In continuation of the earlier debate on this blog, I am reproducing my OPed on the subject that has appeared in 'The Tribune' today :
DEFENCE SERVICES AND THE LOK PAL
The Services need to follow an inclusionary approach
Major Navdeep Singh
The reaction amongst the military community was euphoric when it came to light that the Parliament had agreed on keeping the Armed Forces out of the purview of the Lok Pal.
Why the elation, one may ask? The exclusion only leads to the solidification of the ‘holy cow’ image and a message is sent out that the Armed Forces do not want the cloak of secrecy to be removed since there are skeletons to hide, which in fact is not the case at all. Being one of the cleanest institutions, the Armed Forces must set an example and welcome probity of any kind rather than revelling in the bloated myth of being ‘different’.
National security and operational aspects have become the much flogged reasons for circumventing transparency not only in the defence services but elsewhere too, and the gullible public, including the lawmakers, buy it in the name of patriotism. But real patriotism would only be displayed when the uniformed forces go all out to embrace the concept of Lok Pal in line with the national effort.
Pointed out repeatedly is the theoretical plank by the defence forces of historically not sparing the guilty in corruption cases and the strong in-house mechanisms available. However this approach may be conceptually faulty. Firstly because the system within the forces is not properly geared up or attuned to handle even normal criminal offences, and secondly, when the already existing provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act have neither effectively worked nor resulted in deterrence in the ‘outside world’, it would be otiose to expect that the existing system would augur well for the forces. Yes, the judicial system of the defence services has seen speedier trials and has been quick in convictions but the question whether it conforms to the well-established democratic principles of jurisprudence has always remained debatable. The ratio of the persons tried vis-à-vis those convicted would establish the effectiveness but not necessarily the correctness of a system.
The Lok Pal, in whichever format it buds ultimately, brings to our country an expert body to handle matters related to corruption. Except areas of national defence wherein security or operational aspects are involved, all other zones must remain open to the new system as envisaged. It is common knowledge that defence deals are a major source of corruption all over the world and involve an interplay of military and civilian elements. Keeping defence officers out of it would mean that while civilian officers would face the probity of Lok Pal and the effectiveness of its expertise, the ones in uniform would continue to be governed by existing laws, though the offence would be the same and maybe arising out of the same transaction. Rather than leading to harmonising of procedures, this would lead to creating utter disarray. It is almost universally agreeable that defence procurement, supplies, contracts and construction require more rectitude than prevalent, and logically hence it should hurt none if these aspects are brought under the eye of the Lok Pal.
Being pleased about having been excluded from the law of the land which applies to others has a sinister off-shoot. The differential treatment accorded to defence services in such situations is used as a plank to deny benefits which are available to others. Already, the facilities and advantages provided to defence personnel have become pinpricks leading to sadistic behaviour amongst the policy-making machinery which in turn stonewalls all progressive proposals for betterment of pay, allowances, status and pensionary awards to defence personnel. Factors such as availability of subsidised liquor and soaps from canteens at a rupee less than the market become sore points and reasons for denial of progression for serving and retired defence personnel. Otherwise who could explain the fact that today when almost every officer of the organised Group-A services is retiring with the pay and pension equal to a Lieutenant General on a non-functional basis even when not actually promoted with the additional benefit of virtually ‘One Rank One Pension’ through the back-door, most of the military counterparts retire as Colonels.
The Services Headquarters are focussing more on fortifying the imagery of exclusion of the military from the others and trumpeting operational facets by placing the future of millions of serving and retired personnel at stake as far as their status, pay, allowances and pensions are concerned, by blindly towing the line and opinion of non-military officers in important wings such as the ‘Personnel Services Directorate’ rather than concentrating on awareness and amalgamation of the military with the mainstream. For example, the creation of the concept of ‘Rank Pay’ during the Fourth Pay Commission, and moving away from normal pay-scales as applicable to all other services, was one such step which though established the military as ‘different’, resulted not only in financial loss but utter chaos and degradation of status of military officers, the after-effects of which are there for all to see with litigation pending on the subject even three decades later. A Selection Grade Major who used to draw the pay of a Director of the Central Govt prior to the Fourth Pay Commission is today granted two steps lower pay which is equal to an Under Secretary to Govt of India, all thanks to the introduction of the ‘Rank Pay’. The differential, and sometimes preferential, treatment also means that most progressive concepts introduced for other services are not made applicable to those in the military since the defence services are ‘different’. Already the defence services have no role to play in policy-making or in the Rules of Business contrary to the system prevalent for their counterparts, already the military’s internal bureaucracy is busy indulging in self-defeatist moves which are more harmful than external orchestration and where the end result is that the welfare, remuneration and pension related provisions are unilaterally thrust upon defence personnel all because the energies are focussed on issues which are more ceremonial or pseudo-operational and less substantial. Thanks to self-imposed exclusionary politics, these are actions that may result in great pomp & show and chest thumping within the perimeter of a cantonment, but a slide in the real society from where we all come from, that society where Lok Pal shall apply. Moving away from the ordinary populace could well lead to alienation.
Being under the Lok Pal would be beneficial and not detrimental to the defence services. There is nothing to fear if there is nothing to hide. All references in the final Act to Group-A officers must also apply to Commissioned Officers, while those to Group-B and Group-C staff should be applicable to Junior Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks respectively. Of course, security, operational and intelligence related aspects should be totally excluded and the RTI experience could provide a lead in that arena. Not only would it show that the defence services have no skeletons in the cupboard and are open to scrutiny from all quarters, but once the annual returns of prosecutions are made public after the implementation of the Act, it would also prove, reinforce and strengthen that the levels of corruption in the defence services are lower than others, and in that sense, the services are truly ‘different’.
Maj Navdeep Singh is a practicing Advocate of the High Court. He is also the President of the AFT Bar Association. Views expressed are personal.