Here is my recent opinion piece for The Quint:
India, we are fighting our own disabled soldiers
Most nations recognize the inherent stress and strain of military service and its detrimental effect on the health and daily lives of soldiers. India does too, but only in theory, not in practice. Lip service galore, zilch on-ground support.
Not many must be aware, contrary to popular perception, the life expectancy of soldiers is lower than their civilian counterparts. The reason is not far to seek. Living in a regimented lifestyle, most of the year away from their families and at times under the shadow of the gun, 24 hours covered with a tough disciplinary law, soldiers face unique stressful conditions which result in aggravating and accentuating even regular diseases and ailments. It doesn’t take much enlightenment to understand that soldiers face higher stress levels than ordinary citizens living with their families since the former are away from commune living and hence cannot adequately cope up with domestic commitments and stressors, but in a strange and ironic kind of incorrigibility, it is the defence establishment itself which is not ready to accept this proposition which is not rocket science but common sense.
Medical specialists all over the world recognize higher stress and strain in uniformed forces. All democracies endorse this. Disability Rules in India also state the same. The Prime Minister thinks on the same lines too. The Defence Minister also feels so. The apex military medical body also speaks the same. The Courts, including the Supreme Court, have directed thus. But still many of our disabled soldiers are released from service and sometimes even thrown out of service on medical grounds, without pension or disability pension, thereby denying them a life of basic dignity, on the pretext that their disabilities were declared ‘neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service’ by military medical boards- a blatant disregard of practical realities to say the least.
And when such soldiers fight long legal battles for their dues, the official establishment is quick to file appeals till the Supreme Court in order to deny these soldiers and their families a few thousand, and at times a few hundred, rupees. The officialdom is comfortable wasting money and resources on expensive lawyers and litigation but not with releasing lesser amounts to those who have served us.
Nothing could be more shameful for us as a nation.
Our rules, paradoxically, are liberal and sensitive. The rules provide that in case a soldier is recruited in a fit medical condition, then any disability arising during service, except when caused due to his/her own illegality such as substance abuse, is deemed as having been affected by service conditions. This presumption is not unique to India but is followed in almost all democracies since the harmful effects of insidious and invisible pressures of military life are known to manifest themselves negatively on the health of soldiers. Still, benefits are refused on unforgivable excuses such as ‘disability was incurred in a peace area’ or ‘disability was due to domestic stressors’ without realizing that the inability to attend to personal and familial requirements has a direct linkage with the military since it is due to service in the defence services that a person is not there all the time to take care of his/her domestic needs, a fact even recognized by successive Defence Ministers who themselves have underlined the rise in stress levels due to this very reason. Also, for soldiers living in barracks who need permission even to go to the washroom and are required to sign registers and take an out-pass for a visit to buy a toothbrush from the market and are denied basic needs such as physical proximity, emotional warmth or even sexual fulfillment for months together, it hardly matters whether they are serving in a ‘peace’ area or ‘field’ area, and to top it all, the rules anyway progressively provide that service in ‘peace’ or ‘field’ makes no difference for disability benefits..
The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, has directed the Ministry of Defence to grant benefits to disabled soldiers. A Committee of Experts constituted by the Defence Minister to look into rising litigation against soldiers, of which incidentally I was a Member, had also recommended the withdrawal of such litigation and appeals by the Ministry of Defence against its own soldiers. As explained above, the Medical Services Advisory Committee, which is the apex medical body of the military, has also supported the grant of such benefits. The rules too are favourable. The Defence Minister himself has shown resolve to alleviate the problems of such disabled soldiers. Despite all this, recently, elements in the Ministry of Defence had asked the Army Headquarters to file appeals in the Supreme Court against Tribunal and Court orders wherein disability pension had been granted to disabled soldiers, and the Army Headquarters, it seems, readily complied.
Having worked for disabled soldiers for close to two decades now, what pains me greatly in writing this is the fact that while all stakeholders, including the political executive, are on board and there are all encompassing directions of the highest Court of the land, still the system is held hostage to contemptuous file notings of lower level officials purportedly based on some legal advice egging on the establishment to file appeals against verdicts rendered in favour of disabled soldiers, and the Headquarters of the Defence Services are also meekly accepting this bloodbath without taking a strong stand on file by pointing out this malaise to the powers that be.
In the ultimate analysis, it seems that it is not the directions of the Apex Court or the will of the political executive that would be allowed to prevail in our homeland, but the sadistic urge of a few stray voices that are holding the morale of our nation to ransom. The Courts are clogged with mundane disputes and unwanted litigation thereby burdening the judiciary to unprecedented levels, and here we are, in this great nation of ours, wasting taxpayers’ money in fighting cases against our own disabled soldiers, the ones who silently sacrificed their health to protect us.
Shame on all of us.