By Inderjit Badhwar
In the way to work every morning, I drive along the India Gate parikrama. To my right, just before approaching the stately Hyderabad House rises the monument—a war memorial located astride Rajpath, on the eastern edge of the ceremonial axis of New Delhi, formerly called Kingsway. Designed by Lutyens, it is described as “the pride of Delhi”, erected to commemorate the 90,000 Indian soldiers who were killed in World War I.
Among the several nationalceremonies the site hosts, one of the most important was the Golden Jubilee of the 1965 war against Pakistan in which, after repelling that country’s armed incursions, Indian soldiers were virtually knocking at the gates of Lahore before pulling back. Driving past that site the other day, I noticed a palpable lack of enthusiasm in the air. The reason was a noticeable absence of veterans who had preferred to stay out of the “ celebration ” site and participate, instead, in the goings on at a “ protest” not too much further away where former military officers, jawans and countless civilians were supporting an ex-soldier’s hunger strike to draw public attention to their “One Rank One Pension ” (OROP) agitation.
“Hundreds of veterans who participated in the 1965 war joined the protest and boycotted the Golden Jubilee program organized by the government,” a statement by the United Front of Ex-Servicemen, the umbrella organization of veterans leading the OROP protest, said.
“Notable amongst the 1965 war veterans (who joined the OROP protest on Friday) were Brigadier DP Nayar who had participated in the Hajipir operation and Wing Commander Vinod Nebb (Vir Chakra) who brought down one enemy aircraft in Punjab sector,” the statement added.
Shortly afterwards, the Defense Ministry made a counter-claim by releasing pictures showing certain veterans at the wreath-laying ceremony organized at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate.
This was, indeed, a sad day. And the developments have shaken the country as few others have in the recent past. Veterans have never in the past been so publicly at odds with an elected government and its bureaucracy. In fact, in the best tradition of the Indian armed forces, our veterans—no matter what their private beliefs, political leanings and predilections—maintain the same discipline and strictly neutral public role as serving officers by keeping out of politics.
Right from the first day of Independence, this remarkable distancing has ensured that India, unlike neighboring Pakistan, has been spared from coups and being governed by corrupt military juntas.
While, infrequently, the armed forces have faced corruption charges involving senior officers from the army, navy, and air force—scandals in the 2000-2010 period, including skimming of armed forces money, re-selling of government property and faking combat missions—the military’s reputation remains largely untainted. It is rated by Indians as the country’s most credible institutions.
According to the “Global Corruption Barometer 2013”, here are people’s perception of 12 institutions in terms of corruption, on a scale of 1 to 5 (lesser the better) in India’s “Hall of Shame”—political parties: 4.4; police: 4.1; parliament/legislature: 3.8; public officials/civil servants: 3.8; educational system: 3.7; medical/health service: 3.6; business/private sector: 3.4; judiciary: 3.3; religious bodies: 3.3; media: 3.2; NGOs: 2.9 and military: 2.5.
Governance Now, reporting on a nationwide poll, concluded: “In fact, if corruption and trust are in inverse proportion, then our survey for the Republic Day special this year, carried out by CVoter, was not wide off the mark. It had the armed forces on top of the trust rating and police and parliament at the bottom.”
This is largely because the armed forces have remained steadfastly apolitical and have stuck assiduously to the service-before-self motto. The OROP issue, unfortunately, gained political coloration because it became part of unkept electioneering promises, first from the Congress party and then, from Prime Minister Modi who, as candidate Modi, made OROP his personal pledge at a mammoth rally at Rewari, Har-yana, during the last general elections.
From general observations, there is no gainsaying that Modi won the hearts and minds of ex-servicemen and serving voters who openly (if out of uniform) or quietly (if in uniform) supported the BJP.
How much water has flown under the military bridge since then! That a time would arrive when hunger-striking veterans would boycott the 1965 Memorial Day even at the cost of being dubbed “anti-national”, and the government would be forced to counterstrike by issuing a formal press release in the battle for public opinion is scary. Is the fact of veterans having to resort to street tactics to ensure the implementation of electoral promises proof that there is no other way to get redressal of genuine grievances in this nation?
I will turn now to Col Hariharan, a veteran intelligence officer during the IPKF Operation in Sri Lanka between 1987-1990, who is a much-admired contributor to India Legal. He wrote in a recent blog that the 83-day-long relay hunger strike forced the government to accede (even though not fully) to the OROP demand. The home truth that taking to the street in agitation mode gets better results than all other democratic modes is a bitter lesson “unlikely to be forgotten by both serving and retired military men, though these are so alien to good order and discipline ingrained in their lives”.
The colonel points out that this agitation, and not simply the grant of OROP is a “watershed event that will continue to haunt civil-military relations in the country. None of the stakeholders would be happy about it. But it is a logical sequence to six decades of neglect of the armed forces and their problems by the nation. The sooner the government and the people recognize it, the better it is for the country lest it becomes an irreversible trend”.
This is a sound and timely warning sounded by a patriot and military historian with an unblemished record of service to the nation. His blunt recommendation to the Modi government: You must take corrective action to halt it, rather than congratulate yourself for bringing the OROP issue (hopefully) to a closure.
The veterans, Hariharan says, are thankful to Modi for upholding his promise to implement the OROP though it was done 15 months after assuming office. “But they will have to thank not only Modi and Defense Minister Parrikar, but also the RSS that seemed to have given the final push to Modi to end the folly of allowing the veterans to agitate too long. Needless to say, in the veterans’ eyes, RSS has probably gained greater credibility than the BJP they voted for.”
The Modi government’s decision, Hari-haran points out, has only “revived a system of defense pension that Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government had abolished unilaterally in 1973. So the government has now redressed an injustice done to the veterans 42 years ago, rather than dishing out goodies to keep the soldiers in good humor as some of the bureaucrats and media scribes seem to think. And it is not enough”.
He says it is time for the prime minister and the BJP “to do some serious soul-searching on how things came to this sad pass”.
If the problem is only partially solved, or the OROP promise fails to plug loopholes or is simply a ruse to confuse and divide the veterans, they may resume the agitation, he observes. But that would be a tragedy “because veterans are respected members of the armed forces biradri where the collective wisdom prevails more than the individual. The jawan of today is better informed on political happenings than the officers of our times. And he is going to be the veteran tomorrow. So the process of repairing civil-military interface should start now. If the government and political parties choose to ignore the writing on the wall, it could cause more unpleasantness in the years to come”.
If Narendra Modi wants to make a difference to the lives of veterans, Hariharan says, “he should immediately constitute a permanent veterans commission to proactively advise him, not merely on veterans’ issues, but on putting to use the trained and disciplined manpower of veterans for nation building.
“After going through their ordeal, veterans have probably learnt how to deal with the two upper castes that run the country: the politician in power and the bureaucracy. Veterans had to compete for media space for their struggle with the media tycoon (Peter Mukerjea) and socialite Indrani Mukerjea with her good looks and alleged dark deeds of murdering her daughter. Despite lurid tales of Ms Mukerjea and her shenanigans, some of the diehard votaries of OROP, including a 92-year old major, rewrote the script by going on a fast-unto-death that was lapped up by the sensation-hungry visual media.”
Hariharan is not playing politics. He is a shrewd observer who slams the Congress with equal outrage. He condemns Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to appropriate the crisis by trying to cozy up with the veteran protestors: “However, when veterans shooed off his attempt, he wisely reverted back to the ‘other earthshaking national event’—the FTII strike—to unearth the RSS conspiracy against national institutions.
“Apparently, Rahul has continued to strategize the Congress response to the OROP announcement also. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the second most inarticulate (or is it incomprehensible?) leader of the Congress Party—AK Antony—was chosen to comment upon it. Antony had not covered himself with glory during his long tenure as defense minister. So it was not surprising to see him haltingly pronounce that the government had cheated the veterans by offering a diluted version of OROP than what the Congress had agreed upon. He conveniently forgot that he sat upon the proposal for nine long years as defense minister.
“And the BJP must be praying that Rahul Baba should continue to lead the Congress from the front, so that it can bask in the reflected glory.”
Our cover story written by Bikram Vohra explains why nobody is leading from the front.