OROP: The End Game
CHANDIGARH: Reams have been written and published about OROP and news channels have never had it so good as this is now a perennial topic of discussions, interviews, bytes and of course action photographs! Yet, the OROP eludes the veterans and at the same time political leaders, bureaucrats and even intelligence gatherers keeping a restrained vigil are having sleepless nights. The main reason is lack of empathy and understanding on the part of the government, as well as inflexibility amongst the veterans.
The years and decades of injustice suffered by the veterans had manifested in frustration and anger of the highest degree, resulting in country-wide and high-grade protests by the veterans, which instead of slowing or dying down are rapidly increasing in intensity. There could not be a more dangerous situation for the nation.
The reason is best illustrated by an incident that I was witness to in Islamabad in Pakistan, of all places. A Track II level delegation of Indian Parliamentarians, in which I was one of the four non-parliamentarian persons, was having formal discussions to evolve how peace and friendship could be brought about between the two countries. These were the halcyon days of Lalu Prasad as a politically important leader. In his speech delivered in rustic Hindustani, he stated that the problem between the two nations was akin to the villager who drives a peg in the ground in the place best suited to him, to tie his buffalo and does not budge despite arguments, logic and entreaties. He called it “Khutta Garhna”. It seems to me that in the case of OROP too, both sides are guarding their ‘khuttas’, refusing to budge from the positions taken by them. A brief analysis follows.
Demand for OROP dates back to 1973, when the third pay commission, being composed of only bureaucrats arbitrarily reduced the pension of soldiers to 50 per cent from over 70 percent and simultaneously raised the pension of all civil government employees from 33 to 50 per cent. The only reason given was ‘equivalence’ and thus ‘oranges and apples’ became one because the bureaucracy had ordained it!! The political leadership, either on account of ignorance or because they were beholden to the bureaucrats for running the ship of state and getting lots on the side for them, accepted it demurely.
When the military protested (in a gentlemanly fashion, as was their training and ethos), a committee was formed under a Minister of State, which gave many recommendations. However, the government while accepting the innocuous ones ignored the substantive ones. OROP was one of these. I hope those who are under the wrong impression that OROP is a military formula have now realised and absorbed the correct position.
When the OROP issue continued to languish, the first set of protests were launched by the veterans under the leadership of Lt Col Inderjeet Singh who nearly died while on a fast unto death, till the then Defence Minister himself came to India Gate and prevailed on him to end his fast after meeting all demands of the veterans. Col Inderjit is still the biggest supporter of the present protest and can be seen at the protest venue despite his frail health and being confined to a wheelchair.
Let us now fast forward to the current protests. When despite acceptance of OROP by both the present and previous governments emphatically and repeatedly, the government reneged and commenced making excuses like lack of money; administrative and accounting difficulties; likely demands by others; and so on, there was no other choice left to the veterans but to launch major protests. These were at much higher levels as compared to earlier protests and very soon practically all veteran associations joined in and a confederation of all associations was formed. The leading lights of this confederation are Generals Satbir Singh and Balbir Singh. The protests became progressively bigger, both in numbers and in activities. From Relay Hunger Strikes they graduated to Fast Un to Death, something that is alien to the military. However, this has been as a result of the government continuing with its lame excuses.
The veterans had believed every word and every promise of the BJP and especially of Prime Minister Modi and therefore they were not only bewildered but livid at this about face of the government. However, being soldiers they refused to mope like in that old and sad dirge from the film Barsaat–“Chhor Gaye Balaam, mujhe hai akela chhor gaye”, but picked up the gauntlet instead.
The reasons for the government to renege on its promises repeatedly made during the elections and later after forming a strong government, on account of its elected strength, are difficult to discern in their entirety, but some are obvious.
The first is the perfidy of the bureaucracy, which redoubled its efforts to deny OROP to the veterans on account of its continuing animosity for the military and as they were loath to see the veterans getting more pension and usurping their high levels of pay and pensions. These had been assiduously increased by them from one pay commission to the other, while reducing those of the military personnel. They managed to do so as they had a free run to give recommendations that suited them, since the various pay commissions were exclusively manned by bureaucrats. They however became far too greedy in the Sixth Pay Commission. Even when various anomalies needed to be sorted out, the committees formed were again manned by them and the legitimate requests were not met.
The second reason is that when Manohar Parrikar assumed the prestigious appointment of Defence Minister and quickly grasped the prevailing situation, one of his first acts was to ‘tame’ the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defence. This was done with commendable skill but he had not reckoned with the totality of the bureaucrats who gather rapidly to help their brethren. So the task of continuing the delays was passed on to the equally wily pundits who man the Finance Ministry. They were exceptionally lucky as they found a kindred soul in their Minister, who also shared their animosity for the military, especially the veterans, but for entirely different reasons.
That reminds me of the immortal line penned by Willian Congrave (1670-1729) - “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" in his book The Mourning Bride. Although it was written in a different context, the actions of our lawyer politician who heads the Finance Ministry are no less. Having lost the Lok Sabha election in 2014, he convinced himself that it was the veterans of his constituency who were squarely responsible for his defeat and hence opposing OROP is to teach them a lesson. What can one say about such myopic and convoluted thinking, except that if all political leaders were like him, the country will come to a halt. Thank God for understanding political leaders!
The Way Forward
It is the fervent wish of all sane people that the current unnecessary confrontation must end at the earliest. It has unimaginable negative connotations for the nation’s security. I urge both sides to show flexibility so that this needless and ugly confrontation is brought to a successful end. During the last nearly three months, the differences have already narrowed down considerably. The need now is for both sides to shed egos, keeping the overall interest of the nation in mind; bend a little and take the assistance of well-meaning interlocutors like the three Military Chiefs; the ideologues of the ruling party; and all well-meaning intellectuals of the nation.
Let the first actions be from the veterans by immediately stopping Fast Un to Death (the military kills’ enemies of the nation, not themselves). At the same time, the government must relent on substantially reducing the period for reviews and announce a firm date for implementation of OROP.
We are lucky that we have a sagacious Prime Minister who grasps situations quickly and is not afraid to clasp the bull by the horns. He also has the full support of a doer in the Defence Minister. With their combined supportive attitude, I am sanguine that a final solution is possible in the next few days – the earlier the better.
(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff).