Barely two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army across the Line of Control, a fresh controversy erupted over the parity of the armed forces officers with their civilian counterparts.
A circular dated October 18, issued by V Anandarajan, a joint secretary in the ministry of defence, tried to establish a parity between serving officers and their civilian counterparts, by defining a rank equation between the two categories of officers based on duties and functional responsibilities.
Within days of the circular, the ministry was abuzz with protests from serving officers from the armed forces that this was an attempt to downgrade them and equate them with lower ranks.
As the story hit the stands with several media organisations reporting it on the same day, projecting it as the military having been brought a notch down, it was clear that planned briefings had been carried out by serving officers to ensure maximum coverage.
A usually reticent set of serving officers, it seemed, were not happy with the circular.
Conflicts and confrontations
But the build up to this civilian-military clash has to be seen in perspective, for which one has to go back at least a couple of years, when the retired community of military officers started agitating for the One-Rank-One-Pension scheme.
The OROP scheme, as envisaged by the military veterans, proposed the same pension, for the same rank, for the same length of service, irrespective of the date of retirement. The pension was earlier drawn as a percentage of the last drawn pay, as a result of which someone who had retired in an earlier year, at the same rank, would be paid less than someone who retired later. The OROP promised to change that to ensure that even if officers of the same rank retired decades apart, they would still get the same quantum of money.
Clearly, OROP had fiscal challenges and the military veterans hit the streets, asking for its early implementation. However, the agitation saw frayed tempers as the Delhi Police tried to evict the protestors from Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area, when the agitation was at its peak.
The OROP agitation was quickly followed by anger over the pay hikes granted to services personnel by the seventh Central pay Commission. The services felt that their representations had not been heard by the Pay Commission, and in an unprecedented move, the army, navy and air force sent a signal to all serving personnel that they would not accept the pay hike until their demands had been met. The Defence Minister had to step in and request the three Chiefs to accept the hikes, while he looked into the matter.
But while the dust was yet to settle on the pay hikes and OROP, a series of moves by the defence ministry led to another round of confrontation between the armed forces personnel and their civilian counterparts.
While the rank parity circular of October 18 had created much resentment, an order issued earlier, on October 13, by the army’s Engineer-in-Chief was interpreted as a putdown.
This stated that a new position was being created to monitor all engineering works by the Military Engineering Services, a body that carries out all civil works for military personnel, such as building and maintaining living accommodation, training establishments and offices for the services across India.
The order appointed VK Rajan, an Indian Estates cadre officer as the new Additional Director General (North), thus handing over command to a civilian, with serving military officers reporting to him. Traditionally, serving military personnel rarely report to their civilian counterparts.
These series of confrontations made the military feel isolated from their civilian counterparts – the OROP and the seventh pay commission had already brought them in conflict with their counterparts in the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and other services. The circular declaring parity with civilian counterparts in the defence ministry and the creation of a new civil engineering post led to a fresh confrontation.
In addition to that came media reports that on the same day as the surgical strikes, the central government had “slashed” the disability pensions of the military veterans. A furore followed.
Quietly and steadily, the delicate relationship between the armed forces and their civilian counterparts has been under strain, unfortunately to the detriment of the military.
Political surgical strikes
On September 29, as the Director General of Military Operations Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh announced that Indian Special Forces had made surgical strikes on terror launchpads along the Line of Control, the politics of the event were just beginning to take shape. Within days of the strikes, defence minister Parrikar first stated that it was the Modi government which had given the army the freedom to carry out the strikes. A few days later he also credited the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for giving him and the Prime Minister the gumption to order such a strike.
But the use of the army as a political tool had started much earlier, even before the 2014 general elections took place. For the Bharatiya Janata Party, identifying closely with the armed forces helped it shape its message of patriotism and nationalism at a time when far more pressing economic issues were dominating the landscape. In September 2013, Modi, as the party’s prime ministerial candidate addressed a rally of military veterans in Rewari, Haryana, using the occasion to target the United Progressive Alliance government at the centre. This was, in many ways, a strategical use of the military to shape a political message that had not been seen since the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
“The problem is in Delhi. And hence the solution to this problem has to be found in Delhi itself. The problem will be solved only when a competent, patriotic and people-oriented government is formed at the Centre,” Modi told the largely cheering crowd of military veterans.
Naturally, expectations of the military began to soar, in the hope that a National Democratic Alliance government would be far more sensitive to their needs than the UPA.
Not much after the surgical strikes, posters began to appear in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, highlighting the military action as proof of the good and robust governance that the BJP could provide to the state. At the national executive of the RSS, the surgical strikes were a big talking point, with the understanding that they would be used in the heated election campaign in the coming months.
In 1999, when India was at war with Pakistan in the heights of Kargil, the then DGMO Lieutenant General NC Vij, had been sent to the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road to brief the party leadership. It had created a big political brouhaha, with the Congress-led opposition claiming that the government was politicising the military. While it was not clear why the government had asked a serving military officer to brief a political party, the surgical strikes this time certainly became a platform to address and re-energise the BJP's political constituency.
Truth as a casualty
To return to the recent media reports, in some ways, the truth about the perceived belittling of the military officers by their civilian counterparts lies somewhere between reality and perception. The story that the military officers had been brought down a notch was partially correct – but only partially. While Major Generals continue to be equated with Joint Secretaries in the government of India, those in lower ranks feel that they have been downgraded.
A Group of Ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee in September 2008 had ruled that officers in the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadiers would be placed at a higher pedestal than their civilian counterparts in terms of pay and perks. However, this seems to have been diluted by the recent order of the ministry of defence.
But even if it is so, it does not create any operational problems for either service.
The issue of reduction of disability pensions is also only partially correct for which, as Major Navdeep Singh, a lawyer and a territorial army officer has argued, “fudged data” given to the Central Pay Commission was responsible.
Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, former Vice Chief of Army Staff, who lost a leg as a Captain in the 1965 war with Pakistan but soldiered on bravely for 36 years with an artificial leg, had to approach the courts thrice to get his pension after his retirement in 2001. “From the 5th pay commission the government had accepted a percentage of the last drawn pay to decide the disability pension," Oberoi said. "This time, this was converted to a fixed quantum." Compared to the percentage system, Oberoi pointed out, this shift to a lump sum payment means the soldiers lose out on the amount they would have received under the older system.
However, the government officers disputed this and argued that while officers will partially lose out, the soldiers will get a higher quantum of money. But this will only apply to soldiers who may get disabled very early in their careers. “But that is a rare case," Singh argued, "and the majority are disabled later in service.”
The military, clearly, is no longer prepared to be a silent participant. Armed with a new language of politics and relevance, it is beginning to make noise in the humdrum of politics. Several retired Generals, cultivated by the ruling party, are routinely in TV studios, raising the “patriotism and nationalism” slogan whenever, for example, Dalit and student agitations threaten the party’s narrative, thus sharpening the military and civilian divide.
But lost in this din is the slowly eroding apolitical ethos of the Indian armed forces. As they battle for equal rights and relevance against their civilian counterparts, they are in danger of being exploited for narrow political gains, particularly as elections loom large on the horizon in the immediate future.