It is well known that the current political regime is proactive and deeply concerned about the welfare of men and women in uniform. It is also well documented that both the Prime Minister as well as the Defence Minister are sensitive towards the fact that military veterans in this country are perturbed by the functioning of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) and also the litigation unleashed by it on disabled soldiers, poor pensioners of lower ranks and also military widows. Not only that, this issue was also raised in the Parliament and very recently by known public figures. I had also sent a confidential note to all concerned, including the defence services, requesting action in this regard. But of course, this issue is not as glamorous or brownie point oriented like say the OROP.
Keeping in view the fact that the manifesto of the ruling party spoke of minimizing appeals filed against military veterans by the Govt, many veteran organizations wrote to the PM and all concerned apprising them of some ruthless decisions taken in the past, not by the political executive but by the bureaucracy at the lower levels in tandem with some staffers of the defence accounts department who cannot think beyond the literal interpretation of Govt policy which it feels is sacrosanct even if it is struck down by Courts or contravenes law, logic or basic common sense. Unfortunately, in our system, any illegality or illogical action can be defended with a noting sheet by the civil as well as military bureaucracy leading to wrong inputs to those occupying posts at the top who do not have time or inclination to hear the other (affected) side of the story.
The issue of broad banding affected quite a few disabled soldiers.
The Fifth Pay Commission had introduced the concept of broad-banding to minimize medical subjectivity and rationalize mistakes of medical boards by providing that those with a disability below 50% would be granted a disability element by treating it as 50%, those with 50%-75% would be granted the benefit of 75% and above 76% would be considered as 100%. However while implementing the concept, the Defence Ministry granted it only to post-1996 personnel invalided out on medical grounds and not to pre-1996 or those who were released with disability pension on superannuation or completion of terms, though all categories were equally afflicted with the problem of medical subjectivity. Military pension rules however provided that defence personnel released in a low medical category were deemed to be invalided out of service for purposes of disability pension.
There was a series of litigation thereafter wherein various benches of the Armed Forces Tribunal, High Courts and then the Supreme Court in a detailed decision (Capt KJS Buttar Vs Union of India) held that pre-96 disabled personnel and those released on completion of terms or superannuation could not be deprived of broad-banding. One of the lead cases therein was that of Former Army Vice Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, war disabled in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. The then Chief of the Army Staff, Gen VK Singh, rightly and strongly directed that appeals should not be filed in such cases and the decisions needed to be fully accepted and implemented by the establishment.
The filing of appeals in the broad-banding matter even after the decision of the Supreme Court in Capt KJS Buttar’s case displayed a strange kind of incorrigibility. The continued filing of appeals even after the Review Petition of the Defence Ministry was dismissed by the Supreme Court in January 2014 in Capt KJS Buttar’s matter reflected administrative arrogance which surpassed all lines of institutional decency. The sustained filing of civil appeals against disabled and war disabled soldiers in the Supreme Court much after the new regime had taken over was perplexing too since it was diametrically opposite to the sentiment of the new Govt. In the bargain, thousands of appeals were filed and tagged together wasting crores and crores of taxpayers’ money. Your money, my money. Would the citizens of any nation allow their taxes to be used to unleash terror on disabled and war disabled soldiers?
One always thought that with a strong political will in place, the lower level bureaucracy would be tamed. With so many verdicts on the same subject in favour of disabled veterans and with the expressed sentiment of the present government, I personally expected a decision at the highest level to the effect that such appeals filed at the behest of the DESW and also elements of the military establishment would be withdrawn.
Ultimately, like always, it was the judiciary that came to the rescue when the Supreme Court dismissed more than 800 appeals filed by the Ministry of Defence and the Army against its own soldiers. Though it has brought relief to disabled and war disabled solders, in it the Govt has also lost the opportunity of earning a whole lot of goodwill, a chance that should have been grabbed by simply suo moto withdrawing these unethical appeals from the Supreme Court. The anti-veteran sentiment of the lower bureaucracy has let down the political executive but that is for the higher echelons to realize.
I hope the Govt gives no more occasion to junior babus of the ironically titled Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare to let down defence veterans and consequently the entire nation with their sadistic egotism. I hope next time the Govt is faced with a situation like this, it takes the side of judiciousness, logic, sentiment and sensitivity and not morbid file notings put up by a babu sitting in a dingy office somewhere attempting to decide the entitlement of thousands of those who sacrificed their comforts in their prime, for all of us.