The One Rank, One Pension scheme announced by the government may not reflect all of the veterans’ demands, however, over four decades after the issue surfaced, the Indian government will finally begin to address it. To view it as a fulfilment of the Bharatiya Janta Party’s campaign promise alone will be erroneous. After all, Indian elections produce many such promises, but only a few are fulfilled. India’s first veterans movement has to be credited with an equal if not greater role in the implementation of the scheme.

The veterans’ movement ran an effective agitation against the government. To protest their neglect by the politicians and bureaucracy, veterans signed letters in their blood, returned their gallantry and service medals, and participated in sit-ins. This was a national agitation with protests spread across different states and since June 15, it organized a relay hunger strike in the heart of New Delhi. Alarmed by the effect the agitation could have on the morale of the armed forces, in an unprecedented step, 10 former service chiefs wrote to the President and Prime Minister of India requesting them to expedite the implementation of OROP.

A deeply felt grievance does not necessarily guarantee its articulation through a protest. We often conflate the presence of the two. Unless they are mobilised effectively, grievances rarely turn into successful protest movements. For every andolan or movement we observe, there are many more that either do not take off or fizzle out swiftly. In fact, India’s first veterans’ movement is also its first old people’s movement.

Few would have expected a protest movement made up of senior citizens to have mobilised effectively and lasted this long, let alone find its political voice. And yet, it did. Importantly, the standoff between the veterans and the state has had serious political consequences.

Political Opportunity

The OROP issue and the movement centred on it are not new, however, the 2014 parliamentary elections presented an opportunity for the movement to assert its presence. Similar actions are characteristic of protest movements, which rely on electoral opportunity to attain their intended goals. In the run up to the elections, the veterans and their family members, a 10 million-strong constituency, were acknowledged as a vote bloc for the first time in a national election.
Narendra Modi, who had just been chosen as the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate, began his campaign in September 2013 by addressing a rally of veterans with a recently retired army chief by his side. He promised speedy implementation of the OROP. The veterans in turn pledged their support to the BJP. Rattled by this development, the then incumbent United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress Party, having previously neglected the matter, also quickly agreed to implement the scheme.

Organisational Advantage

Mobilisation becomes much easier when rather than bringing together individuals, organisers can instead bring together already organised people to build a movement. In this regard, the OROP movement enjoyed a substantial inherent advantage. Most veterans belong to the army, which makes up 1.15 million of the 1.35 million strong Indian armed forces. The Indian army still follows a regimental system in which strong bonds are fostered among men belonging to a regiment and these ties persist after retirement. Most participants in this movement have been mobilised through these networks.

A movement also benefits from a clear unifying goal. The Indian military can often appear as a divided family because of inter-service rivalries and differences. But OROP has been a unifying cause for the veterans irrespective of their rank and their regimental and service identities. The latest agitation brought a large number of veterans’ organisations under one umbrella. This unity, however, was not a product of common economic interests alone. There was another binding force at work.

A Matter of Honour

During interviews with the movement participants and in listening to speakers at the OROP rally, I found that on the pension issue the veterans felt dishonoured. And these are men who think very differently about the preservation of honour than the average citizen. The Indian armed forces still evoke the idea of izzat while training their personnel and calling upon them to make the ultimate sacrifice. Among the veterans there was a shared belief that the bureaucracy and the political class had disrespected their service to the nation. They viewed the struggle for OROP as a battle to reclaim their pride and honour, and this belief sustained high levels of motivation among the participants.

Finding Allies

To succeed, protest movements not only have to mobilise the aggrieved, but also have to win the support of bystanders or sections that are not party to the dispute. The OROP movement was locked in a dispute with the Indian state. It is noteworthy that financial benefits of OROP will be restricted to veterans and their families alone. And yet, the public mood remained sympathetic towards the agitation. This is not surprising.

We know from a number of public opinion surveys that in India, the military, as a premier symbol of nationalism remains the most respected institution and is ranked above political parties, the bureaucracy, the police, and even the judiciary. Further, the OROP movement maintained a positive image. It has not blocked roads, damaged public property, or called for strikes, which are commonly used tactics among protest movements.

Indeed, the media also provided favourable coverage. The protesting veterans had access to newspapers and television channels to explain their position. Besides their military identity, the age of the protesters also added to the emotional appeal of the protest to the larger public. In the agitation events I attended, I found that the average age of the OROP protest participant was above 65 years. Elderly parents and wives of martyred soldiers as well as war heroes spoke at the protest rallies, and their distress helped shape public opinion.

The veterans were also savvy about producing the right optics. They used anniversaries strategically to argue for their demands. They boycotted felicitation ceremonies and the golden jubilee events of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. They also increased protest activities around Kargil Victory Day and Independence Day.

Political Consequences

A veterans’ movement is not unique to India; in other longstanding democracies like the United States, veterans have protested state neglect. But such a protest is not without political consequences. For a party that brandishes its nationalist credentials and makes a claim to the electoral support of veterans, the OROP standoff became a source of serious embarrassment.

Angered by the way the government treated them, the veterans movement threatened to campaign against the BJP in the upcoming Bihar state assembly election. Further, since most veterans (retired personnel below the rank of the officers) reside in rural India, the movement reached out to farmers' organisations to jointly protest the government's already troubled land acquisition legislation. If acted upon, these would have been dangerous escalatory steps which would have further politicised veterans.

The OROP struggle and its unilateral implementation by the government are already symptomatic of a deeply troubled civil-military relationship. As noed above, for veterans, the OROP dispute was not just over fair compensation, but was rather an expression of a much deeper resentment against a bureaucracy that is perceived as antagonistic to the military and a political class that is perceived as neglectful of the military’s concerns. A very substantial number of the serving military personnel are tied to the veterans through family or regimental bonds. A prolonged OROP standoff has in all likelihood raised doubts in their minds about the government’s attitude towards the armed forces.

Amit Ahuja is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.