The military veterans have started returning their medals. Yesterday, nearly 2,000 proud ex-servicemen returned their medals in Delhi alone. Medals are not just a piece of metal for them. They have seen their comrades die for similar medals; others have lost limbs for theirs. Just notice how proudly a soldier – or a veteran – wears his medal on his chest. Those were the medals that were given up yesterday.
Now take a look at how the government has reacted. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar said that the war veterans’ protest against the One Rank One Pension (OROP) notification is “unlike that of a soldier”, and the protesters were “misguided”. Of course, Mr Parrikar, who has not served a single day in uniform, knows more about “soldier-like behaviour” than lakhs of veterans who have been protesting for 150 days now. We should also thank him for not calling these protests “manufactured” or these military veterans “anti-national”. After all, nothing is outside the realm of possibility in the times that we live in.
Some would dismiss this as an emotional rant against the defence minister. But emotions matter. Why do soldiers fight after all? What do they die for? They are not mercenaries, fighting for money. They are dying for the emotional appeal of “naam, namak and nishaan”.
Perhaps it is “unlike a soldier” to be emotional about his country. So let’s move to facts. A full, uncurtailed One Rank One Pension was accepted and promised by no one less than Narendra Modi himself. He made that promise not only as a prime ministerial candidate but also after becoming the Prime Minister. Various Union ministers in his government subsequently reaffirmed that promise.
It was only Arun Jaitley who reportedly told the protesting veterans in a private meeting last year that promises made during the election campaign were not meant to be kept. A veterans’ leader revealed this to the press and that version, as far as I know, has not been disputed by Mr Jaitley. In case we forget, he was also the defence minister when he made that statement to Major General (retd) Satbir Singh. It should thus surprise no one that Mr Jaitley as finance minister allocated only Rs 1,000 crore for OROP in his first budget, which was also returned unutilised at the end of the financial year. That allocation of Rs 1,000 crore for something that needed Rs 8,300 crore should have alerted the veterans about the real dishonest intentions of the government.
Perhaps the veterans were gullible, gullible enough to take a Prime Minister on his word. They ought to have treated his promise of OROP as another ‘jumla’, to use BJP president Amit Shah’s explanation for why Mr Modi had promised to deposit Rs 15 lakh in the bank account of every Indian’s account from the black money he would bring back to the country once he became PM. If the veterans had indeed known that Mr Modi’s promise of OROP was a ‘jumla‘, he would not be Prime Minister with the thumping parliamentary majority that he has today.
Veterans now feel that they were used by Mr Modi and thrown away after the 2014 elections, and they are not wrong. The so-called OROP announcement of September by the defence minister came with so many caveats that it is not OROP, but ORMP – One Rank, Many Pensions. The caveats were not rational, but petty (for instance premature retirees up till now will receive ORMP but not those seeking premature retirement hence forth). The announcement only served to hurt and anger the veterans further. If Mr Parrikar thinks that this is his biggest achievement as defence minister so far, he needs to learn that insulting and hurting veterans is not on the charter of duties of the Raksha Mantri.
The ORMP announcement was timed before the Bihar elections, and if some senior journalists are to be believed, followed by instructions from a top leader to stop the coverage of OROP protests. After the announcement, the notification came on a Saturday night – the Government of India working on a Saturday night for a notification that was drafted two months ago – only because the veterans had announced their medal wapsi from the following week. Following the award wapsi so closely, the return of medals would have been hard for the media to ignore. And as Arun Shourie has explained, this government seems to respond only to manage the headlines. Harsh, but true.
The seven points of disagreement between ORMP – as notified by the government – and OROP – as promised and accepted by Mr Modi – are too well known to be repeated. The time to make the arguments has long past.
It is not a happy situation. Tempers are frayed and emotions are running high. India can’t afford this any further. The veterans are impacted directly but the serving soldiers are also getting affected – today’s soldier knows that he is tomorrow’s veteran. If they don’t get their due from the government, the veterans will have to intensify their agitation. Or perhaps take legal recourse.
It is now up to the Prime Minister to either listen to the country’s veterans or to dismiss those who fought for India as misguided, emotional fools. Emotional they may be, but tell me honestly, with a hand on your heart, what do you feel when you read the Kohima epitaph:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Gul Panag is an actor and an entrepreneu