The United Progressive Alliance government’s veteran fire-fighter, Pranab Mukherjee, will now pull yet another chestnut out of the fire — this time as the head of a three-member ministerial panel — to resolve the simmering discontent over the glaring anomalies in the pay structure for the armed forces based on the recommendations of the Sixth Central Pay Commission (SCPC). This unfortunate saga of purported bureaucratic perfidy and political indifference reached a tipping point when the armed forces chose to defer the implementation of the SCPC award, pending resolution of their plea for redress.
Unfortunately, this rather Gandhian approach was reportedly perceived as an instance of breach of discipline and it was alleged that the Defence Minister indicted the Chief of the Naval Staff for “uncharacteristic plain-speaking.” It was added that the three Service chiefs were told that “the armed forces cannot unilaterally decide not to implement a Union Cabinet decision and that there was no way the UPA government would let them get away with it.” The veracity of these reports has been questioned, but in the absence of a clear rebuttal by the government, doubts persist about the nature of the Minister-chiefs relationship.
Against this backdrop and the history of the delicate political-military relationship in India over the last 60 years, which includes the Krishna Menon-Thimmayya ignominy and the Rodrigues fracas, the Service chiefs have to maintain a fine balance in their public articulations. The military top brass in India has to ensure that even by default they are not perceived to question or defy a political directive — however justified and legitimate the case may be. Perception, alas, is critical in such times when aggressive and shrill television coverage raises the most innocuous issue into “breaking news.” The general sense is that the military is resorting to trade union tactics to obtain redress. Thus, on the face of it, the manner in which the chiefs issued signals could be deemed ‘inadvisable’ — since it appeared that the armed forces had refused to implement a Cabinet decision.
This is a serious turn of events and points to an undesirable politico-military stand-off with grave implications for national security and cohesion. However, this is an exigency that need not have arisen in the first place had the affable Defence Minister received the kind of objective advice that he ought to have from his senior bureaucracy.
Soon after the SCPC recommendations were announced in March, various anomalies were pointed out by different departments including the allied services, academia, the police and the military, amongst others. And the bureaucracy was given the complex and challenging job of fine-tuning the report.
Regrettably, the recommendations of the bureaucracy, as represented by the Committee of Secretaries that was constituted to harmonise the SCPC, selectively distorted the final pay scales to the detriment of the armed forces in relation to the paramilitary forces. These distortions at the Lieutenant Colonel and equivalent level have immediate operational implications and these were brought to the notice of the Ministry of Defence in late-August. But from the pattern of events it is evident that the Defence Minister was not apprised of the enormity of the bureaucratic insensitivity. Why the Committee of Secretaries came to this decision is intriguing and merits scrutiny at the highest political level.
In 1979, India faced a mini-revolt by the paramilitary forces. The Indian Army — the ultimate symbol of the state — was called out to quell the incident. At that time, the Government of India drew up norms wherein it was accepted that the police, the paramilitary forces and the army would form an inter-cadre but non-linearly linked hierarchy with the military as the lead service. This was necessary due to the multiple and complex requirements of internal security where the army, and on occasion the navy, have to work with their paramilitary and police counterparts. For some inexplicable reason, this norm appears to have been jettisoned by the bureaucracy.
At the core of the current stand-off is a sense of disquiet and anguish within the military that the civilian bureaucracy has perfected the ‘Yes Minister’ syndrome and deliberately misled the political apex about the nature of the military’s plea for redress. More than actual pay, the Indian military is alarmed over the manner in which it has been progressively down-graded institutionally.
The inter-cadre implication of this revision of pay bands is that a Commandant of the Border Security Force and the Coast Guard who till now was deemed to be junior to a Lt. Colonel and a Naval Commander — they wear similar rank badges — will not only receive a much higher pay but will have legitimate reason to consider himself to be senior to his military counterparts. The current operational directives to the Indian military envisage that the three armed forces of the nation are the lead services and that in times of war, the paramilitary and the Coast Guard will function under the unified command of the military.
The SCPC anomalies will distort this carefully arrived-at inter-cadre hierarchy. And, given the ongoing low-intensity conflict and the operational tasking of the Indian Army, the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force in internal security, serious operational imbalances will invariably occur. Furthermore, personnel below officer rank (PBOR) who were given a certain index towards pension benefits to retire at a relatively early age of 35 to 45 years, now have this modest advantage withdrawn. The SCPC recommended that they be inducted laterally into government service and that hence the weightage of early retirement be reduced. But the final recommendations reduced the pension benefits even without there being any policy decision to induct laterally ex-military personnel into government jobs.
Recently, while delivering the Field Marshal Cariappa Memorial Lecture, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram paid a rare but handsome tribute to the departed soldier and noted that India owed a debt of gratitude to the military for its professionalism and apolitical orientation which had enabled the nurturing of India’s robust democracy. The Indian military has always upheld the principle of civilian supremacy in a democracy — the civilian being the elected representative. And this is as it should be. However, the denigration of the military, as was noted during the V.K. Krishna Menon years, is fraught with grave dangers for national well-being, as recent Indian military history testifies.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will address the Combined Commanders on November 1. There he must assuage the bruised sensitivities of the Indian military while upholding the principle of civilian political supremacy. More than pay and allowances, it is the ‘izzat’ of the ‘fauj’ that is being sullied. This warrants redress without recrimination. The delicate politico-military harmony should be restored.
India is on the cusp of emerging as a major power. Weakening the sinews of its military by denigrating the chiefs is ill-advised when the nature of the security challenges is becoming more complex. The current ministerial panel brings together the most sagacious members of the UPA, and they could use this ostensible breach of discipline as an opportunity to initiate a holistic review of the Indian military and its future orientation. Setting up an Armed Forces Commission would be a highly desirable political initiative in this context.
6 months ago