Date: 23 Apr 2009




Maj Gen Surjit Singh, AVSM VSM ( 


“If the leash on military leaders gets too tight, they will not be able to bite; nor even bark, when the balloon goes up”


A Dark Chapter in Indian Military History

The only thing common between 16th Dec 1971 and 16th Dec 2008 is the date and the month on the calendar. For the rest, these two days are poles apart. On the first of these historical dates, the Indian soldier was on cloud nine. He was the cynosure of all eyes. But on the 37th anniversary of the “Vijay Diwas” the same soldiers who had done the nation proud, were biting dust; breathing polluted Delhi air and reduced to begging for equitable pensions. A brave heart, who was once a 3-star general slept on a bug infected mattress to fight for justice. This demonstration was initially planned for six days, because no one believed that they could muster enough volunteers for a period longer than that. Events tell a different story today: 

·         On 19 Dec, one old soldier decided to go on ‘fast unto death’ He was soon joined by a few more. They had to be cajoled to break their fasts.

·         Similar rallies were held in many other cities, including Mumbai.

·         More than 10,000 medals including gallantry awards have since been surrendered to the President of India in three installments.


Why are Old Soldiers Seething with Anger?

The immediate trigger for these unprecedented demonstrations of anger is the denial of “One Rank One Pension” which has been the battle cry of veterans for the last 25 years. This hurts more, this time because the Congress party had made a specific promise to rationalize pensions if voted to power, in Oct 2003. The figures finally promulgated tell the following bizarre tale: 

·         A Havildar with 24 years service who retired in Dec 2005 has been granted Rs 5,239 while a Sepoy who had rendered only 17 years of service but went home a month later, in Feb 2006 gets Rs 6,800

·         A Lt Gen with 40 years service who had commanded a Corps, with more than 50,000 troops under his command, but retired in Dec 2005 gets Rs 27,700 while a post-2006 retiree Col (TS) who had put in only 26 years service and led nothing more than a company with less than 100 soldiers gets Rs 30,375 merely because he retired a month later.

·         The past pensioners find it hard to digest that while most of them have been only granted a multiplicand of 2.26 over their ‘base’ pensions, the improvement factor is 3.07 for several apex posts. That this is because those fortunate ranks are on ‘fixed’ salaries or are covered by the ‘protection clause’ does not convince them, since it is not a sufficiently cogent justification.


Root Cause Analysis of the Current Stir

Make no mistake. While these devastatingly vile pension disparities hurt the rank and file, the loss of izzat and élan is an equally disturbing factor. Over the years, the status of soldiers has been eroded in a systematic manner.

·         Despite a very earnest request by the service chiefs, the government refused to appoint a soldier, serving or retired, as a member of the 6th Pay Panel. 

·         The report left the services seething with anger. An anomalies commission comprising eleven Secretaries was constituted, to remedy the situation. Once again no service member was considered either necessary or desirable. The report of this committee has not been made public, but the government issued implementation instructions based on its recommendations. The service chiefs then identified four core issues in their dissent to the revised dispensation: (i) status of Lt Gen; (ii) Grade Pay of middle piece officers (iii) Pay Band of Lt Col and (iv) Pension of PBOR. Of these four, the financial effect of the first two was virtually nix while the latter two entailed substantial burden on the exchequer. Ironically, the government accepted the latter two demands, but only offered to constitute a ‘high level committee’ to examine the first two. Obviously, money is not a consideration.

·         After the 5th CPC, the pension of the pre-1996 Maj Gens was fixed at a level lower than that of Brigs on the pretext that they were ‘functionally equal to Joint Secretaries’ They contested this in the courts of law. After a ten year long legal battle, the soldiers won the case in the Supreme Court in Sep 2008. The government is still dragging its feet on payment of a mere Rs 900 per month to less than 500 retired Maj Gens!

Do you notice a pattern in the above decisions? The polity of our nation has an obsessive fear that the military will take over this country, the way it has in our neighboring countries. From that unfounded fear, they are willing to go any length to keep the soldiers out of the decision making chains. And so, they are willing to grant money, but deny them the status which they deserve. It is because of this fixation that the military officers have been lowered in the table of precedence in a systematic manner over the years, slowly but surely. A Corps Commander who commands more than 50,000 troops has been placed lower than a DG Police, of whom there are dozens in all large States. A similar situation obtains at all other levels. In the South Block, a Maj Gen with 34 years service is equated with a Joint Secretary who may have just 20 years service and no ‘hands on’ experience of soldiering. The slogan which guides the civil servants is, “Put the Generals in their Place; and Keep Them There”


Is it the Ministry of Defense (MoD) or Ministry of ‘Delays’?

During my 13 years service in the South Block, I observed that the “MoD” never ‘rejected’ a case projected by us. They always found a ‘committee’ to ‘resolve’ the issue, and kept referring them to different officers until they were able to identify a pliable officer who toed their line. Having put the service officers on a tight leash, the civil servants rule the roost. The pay case is just one manifestation of this mess, with the MoD having to issue so many amendments. Equipment procurement and logistics are even worse. It is generally believed that you can sell junk to the military at fancy prices. The industry looks upon the military as its worst customer, and only those entrepreneurs choose to deal with the South Block who know how to wade through the antiquated procedures and vested interests. The root cause of the present stir is that the soldiers want to regain the position as it obtained fifty years ago, and the civil servants are unwilling to give up their powers. They have managed to convince the political bosses that status quo must not be disturbed. The overwhelming response which this movement has received for the present stir actually derives from the anger which has accumulated in the sinew of veterans who have been slighted by bureaucrats, and prevented from doing the job that was assigned to them. One of my esteemed friends once observed,

“Serving in the South Block is like having to fight with the hands tied behind your back. You can save your nose by ducking, but can never hit back ”


The Danger of Letting the Pot Boil Over

It is evident this problem is not going to blow over in a hurry. Those who are trying to brush it under the carpet are leading the nation to grave risk. At the moment, the situation is confined to an untidy looking tent in Jantar Mantar, but if the splinters of this fire fly out, any of the following can happen:

·         Attractiveness of military service may plummet from its already abysmally low level. Who would like to become an officer or strive to rise in the system where generals and colonels are treated in this shabby manner?

·         If, the sympathy wave travels to the South Block, the civil military relations may reach a flash point, and the consequences can be disastrous.

·         And indeed, if a few hot heads boil over, the nation may have to pay a very heavy price. Soldiers are trained to handle weapons and destroy infrastructure. I shudder to think beyond this point.


A moot Question, ”Do the Rulers of India Trust the Soldiers?”

If the answer is yes, then there is only one way, involve their leaders; empower them, mobilize them and let them co-create a resurgent nation with you. The generals and the colonels have stood behind the peoples of this land like a rock in war and peace. Do not treat them like pariahs and distrust their loyalties. Take it from me, they neither have the desire nor the gumption to rule this country. If you tighten the leash of your pet beyond a point, there is danger that it may choke and not be able to bark and bite when you need its help. Similarly, if you over rule the considered advice of a service chief, you lower his moral authority. When the day of reckoning arrives, their legitimate command may be treated as frivolously by his soldiers as the contempt with which his recommendations were dismissed by the rulers of the land. . Would a soldier like to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice for a general who could not fight for his rights?


A Tail Piece

To improve the lot of veterans, a ‘Department for Ex-servicemen’s Welfare’ was established by the government in 2004. Logically, this outfit should have been headed by a soldier, serving or retired. But on ground, the privilege of leading this outfit has gone to a civil servant, who has never worn uniform. Among other things, our pensions are a part of his responsibility. What veterans can expect from this new creation is portrayed by an Urdu couplet,


“Mera qaatil hi mera munsif hai. Kya mere haq mein faisla dega?” 

(My slayer is the judge. Can I expect him to give a verdict in my favor?


Maj Gen Surjit Singh, AVSM VSM was member of the Army’s Pay Cell constituted for the Fourth Pay Commission during 1983-87. Later he was the Chairman of the Cell for the 5th P ay Commission in 1996-97. He has published a book “Wages Down the Ages” on the subject. 



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