As one of the thousands of ex-servicemen in the country, I was following the latest developments on the One Rank One Pension with a mix of deep anguish and slender hope in the run-up to August 15th, and the unfurling of the tricolor at the Red Fort.
The anguish was triggered by the unprecedented act of four retired service chiefs who had collectively written to the President, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, apprising him of the gravity of the impasse over the OROP. The letter went on to say, “We are of the view that urgent intervention of the Supreme Commander has now become inescapable in the larger national interest” and added: “Given the evolving situation, there is every possibility of the situation getting out of hand.”
Never in the annals of our republic’s history had such a missive been sent to the President and its sub-text about the impact on the morale of the military as an institution had ominous implications – and hence my anguish. From my own modest experience as a security analyst and a student of Indian higher defence decision-making, I was aware that successive governments going back to that of PM Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s had dealt ineptly with the matter of how to ensure that the military and the “fauji” were dealt with in an equitable and honourable manner.
Political ineptitude was combined with bureaucratic turpitude and progressively the lot of the ex-serviceman was lowered both in pension and government protocol. Again I can vouch for the fact that as a young naval officer in the 1970s and 1980s I was treated with greater respect and honour by both the state and civil society than what I can say about the latter part of my service career.
The military man in the Indian lexicon always held himself to a higher level of professional commitment to country and flag and personal conduct than other uniformed peers – be they the police or the para-military. However this distinctive status accorded to the “fauji” has frayed in recent years and no attempt has been made to redress this subtle disparaging of the military as an institution.
Which is why the sorry spectacle of aged veterans (many of whom had fought the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars) being roughed up by the local Delhi police on August 14 at Jantar Mantar added to the anguish and personal discomfiture. Social media went viral at the ignominy of a man in khaki raising his hand against a military veteran.
Yet, till the last minute, the veterans were being assured that the prime minister would assuage their concerns at his speech from Red Fort the next day. Hence the slender hope. However this may have been a case of hoping against the odds, for late in the day on August 14, the defence minister had already stated that “technical difficulties” prevented the government from moving ahead on the OROP.
The prime minister’s Red Fort speech was therefore eagerly awaited and scrutinised for what it would say on OROP. In the end, it was rich on rhetoric, but familiar. The disappointment lay in the fact that the PM reiterated what his government had stated earlier, that it was committed to OROP, but added that it needed more consultation and staff-work. An agitated retired colleague called me from Pune. “Did you hear the prime minister ? Why did he not announce a firm deadline and direct the bureaucracy to deliver?”
Having some insight about how such speeches are drafted, one way of assuaging the bruised sensitivity of the “fauji” constituency would have been to recall an appropriate vignette that would have burnished the image of the military in the collective national consciousness.
What better than for the prime minister to pay tribute to the late Colonel Harwant Singh, the Commanding Officer of the gallant 1 Sikh who passed away at age 94 less than a week ago in Punjab? He was the unsung hero who led his troops courageously and saved Kashmir for India in October 1947 and epitomised the forgotten contribution and the contemporary vulnerability of the stoic veteran.
Had the prime minister then alluded to the letter by the former chiefs and the gravity of the impasse that has forced the veterans to take matters military to the street, and then brought a deft but firm political touch that he is so adept at, Narendra Modi, the natural politician, would have brought welcome balm to the current angst in one part of Team India. The insults heaped over decades may have been mitigated.
He chose not to. That is the bigger disappointment for the Indian fauji. The loss of “izzat” which is as precious as it is intangible.
Recounting the several times Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised that OROP would be implemented as soon as he would come to power, the veterans said he had betrayed them.
The ex-servicemen said they would not budge from Jantar Mantar until an announcement was made to this effect.
Attempts were made on Friday to forcibly remove them from Jantar Mantar. The oldest of the lot, Grenadier Bhishambar, while trying to resist eviction had his kurta torn and was hurt.
“Now more than being about the OROP it has also become a matter of our respect. We gave our adulthood to the country and now see the way they are treating us. We are just putting a demand that is rightfully ours,” said brigadier Subhash Sharma.
Undeterred by the police action, the ex-servicemen said their protest would continue and spread to all parts of the country till OROP was implemented.
Shouting slogans like “The nation whose soldiers are in the street will be doomed” (Jish Desh ki Sainik Sarko Par, ush desh ka Durbhag hai) and tying black bands in their hand, the protesters said that if the government cannot respect their demand it should also not come with garlands when soldiers die on the border.
“Forget about all other things they are not even obeying Supreme Court orders. The court had ordered them to implement OROP in three months and it’s been five months they are trying to kill the issue,” said Navy’s chief petty officer (retd) Ajay Saraswat.
They were even joined by the women officers and the ex-servicemen’s family members.
“Whatever has happened is very shameful and sad. The leaders should know if they don’t keep soldiers happy the country will never prosper,” said Neeta Ravikant, wife of a retired officer.