As the nation was paying homage to those who laid down their lives fighting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan on June 15 and getting ready to remember the braves on Kargil Diwas on July 26, the bureaucracy stabbed soldiers in the back once again on July 16.

It didn’t matter they mocked the Supreme Court directive. Where is the question of contempt of court when no bureaucrat can be questioned, leave aside investigating without explicit sanction of the government; the Catch 22 being bureaucrats hold governments to ransom, appearing indispensable no matter how unprofessional and unaccountable.

The results are visible all around us including the multiple Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh. For the Defence Secretary responsible for the defence policy even during war, playing ostrich remains the best policy.

In February 2019, the Department of Pensions & Pensioners Welfare of the Union Government issued a notification that all government servants who had not completed 10 years service also be given ‘invalid pension’ if permanently incapacitated.

This was after prolonged litigation and prodding by the Supreme Court. Taking its own sweet time over several months, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued similar instructions saying invalid pension is granted to the Armed Forces Personnel who are invalided out of service on account of a disability which is accepted as Neither Attributable to Nor Aggravated (NANA) by Military Service. The crucial line was physical or mental infirmity “which permanently incapacitates him (or her) for service” before completing 10 years.

But on July 16, 2020, the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) of MoD issued letter number 12 (06)/2019/D (Pen/Pol) signed by Under Secretary Ashok Kumar making the addition that benefit of invalid pension shall be granted for a disability which “incapacitates them from military service as well as civilian employment”.

The addition of “as well as civil employment” was by design to deny eligible military personnel grant of invalid pension. The DESW has no jurisdiction over any future re-employment of disabled soldiers, which is not guaranteed. Even otherwise, invalid pension is linked with the loss of job on medical grounds and not any upcoming hypothetical employment in civil.

How did DESW make the mischievous addition? Media says it was without the authority of Defence Accounts but the DESW letter quoted Defence Finance U.O. No. 10 (08)/2016/FIN/PEN dated 29.06.2020. Was this in connivance with Defence Accounts or was it Ashok Kumar’s doing?

Among the anguish on the social media one comment read, “All those who drafted, authorised and issued unauthorised instruction should be discharged without pension for demoralizing soldiers, their families and the nation at large”.

But nothing like that will happen. On the contrary Ashok Kumar may get a commendation from the Defence secretary and even from the Finance Minister for whom every paisa saved contributes to her $5 trillion economy plan.

MoD is reportedly looking into the matter, which may be the end of the story. Soldiers are meant to die and get disabled and if they want invalid pensions under NANA with less than 10 years service, let them individually fight court battles.

DESW excels in making veterans, widows and the disabled run from pillar to post, knocking at the door of law for every penny due to them. A reply to an RTI in 2017 disclosed that MoD spent Rs 47 crores in fighting cases against pensions of widows and the disabled. A battery of lawyers is employed paying them individually Rs 2 lakhs from defence funds, that too without a single case having been won by MoD. Achievements are two; sadistic pleasure of DESW and employment to chosen lawyers.

Media reports of February 20, 2019 said Supreme Court and multiple High Courts expressed extreme anguish over MoD’s inclination to challenge verdicts passed in favour of disabled soldiers by military tribunals or High Courts and suggested that Centre must “change its bureaucratic psyche”.

Following this, the Defence Minister hinted at reducing litigation against soldiers, widows and disabled.

But DESW found the way out by saying the issue will be addressed “on case to case basis”.

It is also on record that on occasions MoD deliberately did not implement decisions given by the Supreme Court in favour of soldiers. Having lost a leg in combat as a young officer and finally superannuating from service as Vice Chief of the Army Staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi had to fight a seven year legal battle before disability pension was granted to him.

The stance of MoD remains unchanged ever since. DESW continues to be manned exclusively by bureaucrats without any services or veteran representation.

DESW opposed One Rank One Pension (OROP) since 2011 and blocked a 5-yearly review of OROP due in mid 2019 in conjunction with Controller General Defence Accounts (CGDA) though promised by the Modi Government – all of which is on record and covered by the media.

The Defence Minister made no comment on the issue which indicates dubious intent. Many directions of the Supreme Court are not carried out, like orders in October 2019 to fill up vacancies in the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) have still not been implemented. 5000 cases are pending since 2009 and High Courts don't have jurisdiction over service matters. Where do personnel appeal? AFT Jaipur is non-functional since June 30, 2016.

MoD refers to DESW as if it is an exclusive entity under Islamabad or Beijing and not integral to MoD; but the Defence Minister cannot absolve himself from the responsibility.

IT exemption for disabled soldiers has been withdrawn for military personnel authorized since 1921 while personnel from other government services continue to avail the same. The Finance Minister in her earlier avatar of Defence Minister passed this order based on an unsigned note from a Service HQ using a Service Chief who had also supported her cantonment land enterprise.

On August 4, 2020 MoD has signed a MoU with the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances and IIT Kanpur to identify the cause and nature of grievances using artificial intelligence enabling predictive analysis of public grievance. Very catchy headline indeed but all that MoD needs to do is to look into the mirror and introspect.

Lt General P.C.KATOCH is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.