A Matter Of Honour

Date: 25 Feb 2009



A Matter Of Honour

Money is not the only thing the military is fighting for

C Uday Bhaskar

Rashtrapati Bhavan, the august premises where the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces awards highly coveted medals to select members of the military, witnessed an unusual, unprecedented and ignominious scene recently. An anguished delegation of military veterans returned over 2,000 gallantry and distinguished service medals to the president to register their protest over the government’s stubborn denial of the long-promised one-rank-one-pension (OROP) dispensation for retired faujis. The civil-military chasm has been increasing in recent years in India — exacerbated by the UPA government — wherein the honour of the Indian military has been steadily denigrated by the civilian leadership. 

   It is an irrefutable tenet of the democratic ethos that the military as an institution will always remain subordinate to the elected representatives, and each country has its own way of arriving at the appropriate civil-military equipoise. This evolution is particularly challenging for the post-colonial state, where the military — the army in particular — may have been part of the colonial experience. The Afro-Asian experience after World War II is deeply blemished and many nations have seen their armies seizing political power through coups, often abetted by external actors. Within South Asia, the historical experience of Pakistan and Myanmar is a case in point. 

   However, the Indian case has been an exception and due credit must be given to the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues, Sardar Patel and C Rajagopalachari, each of whom had an imposing personal stature and unassailable conviction about the idea of a free India. And this was shared by the top leadership of the Indian military. Field Marshal Cariappa, the first Indian Army chief, and his peers, were deeply imbued with the same normative nationalism and accepted civilian supremacy. Despite the humiliation of 1962, engendered by rank political ineptitude, the Indian military grew into a credible and highly professional but totally apolitical institution. Thus the tumultuous trajectory of Indian democracy was served well by the stability that the Indian military steadfastly provided. 

   However, the top Indian political leadership has always had a distant and formal relationship with the military and this was perhaps due to Nehru’s own misplaced perception about the military as an institution. But this changed dramatically after 1962, and the role and relevance of the armed forces for an independent India in an adversarial neighbourhood was acknowledged. In the early decades after 1947, the cream of Indian youth joined the military to serve the nation, and for the honour of our flag. 

   Many died in the wars of 1965, 1971 and, most recently, in Kargil in 1999. They continue to fall in the ongoing war against terrorists and insurgents. On balance, the fauj, with its innate sense of ‘izzat’, was revered by the people but was kept at a distance by the politicobureaucratic elite. Certain protocols and procedures were recognised, and an acceptable civil-military status quo maintained. 

   However, in recent months, more so after the award of the 6th Pay Commission, a series of unfortunate but totally avoidable events have led to the denigration of the armed forces as a collective. Gross disparities in the pay and allowances of the serving military in relation to the other cadres of the government were introduced that were detrimental to the soldier. When this was pointed out, the request for a review was dismissed in a cavalier manner and canards floated in Delhi that the military was resorting to trade union tactics. 

   More than money — which is no doubt an important element — the honour of the military was deliberately trampled upon, and here some degree of bureaucratic perfidy is discernible. Some redress for serving military personnel has been awarded by the government, which appointed a group of ministers headed by the indefatigable Pranab Mukherjee. 

   More than the status of the serving community, it is the plight of the retired military personnel that has triggered the unseemly returning of medals by the veterans. As per current pension norms, all military personnel (barring the chief, C-in-Cs and honorary commissions) receive different pensions for different ranks depending on when they retire. This, incidentally, is true for the civilians also and only those who attain the pay scale of secretaries to the government of India have the benefit of OROP. 

   But given the fact that military personnel retire at a very early age (beginning at 32 for sepoys and going to 54 years for most officers), harmonisation was sought and successive governments since the days of Rajiv Gandhi have promised to do so, but never delivered on the promise. Consequently many pension asymmetries prevail. For instance, a sepoy who retired before 1996 gets a pension that is 82 per cent less than a post-2006 retiree. 

   In yet another incident that reeks of deliberate denigration of the men in uniform, it is reported that at the traditional president’s Republic Day ‘At home’ this year, the three service chiefs were not accorded a place with their supreme commander — for the first time in living memory. In snubbing military personnel who are sworn to lay down their life for the flag, it is the honour of the republic of India that is sullied. But alas, who cares? 

The writer is a Delhi-based security affairs analyst. 


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Publication: Times Of India Hyderabad; Date:2009 Feb 25; Section:Editorial; Page Number 12