For the second time in a week Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has personally taken on military veterans who are returning their medals in organized agitations across the country over the one-rank-one-pay (OROP) standoff with the government. Speaking in Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu, he said, “burning and returning them [medals]is an insult to the nation and the armed forces… I don’t appreciate it.” (Returning medals an insult to nation: Manohar Parrikar). He has also challenged veterans to prove that their actions are “not political”.

The defence minister’s salvo follows his comments last week in Goa where he was quoted as saying that returning medals was “not in line with army discipline” and that the anti-government protests were “unlike that of a soldier.” (OROP: Over 2,000 war veterans return medals).

This twin outburst reflects the government’s inability to contain the growing unhappiness among veterans over what they see as a ‘moth-eaten’ OROP award and the political damage this is doing.

Nobody likes seeing grizzled old veterans returning their hard-won medals, especially not a government that prides itself on its national security credentials. OROP should have been an easy political win for the Modi government but it is turning into a political and PR headache.
Colonel (retd) Anil Kaul, spokesperson for the agitation in Delhi, has hit back saying Parrikar’s comments too are “unlike that of a Defence Minister. We have been seeking our due to rights for past 149 days. But government has found no time to listen to us.”

The veterans accuse the government of misleading them and irrespective of which side one agrees with, the sharp language from both sides shows how bad the trust deficit has become.
The defence minister’s charge echoes the government’s “manufactured protest” allegation at the writers who returned their awards earlier to protest against intolerance.

It is difficult for this charge to hold with the vast majority of veterans. As Major General (retd.) Satbir Singh, Chairman of Chairman of Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), has argued, the veterans will take back the “medals with honour and dignity the day the One Rank One Pension we are talking about is implemented.”

The fact of the matter is that many of the same veteran leaders leading the agitation now aligned with BJP in 2013 when it first promised OROP at Narendra Modi’s first rally in Rewari after being declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The gap between what they understood as OROP and the fine-print of what government has delivered is at the heart of the current dispute and the anger.

The military mind thinks in black and white and while other interest groups are more used to the usual politics of give-and-take, military veterans see the dilution of the OROP definition, as enshrined in the parliamentary panel headed by BJP MP Bhagat Singh Koshiari, as the betrayal of a promise. (Pension promise in peril?)

Even a sporadic look at veterans forums will show that the anger is not a party-specific one but a wider sense of angst at all successive governments over the years, the bureaucracy who they see as obscurantist and a sense that the military has lost out on its rightful role in the civil-military balance precisely because it didn’t bother about such issues earlier. OROP has become a lightening rod for this. (The soldier’s right: Why the arguments against one-rank-one-pension are misleading).

As Group Captain (retd.) VK Gandhi, General Secretary of IESM, has argued in a rebuttal to the Defence Minister: “How is your Govt better than UPA? UPA Govt never promised OROP and never gave but your PM has promised and gone back on his word. How will countrymen believe other promises made in manifesto? Would it not be appropriate to rename your party as BIG JUMLA PARTY (BJP). Please ponder over it before blaming veterans.”

To dismiss their protests as politically motivated may be a political miscalculation and the veterans who have so far strictly followed the law in all their protests cannot be wished away.

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