Missing the bigger picture on OROP

The Indian armed forces are fighting their toughest battle ever. For an Army that has fought on every terrain and in every operation imaginable, this battle is confounding. Because this time, they don’t know which side the enemy is on.

As the national discussion about the plight of ex-servicemen reaches a crescendo, the toughest battle is being fought not at Jantar Mantar between the khaki and the olive green, nor is it being fought between South and North Block that house the mandarins of the Defence and Finance ministries respectively. The battle is definitely not about the blame game between political parties, none of whom solved the problem when they could. Neither is it being fought on primetime channels where screaming ‘experts’ misconstrue volume for value.

The toughest battle is being fought by the young leaders of our armed forces – the Lieutenants, Captains, and Majors. It is they who have to lead troops into battle with no material incentives to assist them. Consider their situation.

Acute shortage of officers

It is well-known that the Indian armed forces are facing a grave shortage when it comes to junior leaders. Many active combat units are facing an acute shortage of officers. Young officers, barely out of their teens, are handling bigger responsibilities than ever before and stepping up to discharge additional duties.

It is these young leaders who have to answer disconcerting questions from their troops, picketed in the heights of Siachen or the heat of the Thar, on why their own government is manhandling them. They have to justify the perceived perfidy of former Generals who seem to have forgotten their troops and the promises made to them. It is time we started thinking about our frontline troops and junior leaders who are getting disillusioned with their role models.

All stakeholders in this game, by definition, are on the same side. So, whether it is the ‘treacherous’ politicians; the ‘Machiavellian’ bureaucrats; the ‘arrogant’ policemen; the ‘indifferent’ bean counters or the ‘unreasonable’ ex-servicemen — they are all citizens of this country who will pay a heavy price if the fibre of our apolitical armed forces unravels. And it is unravelling.

Social media is rife with serious dissent among ex-servicemen and, more alarmingly, serving soldiers and officers. Conversations bordering on sedition are creeping into discussion threads. Junior officers are openly questioning the spine and integrity of their seniors. Soldiers from serving units are contributing monies to fund the One Rank One Pension (OROP) agitation, albeit in their personal capacities.

Sane voices who dissuade such collection are countered by those who challenge the basis on which Chiefs regularly contribute a day’s salary of the entire Army to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund without the consent of their soldiers. Such open discussions — which just a decade ago would have amounted to heresy — constitute a grave development and provide a fertile ground for elements inimical to India.

It is critical to step back and look at the big picture. The fact that the OROP issue had been relegated to files for far too long is obvious from the critical mass of the problem and the indignation of the aggrieved. The fact that a former Chief chose to withdraw as an interlocutor underscores the divide and truculence of both sides. But it behoves the leaders of our Government, bureaucracy and most importantly the Defence Forces, both serving and retired, to realise that this impasse cannot be resolved in a combative manner. This is because, on one side you have the Indian armed forces, who have never learnt to take defeat regardless of the casualties suffered, and we should be thankful for that. Any result short of a victory will demoralise one of the finest armies of the world.

However, on the other hand, if the demands of OROP are achieved through bellicose means, what kind of armed forces would we leave as a legacy? One that fights its own government to get its due? Where does the story end? What prevents this pyrrhic victory from becoming a new ‘doctrine of belligerence’ that the armed forces use to press their demands in future? And what example will they set for their junior officers, struggling to keep their troops motivated?

The resolution to OROP doesn’t have to consist of a single silver bullet. Solutions can be a combination of the private sector stepping in with post-retirement options; the clustering of ex-servicemen into categories and re-skilling and funding them for entrepreneurship; and a slew of other measures to ensure the dignity and livelihood of our ex-servicemen.

We can achieve this outcome provided we comprehend that this is not just a dispute between ex-servicemen and the government. It is a national security issue where every citizen needs to pitch in. Because, if war is too serious a business to be left to generals, nation-building is too serious a process to be left to the politicians and bureaucrats.

( The author is a former Army officer and founding CEO, NATGRID.)

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 9:48:35 AM |

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