Monday, May 9, 2011

Ex Servicemen have a right to protest against injustices

The Sixth Pay Commission’s dispensation to the armed forces is a lingering shame. As if this was not enough, the Secretary’s Committee’s report added insult to this injury. The impassioned letters from Gen Ved Malik and Admiral Arun Prakash to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adequately encapsulated the anguish caused by the Sixth Pay Commission among the rank and file of the armed forces, particularly among pensioners. The IESM contemplated several initiatives to articulate the pensioners’ grievances more aggressively. Some respected veterans enjoined caution, arguing that such a public demonstration of the pensioners’ grievances goes against the grain of the armed forces’ ethos, and would undermine the “dignity” and “decorum” with which the Indian Armed Forces have traditionally identified. In short ,the sage advice from some of the veterans forbade the IESM, or other agitating veterans to cross the “Lakshman Rekha.” The purpose of this note is to evaluate these conflicting viewpoints.

General Sinha, the former VCOAS and foremost authority on the evolution of civil-military relations in post-independence India, has written several articles, citing incontrovertible evidence, how the bureaucratic control of the armed forces strengthened, over time. The outcome is loud and clear: Armed forces were not represented in the Sixth Pay Commission. They were also not represented in the Committee of Secretaries. The upshot was: first, the Committee’s report made a passing reference to their “interaction” with senior members of the armed forces, without summarizing an analysis of the senior members’ feedback. Second, as an inconspicuous tailpiece, the Committee recommended some relief to a handful of Lt Gens and a large number of additional secretaries! How can the pensioners seek to redress this enormity? This is the crux of the difficulties and the nub of the issue. Here, it may be necessary to attempt a brief, historic analysis of the provenance of some of the traditions of the armed forces, from which our “dignity” and “decorum”, perhaps, sprang (Gen Khanna, former GOC 2 Mtn Div, did make a passing reference to this aspect in his brilliant piece, published a few weeks ago by the IESM).

The officers’ code of conduct, mandated by the British, was a good template to replicate for the post-independence period. Among other things, there were some unwritten conventions, such as, “Don’t discuss politics in the officers’ mess.” It is not clear whether this commandment was intended to discourage a discussion of controversial issues, or to isolate the Indian Officers from the storm of nationalist movement that was sweeping through the country. Ill-disguised contempt for the “dotiwallas” and the “INA” was encouraged. I found the hang-over as late as the early 1950s, when ICOs used to scoff at the INA and proclaim with much gusto, “During the advance in Burma, we shot the INA like dogs,” or words to that effect. What is remarkable in these episodes are not the facts, but the faithful articulation, albeit inadvertent, of the British sentiments. I allude to these instances not to critique the contribution of the INA, but as a reaction to the former Naval Chief’s reference to the INA: “The monastic devotion to discipline is the reason that Subhash Bose’s Indian National Army and the Free Indian Legion are, till today spoken in hushed tones in the Service Environment.” No doubt the former Naval Chief included this argument in all sincerity and without meaning to detract from the INA’s contribution to our freedom movement. The nagging question, however, persists: “Do we have to apologize for the creation of INA by that bold, dynamic leader, Subhash Chandra Bose?”
In Western democracies, service personnel freely discuss political issues, and even attend political party meetings in civilian clothes. Veterans participate in political campaigning, exercising their free speech, including but not limited to the criticism of the government. They also participate in protest meetings. In Britain, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, the former CGS, soon after retirement, declared that he would join the Conservative Party. Again in Britain, Clive Ponting, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Defense, leaked secrets about Gen Belgrano in the Falkland War and was tried under Official Secrets Act. He claimed that he leaked the secrets in national interest. Even though, the Judge reminded the Jury that public interest is what the government of the day decides, the Jury exonerated him. I am not recommending that we should emulate these examples. However, why should we deprive ourselves of our legitimate right to protest peacefully, without breaking any law? Surely, such an action is neither unseemly nor undignified.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his conversation with General Ved Malik has made it abundantly clear that the political leaders will continue to exercise control of the armed forces through the bureaucrats, thus reaffirming the policy that was already in place. Even Gen Harwant Singh’s appeal as late as April 11, 2011, seems to have made no impact. In fact, the petition was never put up to the PM by the P.M.O’s office. The PM is also quoted as having remarked that the veteran petitioners cannot meet with the President, because they wanted to return the medals. Are armed forces veterans mandated by law not to protest, or not to return medals as a token of a disapproval of bureaucratic injustice? I think not.
Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. resorted to civil disobedience to protest against injustice and iniquity. They did not lose their dignity. Under the British rule, Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood to protest against the Jalianawallah massacre. This act was noble, not indecorous.

Gen Sinha, in his perceptive article in Asian Age (April 13, 2011) deplores the comments of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who made some remarks about the possibility of the rise of extra constitutional authority in India, as it did in Pakistan in 1958. This has been, unfortunately, the theme that politicians and bureaucrats have been conjuring up to undermine the status and pay of the armed forces, over time. The sad irony is that during its sixty-one years of existence, it was assailed by extra constitutional forces only once. And it came during the infamous “emergency” from a civilian leader, not the imaginary “man on the horseback!”

That the President of India cold shouldered the Veterans’ Delegation should not surprise us. The President of India is bound by the advice of the Council of Ministers. Rarely, would a President assert his/her authority. In the United States, the President participates in saluting the bodies of servicemen killed in war; he visits with the bereaved families and condoles them; he meets veterans and socializes with them on Veterans Day; he privately felicitates and honors gallantry award winners and families in the White House. The American Public leave no stone unturned to make the service personnel as comfortable as possible: Priority Access is provided in airports; special transit and rest areas are provided in major airports; most important, the passengers spontaneously recognize them in the aircraft, often bursting into a chorus of the National Anthem. We are not there, yet.

Apart from asserting our rights, it is our duty to create and spread the awareness among lay public that we are among the patriots that are deeply concerned about national security and its concomitant: morale of the armed forces, in whose framework, the morale of the service personnel and that of the veterans are seamlessly and indissolubly bound. If communication and appeals fail, we have to resort to other legal, visible, and peaceful means of protest. In this, we should not be deterred by any real or imaginary Lakshmana Rekha, or Rubicon. Our protests will be issue- specific, incremental, and need- based. They will never be violent, or violative of law. And they will be modified with shifting exigencies and changing environment.

The morale of the Indian Armed Forces has been sustained by the taproot of “Izzat” through wars and crises, trials and tribulations. Humiliation, brought about by unwarranted downgrading of status and pay/pension, is the antithesis of Izzat. And humiliation has its limits. Policy makers will be advised not to mistake the absence of evidence of humiliation for its absence, per se.

Here is a cameo from the Economist, December 18, 2010: “But decent countries allow disruptive protests and even deploy the forces of law and order to protect them. That is the price of political freedom, negotiated over many years and subject to many checks and balances.” We need to evaluate the maturity of our political system from the reactions of our elected representatives to our legitimate grievances.

It is not unusual for a nascent organization, such as the IESM, to be confronted with challenges of self doubt and fatigue, particularly when it is wrongfully perceived as an anti-government organization. A few dedicated men are admirably coping with the challenges with demonstrated grit, resilience, and determination despite a lack of resources and support. They are volunteering time and thoughtful attention, while, seeking no rewards or recognition. Kudos to these unsung heroes!
Maj Gen K Bhimaya (Retd)
10th JSW Course

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