When I joined the National Defence Academy as a young teenager, one of the first things that my colleagues and I learnt by heart was the NDA Prayer. Today, about half a century down the line, those stirring words still move me to action. The prayer emphasised duty to God and Country and in doing so, keeping the honour of the Services untarnished. An important component of the prayer was these stirring words, entreating God to:
‘Endow us with the Courage which is born of the Love of what is noble, and which knows no compromise or Retreat when Truth and Right are in Peril’.
The wordings imply fighting for truth and justice. The emphasis here is on moral courage, though obviously it does not exclude physical courage, which in any case the Armed Forces exhibit in ample measure on a daily basis. The show of physical courage is laudable, especially on the battlefield when shells are exploding all around, bringing death and destruction in their wake. Who will not be inspired by an Arun Khetarpal, fending off the onslaught of enemy armour, even though bruised and battered himself. Or that of an Abdul Hamid, fearlessly destroying enemy tanks till he himself was killed in action. Both these heroes were rightly awardedthe Param Vir Chakra and their tales of heroism have become legend. There are countless other tales of valour in the Forces, most unrecorded and unsung, except to those small groups of people who were witness to those events. In each case, physical bravery exhibited was the hallmark of that action. When it came to facing death, each man was resolute. He stood up to be counted and he made his country proud.
Moral courage however is more sublime. There is no martyrdom here, no rolling of the drums, no call to fame. It is a lonely path open to all to wander, but only the blessed few have the courage and the strength to travel all the way. In most cases, physical courage is exhibited in the face of the enemy, or when threats arise; saving a child from drowning, rescuing people trapped in a fire, and the like. Moral courage on the other hand requires standing up for what is right, when the wrong doer happens to be one of your own. It could be a relative, a subordinate, a colleague or your boss. That is infinitely harder to do. But that is what the prayer entreats the officers to follow – the lonely untrodden path, where perhaps even the angels fear to tread.
Moral courage has to be exhibited in issues small and big. When India became Independent, new pay scales were introduced for both civil and military officers. In the case of civilians, pre- Independence civilian officers were allowed to retain their old, higher scales and the new scales applied to their post- Independence colleagues. However, in the case of the Armed Forces, those serving prior to Independence were also brought on the new (reduced) scales. Writing on the issue, Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha states that his salary was reduced overnight from Rs 1065 to Rs 700 per month. The pre-independent bureaucrats however continued to draw their old higher salary!Finance maintained that whereas in the case of civilian officers, the numbers involved were very small, they were very large in the Army and the Government could not bear the heavy financial burden.
The NDA Prayer
O God, help us to keep ourselves physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight, that in doing our duty to Thee and our country we may keep the honour of the Services untarnished.
Strengthen us to guard our country from external aggression and internal disorders. Awaken our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and guide us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.
Kindle our hearts with fellowship for our comrades at arms and with loyalty to the men we command. Endow us with the courage which is born of the love of what is noble and which knows no compromise or retreat when truth and right are in peril.
Grant us new opportunities of service to Thee, to our country and to the men we lead, and ever help us to place such service before self.
The question was not really one of finances but of equity and justice. Even Sardar Patel stated that this was very unfair to Army officers. Tragically, a principle of natural justice had been violated by the government and the nation’s bureaucracy. The decision makers were all pre Independence bureaucrats and they thought nothing of compromising principles for their self interest. At the very first instant, the nations bureaucracy chose to keep its interests above the nations and the political establishment supinely fell in line. They needed them to do their bidding, so they had to keep them humoured. It may have been a small sum of money, but it violated a principle that has cost the country dear. The legacy the civil servant of yore left behind, sacrificed principles for self interest. Unfortunately, that legacy continues to be followed till date. By acquiescing to the demands of the bureaucracy the Government too chose to behave in a dishonourable manner. And that legacy too remains.
But what of the Army? Why did its leadership supinely accept something that was patently unfair. It is a cardinal principle of military leadership to look after the interests of the men under your command. If the nation could not afford to pay higher wages to the Armed Forces, the military leadership should have insisted on the government of the day to force their civilian counterparts to make equal sacrifices? India was their country too, unless off course, by donning the office previously held by the white man, these people felt the colour of their skin too had changed. That was the first sin committed by the Military leadership. It was an act of moral cowardice, rationalised by couching the surrender in high sounding words, stating that it was done in the National Interest. The fortress had been breached. There was to be no turning back now.
Slowly and steadily, the edifice of the Armed Forces was chipped away. The bureaucrats proposed, the government acquiesced and the Armed Forces slowly found their sheen dissipating. Nothing better could be expected from the nation’s political leadership and its civilian bureaucracy. But we expected the military leadership to stand up for their commands. That, they sadly failed to do. And the rot continued to deepen.
After India’s magnificent victory in the 1971 War, some thought that things would change. What was not realised then, and perhaps is still not fully comprehended, is the fact that it is relatively easy to defeat an external enemy. Dealing with your own, especially those in positions of power, is infinitely harder to do. So we jump now to the Third Pay Commission of 1973. A lot of damage had already been caused to Service honour and pride, but more was to follow.
Till the Third Central Pay Commission (CPC) in 1973, the pension for Armed Forces personnel was 70 percent of last pay drawn and that of civil governmentemployees 33percent of last pay drawn. This was to compensate for the compulsory early retirement of Armed Forces personnel as compared to the civilians. My father was an Army officer and he retired at a relatively young age of 48 years. At that time, the civilian retiring age was 58 years. For the men it was even worse. A soldier had 15 years colour service. By the time he was 33 or 34 years old, he was out of a job, with little employment prospects outside. At the stroke of a pen, the Third Pay Commission, composed of bureaucrats and without any Service representation, equalised the pension for armed forces and civilians alike. The pension of the civilian retirees was increased to 50 percent from the erstwhile 33 percent and that of the Armed Forces was reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent. There must have been an element of political calculation in all this. Service personnel did not vote, mainly due to the fact that they were posted all across the country and few bothered to take up postal ballots. The veterans were unorganised and hardly had a voice. The civilians however constituted a very powerful vote bank and the Congress Government was happy to please them.
However, a rough calculation shows that the pension received was actually less than 50 percent. A weightage system had also been introduced, and full pension was eligible for completing 33 years of service. As Army jawans retired earlier at 15 years, they were given a weightage of 10 years. Thus they were considered to have 25 years of service for pension and not 33 years. Their pension was accordingly, further reduced to that extent. What they got as pension was Last Pay Drawn (LPD) x 0.5 x (15 + 10)/33 = 37.78 % of LPD. That was a steal by the government and the babus. The pension of the soldier was in real terms halved and brought down to the level of what the civilian government employee was earlier receiving. The civilian government servants on the other hand were jacked up to 50 percent. This was chicanery of the highest order. See table below.
To justify their action, the Government of the day gave the logic that to compensate the Armed Forces personnel who retired at an early age, all veterans would get the same pension, for the rank they held at the time of retirement. This simply meant that a veteran who was a Sergeant and who had 25 years service on retiring in 1980, would get the same pension as that given to a Sergeant with 25 years service retiring today. That was the origin of the One Rank One Pension issue or OROP as it is popularly called today. That the Government has consistently reneged on this, even after the passage of four decades, indicates the contempt that the political leadership and the nation’s bureaucracy feel for their Armed Forces. More importantly, it is yet another act of dishonour by a government which refuses to act on its word.
The implications of the Third Pay Commission were cruel to the veterans. Pre-independence veterans, many of whom fought inWorld War II and also in India’s wars post independences, lost about 30 percent of their salary while in Service. Post 1973, on retirement, their pension stood nearly halved. The Post Independence veterans, many of whom fought the 1947 war over Kashmir, and the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971, lost about 50 percent in pension. Many of these soldiers were wounded in action and were disabled, but that did not appear to be of any consequence to the government of the day. My father was commissioned prior to Independence, but he never complained of the injustice meted out to him and others similar placed. I am not sure if he was aware that similar rules did not apply to his civilian counterparts. Moreover, when the pensions were reduced, he again did not flinch, and neither did the large number of retired jawans. They accepted the governments decision, like good soldiers. They had faith in their government. They did not realise that they had been betrayed. My father died in 1976, with his trust in the government intact.
But what of the Military leadership at that time. They knew what was happening, yet they chose to remain silent spectators to a wrong doing. There was certainly an element of moral cowardice in acquiescing to such a decision. Once again, if they had been endowed with the courage which is born of the love of what is noble, then they singularly failed to exhibit it. The quarter century from Independence till 1973 had amply made it known to the political and civil establishment that the Services would take everything lying down. But worse was to follow.
In 1986, the Fourth Pay Commission sanctioned ‘Rank Pay’ in addition to Basic Pay, for all officers from the rank of Captain to Brigadier. The rank pay was from Rs 200 to Rs 1200 which was to be added into the basic pay for all intents and purposes. However, while fixing the pay in the new scales, an amount equal to the rank pay was deducted from the emoluments resulting in financial loss to all affected officers. The very purpose of giving the rank pay thus stood negated and all all officers holding the rank of Captain to Brigadier as on 1 January 1986, suffered cumulative losses. This was not an act of omission, done in error but a deliberate act of commission, with the intent to deny the service officers their dues. An Army Officer, Major Dhanapalan filed a case against the government in the Kerala High Court and the court ruled in favour of the petitioner. The Centre, instead of righting a grievous wrong, chose to appeal against the judgement through a Special Leave Petition (SLP), which was also dismissed. This should have been adequate grounds for the government to right a wrong committed to its Armed Forces, but they chose not to do so. It took years of litigation and a decision by the Supreme Court to finally force the powers that be to relent. The decision is till to be implemented in full, but the larger point again remains one of slighting the soldier with deliberate intent. And this is done, because the military leadership accepts it. None exhibited the moral courage of Major Dhanapalan, who fought for what was his due. It was never a question of money but of propriety and honest dealing. The Government yet again cheated the Forces and the Military leadership once again acquiesced to injustice.
The rank pay draws a ghastly parallel with the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. There too, the government of the day conspired with those who caused the biggest industrial accident in India resulting in thousands of lives lost and lakhs affected by the release of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals in the atmosphere. While the Services have been delivered partial justice after nearly three decades, the victims of the disaster are still waiting for theirs.
With every pay commission the status of the Armed Forces has been deliberately degraded. There is this unrealistic narrative that the civilian babu keeps pushing to his political masters that the Services have to be kept subjugated if Indian democracy is to survive. This is a fallacy which should long have been put to rest. Political control is an accepted norm, but by no means does it allude to bureaucratic control. It means control by the elected representatives of the people of India, exercised through the Government of the day. The biggest threat to Indian democracy is from India’s bureaucracy, which still functions in feudal mindsets. It is the Armed Forces which have preserved the structure of the Constitution through ensuring secure borders and preventing the collapse of administration in states affected by violence, brought on by an incompetent administration. Yet the ignominy for the Services never ends. The Sixth Pay Commission heaped further insults on the Services some of which are yet to be rectified. And now, even the meagre financial powers enjoyed by heads of departments stand curtailed.
There apparently are no shortages of funds when it comes to the civil administration. They have gifted themselves Non Functional Upgrade (NFU), which they have denied to the Services and continue to live off the fat of the land, through a host of privileges and perks which they have got for themselves. Something evidently is not right, which is why the veterans in India are now agitating. The Military leadership lost its moral compass in 1947. We are still looking for leaders who can live up to the wording of the NDA prayer. For the good of the nation, that should happen soonest. Indeed, when truth and right are in peril, there can be no compromise or retreat.