This post is free flowing. Triggered by a variety of events in the last few months, I cannot pinpoint the exact contours of my feelings.
Ad nauseam it is heard from the serving and the veteran community as to how key appointments in the Ministry of Defence should be manned by uniformed personnel. Some faujis continually blame the babus for all ills, which emotion I have tried to address, and to an extent, contest, a couple of times earlier on my blog essentially stating that the answers to this quandary are not easy and the situation that we are in emanates from an interplay of complexities which are not easy to comprehend or resolve and that the military community has to share the blame.
LACK OF SENSITIVITY TOWARDS HERITAGE AND A COTERIE THAT INSULATES TOP ECHELONS FROM THE REALITY AND THE PAIN AND THE SUFFERING:
Some happenings in the recent past solidify my feelings about our total lack of sensitivity to our heritage, welfare and wellbeing- issues which could be easily resolved at the end of the military establishment or matters that could have been made easier to resolve had the military establishment taken a strong but genuine stand. In certain cases, the military establishment with its rigid stance and holier than thou attitude is also leading to bad press, a complete breakdown of trust and also increase in infructuous litigation and pointless official work. And seniors, when complained to, either do not (rightly) have the time to go into the nitty gritty or are unduly influenced by the make-believe cheeriness perpetrated by the coterie around them thereby insulating them from the ground realities and the pain of the common veteran or kin. Of course, till the time the stakeholders are not consulted and their voice is not heard, the senior authorities are bound to be influenced by their staff which has an easier access to the ear of the seniors with no channel of rebuttal of what may be blatantly incorrect.
The first instance that comes to mind is the case of a 99 year old widow of a disabled World War II pensioner of the Burma Army. The British at one time had common military administration for India and Burma which underwent a change later. The Government of India through the Ministry of Defence pays family pension to widows of such Indian citizens of the Burma Army who came back and settled in India. Particular Record Offices have been tasked to look after them. The lady on her husband’s death in 2012 accordingly applied for the family pension as was due to her. To her horror, various Record Offices kept on tossing the file to one another and to the Army HQ intermittently and ultimately one such Record Office also asked her to contact the authorities in Rangoon for the needful, not even for a moment applying mind to the fact that it is under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, reiterated as recently as in 2009, that the family pension was to be released and Myanmar had nothing to do with it. In any case, it was only after tough talk by the Punjab & Haryana High and when the Raksha Mantri personally took note and the Adjutant General also apparently pulled up the concerned officers that things started moving and within a few days her pension was sanctioned. Of course, it would not be out of place to mention the positive role played by the Central Government Counsel in the High Court and also the officers at the Records Office of the Punjab Regiment who ensured the release of pension at lightning speed after the case was highlighted, but that is not what I am trying to address. The lady was aware of her rights, managed to approach the High Court and senior functionaries also took due interest, but what about those who are/were not so lucky? Aren’t we aware that World War II veterans and also their wives are today on a diminishing scale? Is it too much to expect alacrity from Record Offices in cases of such extremely old veterans and their families or would the rights of such individuals only depend upon Courts and VIP references? I don’t think that a proactive Minister or Chief or Adjutant General would be able to reach out in each and every case, this bounden duty is that of the military staff, but is that happening?
LACK OF EFFECTIVE RESPONSE BY RECORD OFFICES AND BIZARRE REPLIES TO RIGHT TO INFORMATION REQUESTS OF SOLDIERS:
Speaking of Record Offices, let us open our eyes and ask veterans about the quality of responses received for their problems. There are multiple instances wherein representations are simply not replied, not just by the Record Offices, but also by the Manpower Directorate for officers. It is shameful that almost seven decades since independence we have not been able to ensure that offices mandatorily reply to all letters received by them. Then there are instances when policies have changed but Record Offices reject representations without caring to open the rule book. Another area of concern is the Right to Information Act. Some Record Offices are going to absurd lengths on the subject. The Artillery Records, in response to requests for Medical Board proceedings of veterans is asking them to send a copy of an ‘FIR’ for lost medical board proceedings wherein there is no such requirement under the RTI Act. When a veteran seeks his medical board proceedings, the said Record Office is also sermonizing RTI Applicants about the ‘Official Secrets Act’. I fail to understand as to how the Official Secrets Act can be invoked by the Artillery Records on a request of a veteran for his own medical record! The Records Office of the Sikh Regiment, otherwise quite sensitized and responsive, is illegally placing a white sticker on the percentage and attributability/aggravation part of medical board proceedings citing some godforsaken outdated letter of the Director General Armed Forces Medical Services. Needless to state, any such outdated instruction cannot override the provisions of the RTI Act which is an Act passed by the Parliament. Also this action is contemptuous since the Delhi High Court, way back in the mid 2000s, had directed that medical record needed to be provided to every disabled soldier. Moreover, such mind games are being played with applicants not realizing that this increases heartburn and fuels infructuous litigation and cases till the Central Information Commission which involve movement of manpower and resources, heavy burden on tax payers’ money and also on the pockets of veterans and their families, and that too, out of ego and exuberance which should be nipped right in the bud by senior officers. And for what? For a piece of paper which anyway belongs to the veteran being his own health record?
BECOMING AN ACTIVE PARTY TO UNETHICAL ACTION AGAINST OWN PENSIONERS:
Another example that comes to mind is letters being issued by the Personnel Services Directorate of the Army HQ to Government lawyers, supposedly on instructions of the Ministry of Defence, asking them to file appeals and reviews in matters where arrears have been paid from 01 Jan 2006 on Court orders to litigants by removing certain anomalies arising out of the 6th Central Pay Commission and even in cases wherein litigants, mostly of lower ranks, were illegally denied their due benefits but were released the same on judicial intervention. The Personnel Services Directorate has directed Government lawyers to contend in Courts that the arrears may not be paid from the date they fell due or from the date the anomaly of the pay commission was removed but should be restricted from a future artificial date. Firstly, such a stand is contrary to law laid down by the Supreme Court wherein it has been held that arrears are to flow from the date of inception of the anomaly and not from a future artificial date. Secondly, the said issue has already been agitated by the Ministry as well as the Personnel Services Directorate and filly decided by the Supreme Court in Union of India Vs Subhash Chander Soni wherein orders have been passed in favour of affected litigants and even the Attorney General of India has advised the Ministry and all three Military Chiefs not to cause loss to the State and embarrassment to the Government by continuing filing appeals. Thirdly, the Department of Pension & Pensioners Welfare (DoPPW) has already issued universal orders with financial effect from 01 Jan 2006 (and in certain cases even from 01 Jan 1996) vide various circulars issued in 2015 and 2016 based on Court orders for all affected individuals and it is not understood as to why is the Army insisting upon filing such frivolous appeals and reviews seeking to restrict benefits to its own pensioners. Fourthly, it is well known that anomalies are to be removed from the date of inception of the anomaly which arises on the date of implementation of the Pay Commission report and not from any future artificial date and the officers who are recommending such appeals or reviews against our pensioners of lower ranks or who are signing on or approving such noting sheets would be well advised to first deposit back their rank pay arrears which they themselves may have received from 1986 or 1996, also the arrears on account of upgradation to Pay Band-4 for all Lt Cols which we had achieved with our sweat and hard-work from the Government and which such officers had received at a later date but with financial effect from 2006 must also be deposited back, similar should be the case with Lt Gens who were later upgraded to a higher scale retrospectively from 2006. Not to forget, all these officers who are recommending restriction of arrears for lower ranks should undertake not to receive arrears of the 7th Central Pay Commission from an earlier date as and when its anomalies are resolved and should solemnly affirm on affidavit to be governed by the same morbid logic and yardstick as they are applying to our pensioners of junior ranks, and this includes the JAG officers who may have rendered any such opinion on restriction of arrears. All officers who have recommended restriction of arrears for their jawans must also solemnly resolve to refuse any such similar arrears as granted to their civilian counterparts in the future in view of their own negative stand for the pensionary arrears of their subordinates. Of course, this shall be in line with that motto of Philip Chetwode, remember? Yes, that one!
COMPARING APPLES WITH APPLES- MILITARY APPLES WITH CIVIL APPLES:
Having seen the functioning of the Ministry of Home Affairs and some State Governments in the field of litigation, I can say it with responsibility that it is only the three defence services which put undue pressure on their officers to ‘win cases’. But at what cost? The first and foremost duty of a counsel in a Court is to assist the Court and secure justice, not to score a ‘win’. Litigation is not militaristic; you are not fighting a war with the enemy. No other department or organisation gets personally involved with cases or makes litigation a prestige issue, not even the Ministry of Defence. Unnecessary pressure is put on JAG officers and even Government lawyers in the field of litigation. They are encouraged to adopt an adversarial role rather than an approach of resolution. They are questioned and adversely commented upon if they ‘lose’ cases. They would immediately circulate the rare cases which are decided in favour of the system terming them ‘landmark’, but with the same yardstick cases that lay down law in favour of litigants are never circulated or even implemented. While universal policies are issued by the Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare as soon as an SLP is simply dismissed by the Supreme Court or a decision is rendered by the High Court, in case of military personnel, the Defence Services at times are themselves filing appeals including in matters settled multiple times by the Supreme Court by way of detailed decisions. Disability pension cases being an apt example.
IT IS NOT EXTERNAL, IT IS INTERNAL:
I therefore feel queasy when veterans and serving military personnel blame external agencies for the pathetic condition that they are in, or leave it all at the door of ‘babus’. I also have zero faith when the military community states that the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare should be manned exclusively by military personnel- it could well take it further below nadir unless there is an adequate mix of sensitized experts on key positions. We are turning out not only to be the masters of self-defeat by crushing the rights of our own but also meek spectators who do not even put our disagreements on record or on file for our own little personal gains. It is also clear that we have so much time on our hands in our Headquarters that we display excessive zeal and waste negative energy by looking for loopholes in noting sheets and files to impress seniors to scuttle beneficial policies with a crab mentality. This is the kind of negative enthusiasm that needs to be curbed. On the civil side too, similar exercise is carried out and keenness is shown, but it is to aid and assist employees and pensioners keeping in view the spirit of the beneficial and benevolent nature of policies.
In one of the Raising Day celebrations of my father’s Regiment in the early 1980s, I remember an old Subedar Major saying “Fauj mein koi doosre ko khush nahi dekh sakta”. Is that the root cause? I don’t know, and like I said in the beginning, I cannot pinpoint, but I want him to be proved wrong.
Sorry to sound harsh in this post, but veteran welfare is not just distributing sewing machines and shawls to veer naaris at veteran rallies, it goes much beyond. But then the voice has to come from within.
Before pointing fingers at others, look at yourself in the mirror.