OROP stalemate

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, flanked by (from left) Navy chief Admiral R.K. Dhowan, Minister of State Rao Inderjit Singh, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, at a press conference to announce implementation of the OROP scheme at South Block in New Delhi on September 5. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh of the IESM addressing OROP protesters at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on November 6, the 145th day of the protest. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Ex-servicemen returning their medals at Jantar Mantar on November 10. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

With ex-servicemen unhappy with the government’s notification on One Rank One Pension, it does not look like the issue is going to get resolved any time soon, which is bad for the country and for the morale of serving military personnel.

THE National Democratic Alliance government, already reeling under the blow of the Bihar election results, can expect more trouble in the days to come as the ex-servicemen who have been protesting for over five months now rejected the November 7 government notification on One Rank One Pension (OROP) and vowed to intensify their agitation. The veterans described the notification as a betrayal and demanded that the government withdraw it and reissue a fresh notification in tune with their demands. To press for their demands, they have once again resorted to returning their gallantry medals. Over 2,000 medals have been returned so far, according to Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM), who is spearheading the agitation. “The government has not given us the OROP which was assured, and the notification issued has seven shortcomings. We are angry and are going to express our fury by returning our medals from every district. Medals have been pouring in in large numbers from across the nation. There are 16 centres across the nation where medals are being returned,” he told Frontline.

He said that if the government did not pay heed to their demands, ex-servicemen would resort to other means, too, to force the government but did not specify what these other means would be. But there is a widespread worry that the agitation might become disruptive as is indicated by the shrill tone of the speeches. The following are some examples of statements from speeches by sundry ex-servicemen at the dharna site at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi: “We are soldiers and only know the language of bullets. If they abuse us, we will reply to them in their own language”; “They are insulting us, and our patience is wearing out. They have betrayed us and we know how to teach a lesson to such people”; “It was after such a betrayal only that a Prime Minister was killed by her own security guards” and “Let the government not push us to the wall.” What is worrying is that not only miscellaneous speakers but even the leaders of the agitation are using ominous language. Commenting on the sense of frustration building up after the issue of the notification, Group Captain (retd) V.K. Gandhi, general secretary of the IESM and one of the leaders of the agitation, said: “This is a volcano getting ready and it will erupt sometime, somewhere.”

At the IESM’s Ambala rally on November 15, it was hinted that ex-servicemen could even disrupt rail services all over the country. There was an ugly situation on November 12 when a couple of ex-servicemen tried to burn their medals at the Jantar Mantar and were prevented from doing so by their colleagues and the policemen on duty. Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh, talking to Frontline, admitted that the protesting veterans felt a grave sense of hurt and anger and that things could take a turn for the worse. But he maintained that the veterans were disciplined soldiers and would in all probability not indulge in anything disruptive, but they were also human and could react violently if pushed beyond a point. “The government is aware that they are sitting on top of a volcano. Why are they allowing this to fester? Why are they not giving us our just rights? We are not asking for favours,” he said. What is making matters worse is that the government has paid no heed whatsoever to the grievances the ex-servicemen voiced after the notification.

The protesting veterans have tried at least half a dozen times to meet Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Requests for a meeting with the President or the Prime Minister have similarly gone unheeded. The Defence Minister added insult to injury by remarking that the ex-servicemen were getting “misguided”, were “politically motivated” and their behaviour was “unlike soldiers”.

“They are talking bunkum. The government should remember that OROP is not a charity, it is our right. We will not accept anything less than what has been given to us by Parliament. They had no business to change the definition of OROP that was passed by Parliament. What they have done now is a dilution of that definition,” said an emotional Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh, making it clear that this was a matter of soldiers’ prestige and that there would be no compromise on this “come what may”. He said: “I am not going around shopping for demands that I might agree for this and not for that. Our fight is for the sake of the soldier, and there can be no backing out. The soldier is only asking for his rights. Maintaining law and order is the government’s responsibility. I, as a soldier, and many others like me have maintained our balance and done our responsibility towards the nation without even caring about our life.”

The protesting veterans have pointed out some serious anomalies in the notification, which experts say should be reconsidered, but the government has shown no flexibility on that count.

Salient features

The salient features of the notification are as follows:

  • Pensions of past retirees to be changed on the basis of those of the calendar year 2013 and will be effective from 1.7.2014.
  • Pensions to be fixed on the basis of the average of the minimum and the maximum pension of personnel retiring in 2013 of the same rank and with same length of service.
  • Pensions of those drawing above the average will be protected.
  • Arrears will be paid in four equal half-yearly instalments, but those of widows and gallantry award winners will be paid in one single instalment.
  • Pensions to be reviewed every five years.
  • Those taking early retirement will not get the benefit of OROP.
  • A one-member judicial commission will look into any anomaly arising out of the implementation of OROP and submit a report in six months.

The veterans have taken strong exception to at least seven points but are most bothered by the provisions that call for a five-yearly review and deny OROP benefits to those taking early retirement. According to many veterans, if the government had agreed to look into these two demands alone, the agitation would have been withdrawn, but since it adopted a hard-line approach, the veterans too dug their heels in. According to Lt Gen. (retd) S.K Bahri, who is a prominent face in the agitation, early retirement is not a luxury in the forces; it is required to keep the forces young and fit and to keep working people motivated and fighting fit. “The forces allow and even encourage personnel to take early retirement if they get superseded in promotion. Now imagine if you deny this person the benefit of OROP, he may continue in service but will become demotivated because he will have to serve under his junior and he will not be able to perform his duty properly. The government should understand the psyche of soldiers,” he said.

The Defence Minister has made matters worse by the statements he made in the wake of the notification. On November 15, he told a few journalists that the benefits of the Seventh Pay Commission would not be passed on to ex-servicemen since they had already been granted OROP, which could only be reviewed after five years. This has added fuel to the fire already raging over the issue. The hardening of attitudes on both sides is threatening to derail the agitation as was witnessed during the episode when some veterans tried to burn their medals. Popular support and sympathy too are dwindling as is obvious by the thinning crowds at the dharna site. Neutral observers, including a few veterans, are of the opinion that the protesting veterans should give the government time since a judicial commission has been appointed, and they can take their grievances to it and wait for its recommendations. “I personally feel the movement in its present form is getting nowhere. It should be called off for the time being and maybe resumed in some other form after some time,” said a retired major general who did not wish to be named.

The Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who has supported the cause from the beginning, has urged the ex-servicemen to call off their agitation and engage with the commission for the redress of their grievances. According to him, a small group of veterans was converting OROP into a political movement. “It is a tragic hijack of a nine-year effort by many veterans who were always dignified. Manohar Parrikar has met them many times and I know he fought hard for OROP. It is now for the commission to iron out other issues. One-man commission is a good idea because it cuts out bureaucrats from the process and is transparent. For this, all should unitedly work to submitting petition to judicial commission. I am with veterans and armed forces and always will be. I agree there is mistrust on both sides but we must work with institutions. OROP notification by government provides for judicial commission for all redressals. Let’s engage with it,” he said in a statement.

The veterans, who have heeded his advice in the past, said: “The youngster should be apprised of the realities so that he does not issue such ignorant statements.” With both sides unwilling to back down, it is a classic stalemate, the worrying part of which is that the morale of serving military personnel may be falling, which is not good for the country.

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