“Pray with us.” With these evocative words, the army had signed off its penultimate statement about the condition of Lance Naik Hanamanthappa fighting his last battle in the care of Army Hospital (Research and Referral, AHRR). By his miraculous journey from the Sonam post to the AHRR, Hanamanthappa brought Siachen into every Indian home for the first time.
“The Commission is of the view that the combination of risk/ hardship in Siachen area is the maximum that any government employee faces… no government employee faces more risk/ hardship in his work than our defence officers and jawans posted in Siachen Glacier.” This was spelled out in the proposals of the Seventh Pay Commission recently. Despite such clear language about allowances, misgivings remain in the armed forces. The airwaves emanating from soldier chatrooms are anything but sanguine about the validity of their hardships. If anything, there’s a resentment that threatens to get deeper. All of it boils down to a simple, peculiarly Indian, scheme of things, wherein status comes from pay.
The Warrant of Precedence (WoP) was adopted by the Indian republic when the structure of independent governance came into place. This remained more or less intact until the 1970s, when the pay commission tinkered with military pay and pensions. It’s ironic that this began so soon after the armed forces had won India its greatest victory in war. The coincidence
hasn’t gone unnoticed in the military community. And since it wasn’t checked then, the tinkering with pay continued, giving a toss to the WoP.
Pay scales, grade pays, allowances, and financial perks for Central government employees are formulated by the pay commission. The defence ministry is possibly the largest employer in the country after the railways. So it’s a mystery that no pay commission has ever had a military member advising, or dissenting, as has been the case with civil service members.
The mystery gets further compounded by the fact that civilians get to expound on the vagaries of military service — and determine the pay scale.
A civilian can never know what it is to sit in ambush, day and night, in snowy Kupwara or the steamy Northeast. No civilian will grasp what life had been like at the Sonam post for more than three decades before it was finally covered by an avalanche. None can know the stresses when the aircraft is pulling several times gravity, or compare with the military doctor treating multiple gunshot wounded all at the same time in a makeshift field hospital without committed electricity. There are many such examples of military life that a civilian can never get a feel of — for, these experiences are the sole prerogative of the men and women in uniform. So, the least the country can do for them to lead honourable lives is not play with their pay and precedence.
A larger than life winner of the Victoria Cross was Captain Umrao Singh. He was invited by the British government to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Legend goes that as he walked his way to the ceremonies, a car stopped, out jumped Michael Heseltine, then UK defence secretary. He saluted the old soldier and said it would be his honour to escort him to the parade. All this only because of the ribbon of valour pinned to Captain Singh’s chest.
That ribbon was senior in precedence and protocol than what Heseltine had as a cabinet minister.
In caste-ridden India, such displays of etiquette would be a tall task. But the least India can do for its soldiers is not to let them feel unworthy. Military people are the only Indians who have voluntarily forfeited some fundamental rights, to speech and association. Because they can’t protest or be heard, they’re taken for granted. This is very unhealthy, and could cost us dearly. It’s time the political authorities fulfilled their duties towards the soldiery and ensured they got what’s owed to them.
For starters, let the latest pay commission report be the last as far as the armed forces are concerned — at least in terms of being clubbed with all other Central government employees. There should be a separate pay commission for the armed forces composed of those who have seen the lead fly. This is the least to ask of India, but not too much to ask for soldiers.