“They were not Army regulars; nor are they Indian nationals. Yet they stood at the border, shoulder to shoulder with Indian Army personnel to patrol and defend our borders. The Indian Union gave them grudging and incremental recognition for these services.”
A judgment of a division bench of the Delhi High Court in January 2016 made these observations in the order that it passed granting the petition of a group of former members of Special Frontier Force (SFF) pensionary benefits on the lines given to those who had retired prior to 2009.
The SFF has been in focus in the present stand-off with China in Ladakh where its personnel are learnt to have played a pivotal part in occupying certain heights on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). One SFF soldier even lost his life while participating in the operations.
However, the 2016 judgment of the Delhi High Court is a stark reminder of how the members of this covert force remained without any formal recognition for a long period of time and even when they attempted to seek benefits which their counterparts in the Indian Army had, the government opposed the same, as recently as in 2015 when the case came up before the High Court.
The retirees of this covert outfit which comprises Tibetans living in exile in India and Gorkhas had long been demanding equality of pensionary and retiral benefits equivalent to that of the Indian Army personnel.
The SFF petitioners had demanded that the cut-off date of January 1, 2009, given by the government of India while granting pension and pensionary benefits to SFF personnel on a par with the personnel below officers rank of the Indian Army should be disregarded and those who had retired before that date should also be given similar benefits.
The SFF was raised in the immediate aftermath of the Chinese aggression in 1962 and initially only the Tibetans were a part of this outfit. The High Court judgment notes that from 1965 onwards Nepali Gorkhas were also recruited in the SFF.
“The SFF was not treated as part of the Indian Army. In August 1971, for the first time, the Central government provided terminal benefits to members of the force by introducing gratuity at the rate of one month’s salary for each completed year of service for those serving for a minimum of two years,” the order notes.
It was 14 years later in 1985 that these terminal benefits were revised by the Central government and enhanced to 45 per cent of the commuted value of service pension admissible to the Indian Army personnel, to the SFF personnel who had completed at least 20 years of service.
It was brought out during the course of litigation that the services rendered by the SFF personnel are no less than crucial for maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India than that of the Indian Army.
The SFF veterans submitted before the court that the force was created keeping in mind the distinction between Indian nationals and others and the need to include the latter as members of the fighting force to guard the nation’s territories given their special physical attributes, their habits and their ability to survive in very high altitude and extreme climate.
“In all senses the SFF is a military establishment and has always functioned as such. The organisation of SFF units is identical to that of Indian Army units. Between 1985 and 2009 submitted several representations before the central government seeking service pension and for treating them at par with Army personnel,” the veterans informed the court.
However, this demand was objected to by the Union of India which told the court that SFF personnel fall in a separate class and cannot expect the grant of pensionary benefits on a par with those retiring after January 1, 2009. However, the court did not accept this contention of the government and the SFF veterans, numbering more than 5,000, who had retired prior to the cut-off date were given similar benefits.
SFF ranks vis-a-vis Indian Army
The rank structure of SFF, which is officered by the Indian Army primarily, as compared to the Indian Army as given out in the High Court order is:
Political Leader-Subedar Major
Asst Political Leader/Company Leader-Subedar
Deputy Leader-Naib Subedar
Asst Leader Class I-Havildar
Asst Leader Class II-Naik
Asst Leader Class III-Lance Naik
Tibetan Female Nursing Asst-Male Nursing Asst
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines