Pay Commission: heed the silent protest
by S.G. Vombatkere on 05 Oct 2008 2 Comments

Pay scales are important to soldiers, and this term includes all personnel of India’s army, navy and air force, but status (izzat) is far more important. The first is important to satisfy the corporeal and temporal needs of the fighting man and his family; the second is what motivates him to fight for his country and if need be, to sacrifice his life. 

In our increasingly materialistic society, the two are inextricably linked. The way a soldier is treated by the public at large and by bureaucracy in particular when he is on duty (official interactions) and off duty (on leave, at a personal level) is part of how the soldier understands where and how he fits into India's society.

The public is not, in general, sufficiently interested in the soldier to understand the reason for the rank structure, and cannot understand what the soldier does or the stresses and risks he undergoes, or that 90% retire before the age of 40 years. Then there are (mercifully few, but influential) people who think the defence budget is a waste of money. 

The bureaucrat is known to harbour a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the soldier. The fact of a Brigadier with 24 years service having to deal with a Deputy Commissioner with half that service but equivalent pay adds to that sense; the bureaucrat usually treats the ordinary jawan who gets paid less than a police constable dismissively. Public disinterest and thinly veiled bureaucratic hostility rankle in soldiers’ minds, but the discipline of military training keeps the soldier silent.

Successive Central Pay Commissions (CPCs) have brought down the inter se status of all ranks of the Defence Services with respect to the bureaucracy and police. The recent Sixth CPC is consistent in that respect, with yet another step downwards. For many years, the Defence Services have been asking that since the soldier and the ex-soldier form by far the largest chunk of all government employees and pensioners respectively, the CPC should have representation of at least one serving soldier. But the request has been routinely, even contemptuously, brushed aside. 

Because of the consistent degradation of the pay and status of the soldier, the status of senior Defence Services officers vis-à-vis civilian officials has been falling with every CPC. This is nothing but a repeated slap on the face of the soldier amounting to, “Yours not to reason why, yours but to do and die”. All this has been borne patiently and silently by the soldier, under successive insensitive, uncaring or apathetic governments.

The soldier is routinely called out in his secondary role to aid civil power during insurgency, social unrest, natural or man-made disasters, almost always because the civil administration (bureaucrats and police under their control) has proved incompetent in its primary role. If this situation is exacerbated by degrading the soldiers’ status vis-à-vis the bureaucracy and police, it cannot be viewed by the soldier as but a deliberate insult.

The three Service Chiefs conveyed to the Defence Minister that the Sixth CPC Review Committee that went into the anomalies of soldiers” pay once again without Defence Service representation, actually heightened the anomalous situation instead of remedying it. This culminated in their stating that the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission may not be possible because of the sensitivities of soldiers constrained to silence. Sadly, this was interpreted as breach of discipline. 

The Indian Express e-newspaper on 28 September 2008 reported: “Service Chiefs back off after Antony tough talk.” The Defence Minister said words to the effect 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.” If the Defence Minister imagines that the Sixth CPC recommendations will bring cheer to the soldier for Diwali, he is sadly misinformed, because it has actually further diminished the soldiers’ status. 

On the other hand, it heightens the soldiers’ dismay that his General, Admiral and Air Chief Marshal have been collectively “disciplined.” The Defence Service Chiefs’ acquiescence is not because they were intimidated into submission by the Defence Minister’s “tough talk,” but because of their mature understanding of India’s democracy and desire not to cause a constitutional crisis. Once again we have evidence of the patience and silence of the strong, and the thoughtless actions of the feckless and weak.

Mr. Veerappa Moily’s off-the-cuff remark on NDTV on 28 September 2008: “Men in arms, up in arms,” that the soldier appears to speak about these issues only after he retires, is evidence of his unforgivable ignorance of the conditions of military service that (necessarily) deny the serving soldier the right of freedom of speech and expression and freedom to form associations or unions under Article 19 (a) and (c) of the Constitution. He might like to cogitate on what might happen to India if, God forbid, the suggestive title of NDTV’s programme came true.

Soldiers who have the experience and honour of commanding men in the risky and life-threatening circumstances of military operations understand human nature in general, and in particular of the fighting man, much better than pen-pushing bureaucrats or politicians. It is mature understanding of human nature that a patient and silent man is not weak. Rather, he is patient and silent because he is strong. Testing the patience and misinterpreting the silence of the Indian soldier with respect to the Sixth CPC is not in the best interests of the nation.

Maj. Gen S.G. Vombatkere, a PhD from IIT, Madras, is a retired Army officer

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