At times we redundantly expect the officialdom to stand behind our uniformed men and women or to move heaven and earth to ensure the grant of benefits to veterans in order to guarantee a life of minimum dignity. But then this shall remain a dream it seems, forever.
Again, the Supreme Court has ruled on an issue which the officialdom itself should have addressed. While adjudicating an appeal filed by the Army and the Ministry of Defence against a poor disabled soldier boarded out of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles after branding his disability 'neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service' and who was finally granted his disability pension by the J&K High Court, the Supreme Court has reminded the system that approach towards disabilities arising in military service cannot be unpragmatic or insensitive and that even constitutional or genetic disabilities can very much get aggravated by rigours of military life. Dismissing the appeal, the Supreme Court has held the soldier entitled to disability pension even though he was boarded out soon after his training.
As discussed earlier, I fail to understand as to why are we becoming the masters of our own defeat. The whole approach towards litigation is misdirected. Litigation in the defence services is not based on legal principles but on ego trips. There is unethical pressure on officers handling litigation to ‘win cases’. Of course, every party to a litigation has the right to prosecute and defend its case, as the case may be, but then the first and foremost duty should be to assist Courts in arriving at justice and not to apply a hook or crook approach by misleading judicial fora or hiding facts or not even conceding cases which are squarely covered by existing policies or judicial pronouncements. Let me give another recent example. The Punjab & Haryana High Court had last year rendered a landmark decision on disability benefits to personnel disabled while on authorized leave. The decision was hailed in military circles and also appreciated by the official establishment. It was also communicated to the Raksha Mantri who is personally looking into the matter. The issue was also progressively raised before the Seventh Central Pay Commission. However shockingly, without any intimation to the Ministry of Defence or the Raksha Mantri, elements of the Army filed a review in the said case before the High Court citing that one of the notifications quoted by the High Court in the judgement had been superseded and that the Counsel for the Ministry/Army did not know about the supersession of the notification at the time of arguments. The reality however was that firstly, the said notification made no material difference to the outcome of the case since the judgement had been rendered by the High Court on multiple reasons and logic and this was only one of the ancillary points discussed. Secondly, the same point of review on the pretext of the supersession of the notification had been raised by the Ministry and the Army before the Supreme Court in a review petition in another case which was dismissed by the Apex Court in January 2014. Hence now a false affidavit had been filed before the High Court that the Army came to know about the supersession of the notification in 2015 whereas the same point had been already raised before the Supreme Court way back in 2014 and rejected too!
This raises various questions about our functioning- Whether some elements of the uniformed community can show undue exuberance in filing such reviews and appeals without due information to the Ministry or at least the Chief and the AG, fully knowing that the issue had been projected for resolution by the Services themselves to the Pay Commission? Whether a false affidavit on behalf of the Ministry/Chief can be filed locally without information to the concerned authorities more so since it is in direct contradiction of an issue taken up for resolution at the highest level? If on one hand the Pay Commission Cells are tirelessly working for getting soldiers and veterans their due benefits, can another branch on the other hand present diametrically opposite damaging and self-defeating views before Courts stating that benefits should not be granted to disabled soldiers? Whether false affidavits regarding lack of knowledge be submitted in a High Court knowing fully well that the same Review Petition on exactly the same point was dismissed by the Supreme Court way back in January 2014? Whether a hyper-technical approach to litigation is desirable in such cases wherein it is much known that the issue being canvassed before a Court has no relevance and makes no material difference to the final judgment rendered by the Court which was rendered on a variety of points? Whether the responsibility of a legal branch of an organisation is to kill the benefits of its own personnel and oppose all that is raised in Courts or uphold the principles of law in an ethical and humane manner? Whether undue pressure by higher-ups to ‘win cases’ is leading to unethical practices?
These are questions which were not asked in the times of yore but the times are changing and we must make the system answerable for the actions it takes against the interests of the veteran community and also of those who require our utmost care- our disabled soldiers and widows.
We refuse to stand up before notings prepared by Section Officer level officials in the offices of Financial Advisors but willingly file cases against our own disabled soldiers without taking a stand! I would like to remind readers again that General VK Singh had refused to file an appeal against Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi’s war injury pension case and ultimately it was the Ministry of Defence which had to initiate the process all alone. Today the MoD is on record saying that it is the Army HQ, after consultation with JAG and Legal Advisor (Defence), which files appeals, but the Army HQ states that it does so on the instructions of the MoD. Whatever may be the truth, the ultimate sufferers are our own people, especially those of the lower ranks, and their families. It was painful for me once to hear a Bench questioning the capability of the establishment to look after the morale of troops in operations when en masse appeals were being filed against their sundry benefits, sometimes amounting to a few hundred rupees per month.
What I have written above is not to pinprick but just to show a mirror to all of us and should hence be taken in the right spirit. This once again reminds me of some lines that I wrote not many months ago, which resonate in my mind every time I am made to undergo the agony of dealing with such cases:
“...It is not that I do not empathize with the subject, but the last few years have resulted in an extreme form of dissatisfaction when I have discovered that while we keep fighting for the rights of our service-members and veterans, many of those in uniform tasked with protecting those very rights, incorrigibly stand in opposition of these causes. Believe me, it is a sad sight to see officers in uniform taking stands opposite of what we all stand for- justice and welfare for the military community, restoration of status, rights and privileges of our serving personnel. Yes, it is distressing and disheartening to see uniformed officers take hyper-technical objections and laugh and chuckle and rejoice on dismissal of rightful and genuine claims of soldiers, disabled veterans and widows in Courts forgetting that their prime duty is to assist the Courts or the system at arriving at justice and not to bludgeon the prayers of such people by hook or crook.
If some serving personnel of today are not wanting to reclaim their rights or to live a life of dignity with their equitable benefits guaranteed by law after retirement, if they want to only file appeals against decisions of Courts rendered in their favour rather than sounding the clarion call for change of anomalous and unjust policies, if they want to celebrate their own defeat, so be it.
It is tiresome to bang one’s head against a barricade that divides the just from the unjust...”