Today marks the 46th anniversary of India’s decisive win over Pakistan and Pakistan’s surrender to the Indian armed forces in Bangladesh in 1971. It is a day of remembrance for the gallant soldiers who fought the war and the Armed Forces. Each year on Vijay Diwas, we see an outpouring of tribute and homage from all quarters, much is written about the bravery of our soldiers and their sacrifices in protecting our nation is lauded. But beyond these tributes and homages, we must ask ourselves: Are we doing enough for our Armed Forces and their families?
There are several issues that our Armed Forces personnel face which need to be resolved. There is a concern in the serving and veteran community about the degradation of their status in rank and pay parity vis-à-vis the civil services. This seems to have caused much discontent within the Armed Forces. The matter is being looked into by a committee set up by the Raksha Mantri and I hope the issue is resolved soon.
There have been numerous cases where our veterans have had to wrest their rightful benefits and pensions after painful and long-fought court battles, especially in cases of disability pensions. In January 2014, I had written a letter to the then Defence Minister A.K. Antony asking him to retract a memo by the Department of Ex-servicemen Welfare (DESW) ruling that ex-servicemen who take the Ministry of Defence to court for disability and pension benefits would have to fight their cases all the way up to the Supreme Court. This memo was retracted after my letter.
However, it was painful to learn that between 2014-2016 there were a total of 794 appeals filed against soldiers for disability pension alone. After the January 2014 memo was recalled, in April 2016, the DESW issued new instructions to automatically file appeals in all cases pertaining to disability pensions and benefits. In June, this year, the DESW again issued an order to not challenge court orders asking the defence forces to give disability pension to its soldiers. In a letter addressed to the Raksha Mantri in July, I have appealed to the government that they must withdraw all pending appeals in cases of disability pensions and benefits. I have also stressed that the June order of DESW be final and no order contradictory in nature and spirit be made in the future on this matter.
More recently, there was the matter of the order based on 7th CPC recommendations which caps the educational concession to the children of our Armed Forces martyrs and disabled soldiers at Rs 10,000. The scheme to bear the cost of education of children of our Armed Forces martyrs was announced in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 1971 and introduced in the 1972 Parliament session. It allowed complete exemption of tuition and “other fee” for education school onwards.
The commitments made to our martyrs’ families must not be withdrawn or diluted. We must not turn away from our moral obligation and commitment to support the children of our soldiers who have sacrificed their life and limb for us. That is the least we can do.
Then there are several instances where war widows and aged veterans are being denied their rightful pensionary benefits on some hyper-technical ground. Recently, a widow of an Army Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) who was awarded Shaurya Chakra, the third highest peacetime gallantry award, had approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) for “liberalised family pension” which had been denied by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts since 2007.
The Raksha Mantri promptly intervened once I tweeted this to her and the dues were sanctioned. One can only imagine the plight of the veer nari, who had to fight the long arduous battle for 10 years. The issue should not have arisen in the first place. Cases such as these do not augur well for the morale of our forces serving in forward areas in volatile situations. All such matters need to be dealt with sensitivity and personnel in charge of handling these must be sensitised adequately.
Every Indian respects the men and women who serve and their families. Each time a soldier is martyred there is a huge outpouring of emotions and tribute. For instance, when lieutenant Ummer Fayaz was abducted and killed by terrorists, it saw an overwhelming online support as well as thousands gathering at India Gate to pay their respects. But this support needs to translate into something more concrete. These emotions do not change the systemic issues that need addressing and fixing. Not only do we need a systemic reform but also a national resolve to ensure that our soldiers and their families are looked after.
The government must seriously consider passing legislation similar to the US and UK to boost employment opportunities for our Armed Forces veterans. I had submitted a Private Members Bill called the Armed Forces Covenant Bill in 2012 to enshrine in law a covenant prescribing a commitment between the people of India and the Armed Forces community, serving as well as retired, and their immediate families pledging a duty of care and improving support towards them. This bill is still pending discussion.
It is time we move from mere words and posthumous tributes to action, and ensure that our soldiers, veterans, veer naris, children and parents of bravehearts know that the nation cares.