By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Nov 15
On Tuesday evening, close by where military veterans are staging a long-running protest to support their “one rank, one pension” demand, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was handed a 509-page report by an expert committee on measures needed to repair relations with serving and retired soldiers, sailors and airmen.
With civil-military relations deteriorating over the years, and with a communication gap widening between the military and the ministry, Parrikar has identified the need to correct this as one of his priorities.
If the committee’s 75 recommendations are accepted and implemented by Parrikar, the military will start recognising and catering for ailments peculiar to soldiers like “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD); and “disabilities due to the inherent stress and strain of military service”.
In a revolutionary change to the culture of military discipline enforcement, informal interactions and face-to-face conversations will replace the highly formalised courtroom culture in which accused get little opportunity to convey their viewpoints.
A chapter on “military justice reform” recommends a transformation of the currently ad-hoc dispensation of military justice through institutions like the “court martial”. If these recommendations are accepted, “courts martial” will be permanently established in specific military stations, so that they are guided primarily by institutional norms, rather than the personality of local commanders.
Further, the committee has recommended cutting down on almost 17,000 pending military cases by eliminating unnecessary appeals. “We have recommended that court decisions in favour of employees should be respected by the ministry, with the verdict appealed in only exceptional cases”, says one of the committee members. Currently, the ministry appeals almost reflexively against all adverse verdicts.
In a nod to social media and modern communications, the committee recommends that commanders run blogs “to promote an interactive process with the rank and file.”
The committee has attempted to attract more “short service commission officers” (SSCOs) to the services, who would serve for 5-14 years, thereby providing junior battlefield commanders who do not stay on to compete for higher rank vacancies. It has proposed to entitle SSCOs to the “ex-servicemen’s contributory health scheme” (ECHS) for the rest of their lives, and to a contributory pension scheme.
Since there are just about 10,000 retired SSCOs, this is not expected to have any major effect on the ECHS which caters for 3 million retired personnel and dependents.
Many of these recommendations will be considered revolutionary by conservative government officials, as well as by the conservative military hierarchy. However, Parrikar, in his constitution of the committee, made it inevitable that he would get unorthodox, even radical recommendations.
In contrast to the garden-variety defence ministry committee peopled by politicians and bureaucrats, this unusual five-member committee included: Kargil war veteran and limb amputee marathon runner, Major DP Singh; military jurisprudence expert Major Navdeep Singh; former top military judge, Major General T Prasad, and two well-regarded retired lieutenant generals, Mukesh Sabharwal and Richard Khare.
In a statement after submitting their report, the committee members thanked Parrikar “for not just being willing to take the bold step of identifying these issues which have caused major heartburn but more importantly for ensuring that only apolitical personalities with domain knowledge were a part of the Panel.”
The committee, constituted in July, has submitted its report in four months. According to the committee: “The process of consideration of the Report would be initiated (by the ministry) after 25th December 2015.”
In a statement, the defence ministry has acknowledged: “The Committee has postulated practical, workable, reformatory and gradual solutions.”