singh, daughter of General V.K. Singh, a retired Army chief and a Minister in the Modi government, joined the protesters at Jantar Mantar on August 23.

Describing the OROP demand as “just”, Mrinalini Singh, who is the wife of a serving Army officer, told the media that she fully supported it and promised to persuade her father to extend his support to the agitators.

Gen. Singh, it may be mentioned, has already spoken out in favour of the OROP demand, saying he was hopeful the government would implement it soon after resolving the technical and legal difficulties. He expressed his anguish to the Prime Minister over the forcible eviction of veterans by the Delhi Police from the protest site on August 14 in the name of security.

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