The veterans’ protests for one rank one pension (OROP) took an ugly turn on Friday, when Delhi Police used harsh methods to evict protesters from Jantar Mantar for Independence Day, citing security concerns. This incident incensed the veterans, who have been protesting at that venue for two months. It followed an open letter by four retired service chiefs, warning the supreme commander that “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”. Threatening a breakdown of the officer-jawan relationship and lamenting the whittling down of the financial and protocol status of the military, the retired chiefs also added that “the denial of OROP is merely the last straw that has exhausted the veterans’ patience”.
It follows a series of similar, high-pitched and emotional arguments put forth by the veterans. But this letter crosses a line. Earlier pleas were made by leaders of veterans’ organisations who took care to keep serving soldiers out of the ambit of their protests. But when former service chiefs threaten a breakdown of the defence services, the matter takes on a rather unfortunate colour. In his final speech at the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar had warned about the “grammar of anarchy” that could take over the discourse if careful thought was not given to permissible modes of protest in a constitutional republic. The danger is amplified when these methods are used on behalf of the military. The onus of maintaining the delicate balance of civil-military relations is on both parties, but the final responsibility lies with the state. Setting aside the merits of OROP, government should not give in to such tactics, especially in military matters.
The politicians who have brought matters to this pass cannot be absolved of responsibility, either. The Congress, which did not move on OROP when it was in power, is now supporting the demand. But it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who raised the veterans’ expectations by promising OROP in his first public campaign speech at Rewari. Since the elections, his ministers have reiterated that promise on many occasions. The delay in fulfilling the promise also underscores the complexity of implementing OROP. On one side is the indisputable sacrifice of our veterans and the gratitude this nation owes to its soldiers. On the other are the fiscal burden as well as the legal and administrative issues, coupled with the fear that paramilitary forces, police and other civilian employees will follow with a similar demand. OROP constitutes a difficult question for the government. But capitulating to threats of a security breakdown can scarcely be a credible answer.