For decades, inside the wood-panelled halls of the Indian Army officers’ messes, one among a handful of subjects prohibited from discussions is politics. The other two are religion and women.
Indeed, in a region where generals and politicians have often indulged in musical chairs, the deeply apolitical nature of the Indian Army has been a guarantor of sorts of the world’s largest democracy. On its part, the Indian political establishment, too, has wisely stayed away from interfering.
Symbolic of this relationship is an anecdote about the then prime minister Indira Gandhi asking her army chief, the wildly popular Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, about reports that he planned to take her position. Newly bathed in the glory of the 1971 war victory over Pakistan, Manekshaw is said to have replied: “You have a long nose. So have I. But I don’t poke my nose into other people’s affairs.”
Over the last few months, though, India’s political class has collectively sullied the image of the soldier—and may have even irreversibly damaged an institution largely seen as being above all the pettiness that defines much of the subcontinent’s politics.
On Nov. 01, a 70-year-old army veteran, Ram Kishan Grewal, committed suicide in New Delhi, purportedly in protest against the Narendra Modi government’s wishy-washy one rank one pension (OROP) scheme. A day later, Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal waded into the brewing crisis. Both were detained by the Delhi police, and the focus swiftly shifted to the ensuing political mudslinging.
Cleared by the government last September, OROP is meant to ensure that, regardless of when they retire, soldiers at the same rank and duration of service receive the same amount as pension. However, ex-servicemen still have deep reservations about the implementation of the scheme, which was part of the prime minister’s package of pre-election promises.
For instance, analysts say, the government has proposed to fix the pension amount based on an average figure, while the veterans had demanded that the amount be pegged to the highest figure for that grade. Similarly, the scheme cleared by authorities kept those who took voluntary retirement out of the fray. The protesters said this was unfair as, unlike in the private sector, those opting for voluntary retirement are not provided a lump sum at the end of the tenure.
The OROP crisis, of course, has been churning for over a year. Last June, military veterans across the country went on indefinite hunger strikes in over a dozen cities to force the government into implementing it. On Aug. 14, 2015, the Delhi police even assaulted some of the protestors in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area. Days later, three defence chiefs wrote to president Pranab Mukherjee, the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, with a terse message: “Given the evolving situation, there is every possibility of the situation getting out of hand.”
Eventually, the government did pass a version of the OROP, but not before India’s soldiers were forced to the streets, manhandled by cops, and even compelled to go hungry.
“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used the veterans during the 2014 election campaign, but quickly forgot about them after the elections, only to be reminded again when the veterans began agitating,” said Mandeep Singh Bajwa, military historian and strategic affairs expert. ”The problem is that the BJP made big promises to win elections without thinking through the financial ramifications.” Indeed, the OROP scheme, as planned by the government, would cost the exchequer Rs6,500 crore every year.
This, however, was only the beginning of such tinkering that has fuelled suspicion over the government’s intent.
On Sept. 28, the Modi regime unleashed a wave of military bravado through the country after the Indian Army executed what it called “surgical strikes” across the border in Pakistan. This was in response to a deadly attack by Islamabad-backed terrorists on an army base in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri town.
Ever since, the government has sought to ride the euphoria over this successful tactical military manoeuvre by burnishing its muscular image in the run-up to crucial state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, and Goa.
Within days of the cross-border action, the BJP had begun putting up posters in some UP towns, showing silhouettes of soldiers and Modi’s clenched fist, alongside mentions of surgical strikes and Pakistan.
This, though, isn’t the first such attempt by the Indian political brass. In 1999, after the Indian Army repulsed Pakistani intrusion in Kargil, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—part of the BJP’s extended political family—sent a number of its representatives to the army headquarters. As former army chief General VP Malik recalled in his book, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory:
The armed forces were anguished because they were getting sucked into electoral politics as a result of the blatant effort to politicise the war for immediate electoral advantage. At one stage, in desperation, I had to send across a strong message through the media: ‘Leave us alone; we are apolitical.
Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened this time.
Meanwhile, India’s opposition parties haven’t been too tactful either, frequently displaying a particular penchant for awful timing.
In the aftermath of the surgical strikes, with Pakistan openly questioning the authenticity of India’s claims, the Congress and Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party implored the Modi government to provide proof—if only to rubbish Pakistan’s denial. In a country where anything anti-BJP is nowadays automatically construed as “anti-national,” such queries were readily interpreted as questioning the very integrity of the army.
More recently, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a political minnow, created national headlines after it arm-twisted filmmakers who hire Pakistani artistes into agreeing to donate to the Army Welfare Fund which typically receives only voluntary donations. In this instance, thankfully, the army veterans collectively chastised the MNS for dragging the military into this seeming mess.
Meanwhile, the government’s own machinations over pensions and payments have added to a growing atmosphere of civilian-military distrust.
On Sept. 30, just hours after the surgical strike, the Modi regime quietly executed a move that could severely affect the very people it sought to woo. The department of ex-servicemen welfare issued a letter that announced a considerable cut in the pensions of soldiers deemed invalid due to crippling injuries suffered in battle or during hazardous military service.
“A soldier with five years of service earns Rs30,400 a month; 100% disability pension would match that figure. In its place, he will now be entitled to a flat rate of Rs12,000 a month. A major with 10 years of service earns Rs98,300 a month. In place of that figure for 100% disability, he will get just Rs27,000 a month,” the Business Standard newspaper reported on Oct. 10.
A few days later, on Oct. 18, it downgraded the status of military officers vis a vis their civilian counterparts. The defence ministry’s move, coming so soon after the disability pensions fiasco, triggered “widespread resentment in military circles.” “This isn’t mischief, but mischief-plus by bureaucrats,” an army officer told the Hindustan Times newspaper.
All this must be read as part of a larger script that has the government trying to cut down on defence spending and lower the standing of the armed forces, according to some defence analysts. Consider, for instance, the downsizing of the China-focused Mountain Strike Corp of the Indian Army from the planned 90,000 personnel to a mere 35,000.
“It indicates a mystifying move to downgrade the armed forces and promote the paramilitary forces and the police. This is uncalled for,” said Bajwa. ”There is a stark dichotomy in the muscular, military-focused image that the government is trying to project and its actions.”
Be it OROP or the disability pension, these issues have a direct effect on serving personnel as, in this profession, serving officers are closely connected to the veterans.
“I have had several officers call me during that previous OROP agitation, saying that the next time the issue flares up, they will come down to Jantar Mantar to protest—in their uniforms,” Bajwa said. “To be fair, it is not just the BJP. Almost all political parties have used them, but the BJP has been at the forefront.”
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