The long festering OROP (one rank-one pension) issue that goes back to 1973 has acquired disturbing visibility in recent months due to the protest mounted by the retired veterans at Jantar Mantar and the ignominy of the Delhi Police manhandling the country's retired soldiers a day before Independence Day.
The matter found mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address at the Red Fort on August 15 and to his credit he made a solemn commitment to resolve the matter at the earliest.
This decision has now been taken and after some ambivalence. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar confirmed that the budgetary support to the OROP is now in place and the uncertainty about whether those veterans who had opted for premature retirement would qualify for OROP has been clarified by Modi at a public rally.
The OROP provision will be available to all military veterans - whether they retire after superannuation or have opted for the premature route. Some other aspects including the annual review are awaiting clarification and it is expected that by the time the government issues the notification, these points of dissonance with the expectations of the veterans will be accommodated in a consensual manner.
However, since the assurance by Modi at his rally in Faridabad - which has gone a long way in assuaging the bruised sensitivities of the military - there is a growing perception that the Modi government's OROP decision is fiscally imprudent. Selective leaks to the media by one part of the government cannot be ruled out.
A major business daily opined editorially under the title: 'Fiscal time bomb' that "In effect the government's hand has been forced" and furthermore that the government must "limit the spread of this demand....".
The choice of word and phrase, the embedded interpretation and the perception it engenders in the national collective merits a factual review. The military veterans are not making a 'demand' - whose sub-text is that it is inherently unreasonable - and the charge that the hand of a civilian government has been 'forced' by an obdurate military goes against the facts of the OROP narrative.
The reality is that in 1973 a unilateral executive decision was taken by the Indira Gandhi government through the Third Pay Commission to rationalize pensions and hence the military which was pegged at 70 percent of last pay drawn was brought down to 50 percent - and the civilian pension then pegged at 35 percent was brought up to this benchmark.
Thus a practice that was in vogue for 26 years - from August 1947 to 1973 (wherein the military pension was reviewed annually so that the OROP principle was respected) which was an equitable provision for those citizens who voluntarily took up the profession of arms in the defence of country and flag was radically altered to the detriment of the soldier.
If the 1973 decision brought the military pension down in a substantive manner, subsequent Pay Commissions through bureaucratic sleight of hand increased the benefits that would accrue to the civilian employee of the government while shrinking these benefits to the 'fauji' (soldier).
The Sixth Pay Commission under UPA II introduced yet another provision wherein the military officer was placed in a lower category than the officers in the civil services and the police. As part of this tweak, civilian officers of the government were accorded the NFU (non functional upgrade) and an assured career progression that allowed for a fiscal benefit both while in service and in the fixing of their pension.
As a consequence of all these post 1973 machinations, a trained soldier was placed below a semi-skilled worker in the fiscal ladder and as many servicemen have bemoaned even those deemed to be in the Class IV category of the government served till age 60 and then retired with a higher pensioner package than the soldier who served on Siachen!
The Government of India and successive defence ministers, including AK Antony who has the distinction of having the longest unbroken tenure as cabinet minister holding this onerous portfolio, abdicated their responsibilities and did not acknowledge or attempt to review and redress this gross injustice done to the Indian soldier.
Thus more than an unreasonable 'demand', the veterans have sought to have a historically erroneous distortion corrected and justice done to them. And as regards forcing the hand of the government - it may be recalled that UPA II dealt with the OROP in a cavalier manner and even the Supreme Commander feigned indifference. Hence the final recourse to a fast at Jantar Mantar.
Modi is to be commended for picking up the gauntlet and resolving an issue that has festered for 42 years and it would be most appropriate if the war widows of 1962, 1965, 1971 and Kargil are prioritized for the OROP package that is their long awaited and denied due. Can this be their Diwali gift from a grateful nation?
The military in any democracy is enabled by law be the sole instrument that has a monopoly over the use of force. Legitimacy is burnished by the ‘izzat’ (respect) that state and society accord to their military personnel. Denied these two attributes, the military loses both credibility and morale.
India paid a heavy price in 1962 due to the dismissive and disparaging attitude that then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru exuded towards the Indian 'fauj' (armed forces) and consequently the civil-military relationship in India is permeated by both sullenness and suspicion. Post OROP, the Modi government must seek to restore the mutual respect and empathy that must underpin this sensitive relationship.
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)