By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Oct 16
This week, the army has vociferously alleged discrimination by the defence ministry in the devaluation of military officers’ status vis-à-vis civil servants. But, on Friday, the Supreme Court delivered the army a stinging rebuke for discrimination in the army’s own ranks.
Unprecedentedly, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice JS Thakur ordered the army to pay financial compensation of Rs 20,000 to each of 141 officers from combat support arms, who continue being denied promotion despite a verdict from the apex court.
The case relates to a discriminatory promotion policy instituted by the army in 2009, which the Supreme Court found biased in favour of officers from two arms --- infantry and artillery --- whose officers dominated decision-making during that period.
More than a hundred aggrieved officers approached the Supreme Court. On February 15, a bench that included the Chief Justice partially ruled in their favour, and ordered that 141 slots at the rank of colonel be granted to three combat support arms --- engineers, signals and air defence. The army was given three months to implement these promotions.
On June 25, after the army announced its selection of 141 promotees, officers challenged the method of selection in a contempt petition. The Supreme Court agreed with them, and granted the army another three months to hold fresh promotion boards.
With the army having failed to hold promotion boards by October 13, when that period finished, the aggrieved officers filed another contempt petition last week. The army, once again, asked for additional time --- this time till November 28 --- to hold the boards.
Today the Supreme Court granted this additional period, but directed the army to start paying Rs 20,000 per month, for the last three months, to the concerned officers. This is the salary difference between lieutenant colonel (their current rank) and colonel (the rank to which they will be promoted).
It remains unclear who is liable to pay this amount, which, for all 141 officers, adds up to more than one crore rupees. The respondents in the contempt petition are --- the army chief, General Dalbir Singh; his Military Secretary, Lieutenant General Amarjit Singh; and the Additional Military Secretary, Major General Negi.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s February 15 decision will also face a fresh challenge. Officers from the logistic services (which include the Army Service Corps, ordnance and Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), which were denied additional promotion vacancies in that judgment, are planning to file a review petition.
While that judgment brought 82 per cent of the army at par for promotions, 18 per cent of the officer corps --- mainly in logistics services --- remains disgruntled.
In denying logistics services additional vacancies, the apex court apparently accepted the army’s argument that those services are staffed by officers who have opted to shy away from combat. In fact, except for a tiny sliver, most cadets have no choice in what arms and services they are allocated.
Further, even officers in logistics services serve long tenures in field --- including tough assignments like the Siachen Glacier and counter-insurgency situations like in J&K. In the army’s own comparative studies, logistics officers have performed as well as officers from combat arms, when placed in combat situations.
“Are we headed for a situation where officers refuse to serve in logistics services, because there are less promotions there? And is it okay to promote a less meritorious officer merely because he is from a combat arm? This discrimination is dangerous and is hollowing out the army”, admits a serving general from the infantry.