New Delhi: Four former service chiefs have warned that the ongoing ex-servicemen`s agitation for One Rank One Pension (OROP) could have "grave implications for national security" as it had severely impacted the Indian military`s morale and self-esteem.
"We wish to focus attention on some issues that have grave implications for national security, and merit your attention, not only as the supreme commander of the armed forces but also as the first citizen of India," the former chiefs said in an "open letter" to President Pranab Mukherjee, adding that it was "with a sense of deep anguish" that they were drawing his attention "to the dismal spectacle of our veteran soldiers, driven to undertake public protests and demonstrations to press their demand".
The first of issues was that "denial of OROP is merely the last straw that has exhausted the veterans` patience", said the signatories, former Indian Navy chiefs Admiral Arun Prakash, Admiral L. Ramdas and Admiral Sureesh Mehta, and former Indian Army chief General S.F. Rodrigues. They are the senior-most officers to associate with the agitation, underway for two months now at Jantar Mantar in the heart of the national capital.
The agitation "appears to be the culmination of a process by which successive Pay Commissions have been used to whittle down the financial and protocol status of the military over the years vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts. Since no rationale has ever been offered for this steady decline in status of the military, the obvious conclusion is that it has been orchestrated to prove that the key to `civilian control` of the military lies in bringing it on par with the police and paramilitary forces, and making it subservient to the bureaucracy," the letter said.
The "hostile approach" of the defence ministry bureaucracy "was earlier demonstrated, in 2007-08, when the 6th Pay Commission anomalies were required to be resolved", it said.
"Their insensitive and antagonistic handling of problems related to pensions and allowances of ageing veterans, war widows and battle-casualties led many to approach the courts. This not only created a deep civil-military divide but eventually forced a disciplined and politically-neutral segment of society into the jaws of party-politics," the letter said.
The second concern was that "there does not seem to be adequate realization that this development has the potential for inflicting long-term damage to India`s proud and apolitical military ethos".
"No one in the political or bureaucratic establishments seems to have recognized that veterans retain a strong umbilical connection with serving personnel because the two constitute one extended family. Whatever happens at Jantar Mantar (in Delhi where the agitation is being staged) is known to the men in uniform instantly, through print, electronic and social media.
"Of equal importance is the fact that anything which denigrates or humiliates the veteran also hurts the self-esteem of the serving soldier -- because he sees himself as tomorrow`s veteran. Thus, the recent developments have not only triggered a process of politicisation of the Indian military, but also served to inflict grave damage on its morale and self-esteem," the letter said.
Third, having agreed to the principle of OROP, "successive governments have reneged or prevaricated when it came to its actual implementation".
"However, since no administration has deemed it appropriate to convey the actual reason for the interminable delays, there is a growing feeling in the rank and file that the senior armed forces leadership has not done enough to pursue their cause. An erosion of confidence such as this could inflict severe damage on the officer-jawan relationship. This is a sacred trust, built on a 350-year-old tradition, which we will find very difficult to rebuild," the letter said.
These three factors, the letter said, "have the potential to cause immense damage to India`s military edifice and hence, to our national security. Soldiers, like flags and anthems, are emblematic of a nation`s pride and honor. The very fact that the nation`s military veterans have had to resort to agitational methods and that the government could tolerate their denigration or humiliation has come as a rude shock to all of us. This has also led to the erosion/lowering of our image in the international arena".
Noting that the "unprecedented country-wide" agitation has, thus far, "remained in accordance with the armed forces tradition -- peaceful, disciplined and dignified. However, after two months of neglect by the government, intemperate and irresponsible voices are, increasingly, being heard, urging actions that would be entirely inappropriate and damaging to the Indian military ethos".
"In the daunting security scenario that prevails, our powerful military is expected to be at the peak of combat-readiness, with high morale and motivation, ready to react swiftly to orders of the political leadership to meet every national crisis. However, such a response may not be readily forthcoming from a military which suffers low self-esteem because its respected Veterans are seen to be ignored and humiliated by their own `sarkar`. Much of this can be attributed to a lack of `political will`," the letter said.
The signatories said they were "of the view that urgent intervention of the supreme commander has now become inescapable in the larger national interest, and to ensure that the idea of `India First` is not lost sight of. Given the evolving situation, there is every possibility of the situation getting out of hand".
The letter urged the president to direct the government to implement two urgent decisions:
An invitation to the veterans to send representatives for discussions on the impediments facing implementation of OROP, and to work out mutually acceptable possible ways out of the present impasse.
Following this, a call to the veterans to discontinue their country-wide agitation.
Given that the Oath of Allegiance sworn by every soldier, sailor and airman ends with these words: "I will obey all commands of the President of India ... even to the peril of my life", the letter said: "We are confident that as a small measure of reciprocity, the President of India would consider sparing a few moments of his time for those who have served their nation loyally and are now in the twilight years of their lives."