In an unprecedented move, several military veterans from the Army and the Navy have openly expressed dismay over former Adjutant General Lt Gen Ashwani Kumar’s comments on disability pension and proposed Code of Conduct for retired officers in an interview to a TV channel before his retirement last week.
The interview has led to a severe backlash from former Army and Navy chiefs, several former Army commanders, retired lieutenant generals as well as serving officers. One retired lieutenant colonel has even sent a legal notice to Lt Gen Kumar, threatening to file a defamation case of Rs 1 crore if he does not withdraw his words and apologise unconditionally.
Nothing may actually come out of this legal notice, but this single act bears testimony to the fact that the relations between the Army and its veterans are at an all-time low.
Genesis of the ‘war’
The genesis of the acrimony can be traced back to the One Rank One Pension (OROP) agitation, which later began to be increasingly seen by the public and others as unnecessary and unbecoming of retired officers.
The ex-servicemen should realise that the pension budget is a growing burden and nearly 50 per cent of the overall defence budget goes into salaries and pensions.
The agitation was also seen by the Narendra Modi government as unionisation of the ex-servicemen, which was primarily being led by the officers.
Rawat pushing it too hard?
But the latest episode has really pitched the veterans against the very same establishment that they were a part of.
The proposed Code of Conduct for veterans is akin to what happens in Pakistan where the military decides which retired officer can even appear on TV channel debates.
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is a man on a mission. He has been pushing much-needed reforms in the Indian Army, in terms of modernisation and reorganisation.
Some of the steps being taken by the Chief of Army Staff, such as attempts at making the Army leaner, fitter and more potent, will have a positive impact in the long term even though it may receive brickbats initially.
But what remains a concern is the way Gen Rawat is actually pushing for some reforms, including the ones related to disability pension and the unwarranted code of ethics for veterans.
The approach is being seen as insensitive and not taking on board the genuine concerns. It comes across as if the Chief is on a tight schedule handed over to him.
Interestingly, the Defence Ministry is steering clear from the issue with officials suggesting that whatever is happening is within the Army itself and neither have they received any proposal nor suggested anything otherwise.
Time for introspection
Yes, some of the veterans are indeed sullying the image of the armed forces, which is known for its apolitical nature and discipline, with their shouting, yelling and warmongering in debates on news channels, and with trolling, use of uncouth and communal remarks on social media. Equally concerning is the manner in which some of the serving officers have spoken, often on their respective Chief’s behalf, and some who are driving the counter-strategy against the veterans, which has caused only more heartburns.
But a formal Code of Conduct against the veterans is illegal and against democratic principles.
While in service, the soldiers are covered by their respective Service Acts, they come under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) besides civil norms and customs once they retire.
There is no doubt that the veterans’ community also needs to look within, but the Army working on a code of conduct without taking the ex-servicemen on board is a bad move.
Realising the mistake, the Army has already started falling back, with sources claiming that the Code of Conduct, if at all agreed upon, will not be legally binding.
Good intention, bad steps
Another contentious issue is the one relating to the disability pension. Lt Gen Kumar’s remarks are a testimony of how words can really screw up a good intention.
The Army has a good argument when it comes to disability pension. The Army Headquarters argues that it is not against genuine disability pensions but wants to keep a check on those who trick the system.
Since the disability pension comes from the defence budget, the Army HQ argues that it is up to them to see where the money is being spent – on rising disability pension or on modernisation.
But the fact is that disability is a reality and an issue that armies across the world are facing. But nowhere would the finance minister’s office tweet an unsigned letter of the Army Headquarters saying “unscrupulous” officers have found “leverages in the system” to seek financial gains through their disabilities.
— NSitharamanOffice (@nsitharamanoffc) July 2, 2019
This letter let the cat out among the pigeons and put the Army Headquarters in direct confrontation with veterans.
Any doubt on who wrote the unsigned letter went out of the window when the official Twitter handle of the Army also posted it.
The letter also spoke about Major General Ian Cardozo (retd), a 1971 war hero. But he put the Army in a spot by writing back, expressing “deep anguish” over the Army Headquarters using his name to defend the tax on disability pension, saying the matter needed to be dealt with “compassion and not disdain”.
Both sides need to work it out
There is no doubt over what Maj Gen Cardozo said, just as there is no doubt that there are black sheep in the Army. Those veterans putting the blame of wrongful pensions on only a few senior officers, including a former chief, should stop lying and accept the facts.
The main issue is not with the battle or war disabilities but with ‘lifestyle diseases’, which are termed as disability and what Lt Gen Kumar also spoke about to set off the veterans.
He argued that one does not get a disability pension for poor eyesight because spectacles are there but one can avail disability pension for impaired hearing despite hearing aids being available.
There are arguments on both sides and the issues involved are complex. But what the Army really needs to do is give up its highhanded approach to sensitive issues and take the veterans on board. What the veterans really need to do is to put an end to self-victimisation and find common ground with the forces.
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