CHANDIGARH: Protests by aggrieved citizens or groups are a common feature in democratic countries and are considered a legitimate form for airing grievances. The aim is to draw the attention of the government so that it focuses on those issues that have not been resolved for long periods, despite following laid-down procedures. Such issues are usually either ignored or shelved by the government for reasons that probably appear to the government as not important or the government hopes that they would die a natural death if they are left long enough to stagnate and eventually disappear.

On many occasions, the protests are either withdrawn or fizzle out. The reasons could be fatigue of the protesters; disillusionment setting in among them; paucity of funds; or a weakening of the will of those protesting. The flip side is that as the protests continue, the government appears to be seen more and more as obdurate and uncaring for its citizens. The government then is forced to act, as it gets concerned about its deteriorating image. This result in either a negotiated settlement or the government accepts the demands of the protesters, as pragmatism replaces obduracy.

The media plays an important role in bringing to the notice of the public as well as the government the specifics of the protests. This is carried out both by objective reporting of news and by bringing forth analyses, editorials, features and in-depth stories covering various aspects of the issues. In democracies, where the media is free and supposedly fair, the role of the media in modulating public opinion is of great importance. In our country, with possibly the largest number of media outlets of all varieties in the world- be they print, electronic, radio or social – the part played by it is colossal, if not overwhelming.

The media can also generate negativity, if it is not fair or pushes a particular line on account of external pressures or the policy of the owners/editors. In our country too, we have various shades of reporting and analyses, either on account of ideology or on account of various kinds of pressures.

With this preamble, let me come to specifics of the two major protests that the nation is witnessing for the last nearly two months, although the roots of both go back to many months and years.

The veterans are protesting the non-implementation of the already sanctioned scheme of granting One Rank One Pension (OROP), when it has been promised not only by the present government but also by the previous governments. In addition, over the last nearly four decades all political parties across the spectrum have lent their support to this demand of the military. The protest by the veterans is not just in the capital, but in all regions and major cities of the nation; at last count, ongoing protests were reported at over 60 locations all-over India. There have also been reports of support from some locations abroad.

The cause of the veterans is just and righteous, and is fully supported by rulings of the highest court of the land – the Supreme Court of India. It has also gone through the crucible of every conceivable scrutiny, including by the Parliament. It is supported not only by all the over 30 lakh veterans of the army, navy and air force, but also all their families, numbering nearly two crores. The nearly 12 lakh serving personnel and their families numbering over 40 lakh also support it.

If anyone is feeding wrong information to the government about the serving personnel not supporting this legitimate demand, then they are doing so either on account of their biased thinking or to deliberately mislead the political leadership. It needs to be emphatically stated that there is a symbiotic relationship between the serving personnel and the veterans. While the serving persons may not be publicly vocal on account of constraints of service, it is well known that they fully support OROP and are appreciative of the stances adopted by the veterans on this issue.

The other red-herring floated by the advisers to the political leadership is that it is only a small segment of younger veterans that are protesting. It is only a figment of imagination, being articulated only because there is a selfish agenda behind it. It is true that the numbers sitting in protest at the New Delhi Protest Venue – Jantar Mantar are only in thousands at any one time, but not only are the protesters rotating on a daily basis, but they are being regulated so as not to cause any administrative or law and order problems. Space too does not allow more persons at any one time.

Let me candidly state that the protest is total and encompasses ‘jawans to generals’. It also needs to be highlighted that even though some of the old timers among the veterans are still wedded to old world thinking of military officers not taking to the streets, their total sympathies and support are with the protesters, irrespective of their age, rank or service. It would be folly to think that the support for OROP is not total among both the veterans as well as the serving personnel of the armed forces.

Let me now turn to the second major protest in the country that has paralysed the working of the Parliament since the current Monsoon Session of Parliament commenced. Even earlier, in the previous session of Parliament, there was a similar breakdown of the business of the Parliament, for trumped up reasons.

I am not a political person, having been apolitical throughout my service and even later after my transformation to a veteran. However, to dispel the notion that apolitical is synonymous with being politically naïve, let me emphatically state that although all military personnel are scrupulously apolitical, they are as politically aware as any citizen of our nation. At times, they are even better than the normal run of political analysts, because they do keep in touch with current issues and have the knowledge, earthy wisdom and professionalism of reading the signals pragmatically without any biases.

Coming to the on-going protest by mainly the Congress Party stalwarts, aided and abetted by other constituents of the remnants of the UPA, let me be frank and say that it is a highly negative action, being taken only to hide their incompetencies, a dossier of which will fill volumes! That the BJP/NDA had done the same when they were in opposition is hardly a valid argument. I am convinced that this will have highly negative connotations for the Congress Party, both now and in the long-term. They may continue to stall the passing of important bills, but the adverse opinion of the discerning public is likely to boomerang on them. Opposition in a democracy is a positive input, but the way it is being done is ridiculous. The earlier it is discarded by the Congress/NDA the better.

The Indian polity is highly discerning. They may tolerate ‘tamashas’ for some time, but when they see that the promised ‘change’ is being hijacked by self-serving men and women, they will react and for effect. Those who forget easily need to remember that it is the citizens of India who brought down the massive edifice of the mighty Congress Party in the last General Elections and also the citizens of Delhi who cast their lot with the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party a few months later.

Let me now revert to our media. When two massive protests are going on simultaneously, why is the ‘illegal’ and ‘self-serving’ protest by a debilitated political party getting daily media attention, while the ‘legal’ and the ‘righteous’ protest of the military seems to have been consigned to the boondocks? Will someone please explain?

(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff)