If Modi was going to let down OROP protesters, he should have at least appealed to their honour

In his Independence Day speech, Modi chose not to mitigate the current angst in one part of Team India.
In his Independence Day speech, Modi chose not to mitigate the current angst in one part of Team India.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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As one of the thousands of ex-servicemen in India, I was following the latest developments on the One Rank One Pension (OROP) with a mix of deep anguish and slender hope in the run-up to Aug. 15 and the unfurling of the tricolour at the Red Fort.

The anguish was triggered by the unprecedented act of four retired service chiefs who had collectively written to the country’s 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 student of Indian higher defence decision-making, I was aware that successive governments going back to that of prime minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s had dealt ineptly with the matter of how to ensure that the military and the fauji (soldier) 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 the country and the flag and personal conduct than other uniformed peers—be they the police or the paramilitary. 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.

Sorry spectacle

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 Aug. 14 at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi 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 Aug. 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 the OROP. In the end, it was rich on rhetoric, but familiar. The disappointment lay in the fact that the prime minister 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?”

Fauji izzat

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 (honour) which is as precious as it is intangible.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.