When a nation accepts the need for a large set of armed forces to meet the threats it perceives, it also has to remember that it creates a segment of society which is quite different – servicemen, ex-servicemen and their families; different because they are the only ones who bear the effects of the oath they take – ‘duty unto death.’

When a martial tradition is forgotten, there are only a few good men who remember that nations are as strong as the motivations of those who protect them.

The above is something those manning the desks of the Department of Ex-Servicemen and the Finance Division of the Ministry of Defence need to be reminded about as they go about their jobs. No doubt managers of finance need to step with caution to save precious national resources, but when it involves the lives and survival of the loved ones of those who gave up life and limb for the nation, a different approach is needed.

Much has been written about the way in which the government challenges disability legitimately accorded to individuals by medical boards assembled under orders of the very same regulations that the government has sanctioned.

However, now comes the tragic case of a soldier, Rifleman (Rfn) Rinku Ram of Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, who, while on operational patrolling duty in a difficult terrain on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in November 2009, slipped and fell into the raging waters of a river.

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What followed is an example of why the uniformed community always remains seething with anger; the insensitivity of those who sit in judgment about post-death benefits, and their inability to apply their minds beyond the written word. Rules are mere guidelines and an intelligent application of the mind is what bureaucrats are meant to do – but look at these examples to decide for yourself.

Rfn Rinku’s mother, Kamla Devi, was waiting for the pension benefits of her late son, but none came despite the military authorities declaring Rinku dead and even issuing a death certificate.

Rinku’s body could never be recovered from the raging Himalayan river, just like many personnel of the armed forces who suffer the vagaries of nature. However, there was more heartbreak in store – since 2009, Rinku Ram’s parents have become reeling under a system paralysed by unrealistic rules and their interpretation.

When the papers were sent to the office of Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (PCDA) (Pensions) in Allahabad for releasing the pension, it rejected the claim on the grounds that Rinku could not be officially declared dead as his body had never been recovered. Archaic rules demand a period of seven years in waiting for a missing person to be declared dead.

Even that period is over, but the benefits have not been released due to official apathy. For the people who lay their lives on the line for the nation, the contingencies they encounter cannot be fathomed by people pushing files in cubby holes in office buildings of the Government of India.

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The Chandigarh bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) has taken cognisance and issued a notice of motion. Even if the AFT rules in favour of Rinku’s mother removing the anomalies presented by the CDA (P), it is uncertain whether the finance authorities will finally relent because in many cases of the AFT, the powers of implementation somehow remain constrained in the absence of a doubtful contempt clause.

There is another case on which the Chandigarh bench has just given its judgment. It relates to a case as far back as 1994 of a Gurkha soldier who went missing while on escort duty and never turned up even in his far off village. Presumed dead, his widow’s claims to family pension were rejected on the grounds as Rinku’s. The Records Office of the Regiment had declared him a ‘deserter.’

The army chief has now taken a serious view and directed the Record Offices not to declare individuals ‘deserters’ without conclusive evidence, as it indefinitely puts on hold any benefits that the family can legitimately claim.

The AFT bench has directed the authorities to release the pension and imposed a cost on the MoD, PCDA(P) and the Records Office. How far this will be implemented and in what timeframe, is but questionable.

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Two aspects need deliberation. The erstwhile Raksha Mantri (RM) had taken cognisance of the number of cases of disability and pension that the government was contesting in the courts, and had decried the time and energy being wasted in unnecessarily contesting these cases, which denied most legally eligible claimants of their rights. After the initial positive outcome of the RM’s direction, it was reported that the matter is back to where it was.

The current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, needs to be complimented on the stand taken on restoration of the children’s education allowance of battle casualties, another aspect which had been suddenly restricted to a very limited figure. She needs to now vigorously implement her predecessor’s directive. What emerges from the stated examples are the whims and fancies with which the entire issue of soldier benefits is treated.

Our armed forces no doubt are large, with hundreds of cases stuck in issues related to as many contingencies. It calls for a Veteran’s Commission to be set up to examine all these from a practical angle and a potential legislation by Parliament easing the process of release of benefits to the servicemen and their dependents .

A reminder of what is stated in the opening paragraph – ‘nations are as strong as the motivation of those who protect them’ – may perhaps be the trigger for a well-meaning parliamentarian to initiate such legislation. #KhabarLive

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