Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta sent out an unclassified signal to his men. It spoke of how the navy was delaying the implementation of the Sixth Central Pay Commission (CPC) recommendations passed by the Union Cabinet.
Two days later, it was followed by a similar signal from the Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor. Shaken by this unprecedented move, which some whispered was nothing short of a revolt, Defence Minister A.K. Antony pulled them up, following which the forces released 40 per cent arrears to their men.
The Government stepped in days later to announce the formation of a three-member committee headed by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, including Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Antony.
The services have also delayed the implementation of another government order to implement the revised pay scales, preferring instead to wait for the recommendations of the committee.
But what compelled the chiefs to cross the line in disobeying a Cabinet decision? “Such a situation has never been seen. It sets a bad precedent. Tomorrow, it could be used for any issue at the local level,” says former defence secretary Ajai Vikram Singh.
Army officials insist the chiefs did not send out the service instructions which would implement the new pay commission from October 1 only to quell the possibility of unrest among the ranks. “The chiefs had no other recourse. They could not afford to let their men down,” says Lt-General (retd) Vinay Shankar.
Protests from the armed forces have left the Sixth CPC hanging fire for over six months. The forces have painted the bureaucrats as villains of the piece for keeping them out of the panel that formulated the pay commission.
This despite an internal report of Ministry of Defence (MoD) that explicitly states that key proposal of the Task Force On the Management of Defence-the appointment of an armed forces’ representative on the Sixth CPC-has been implemented.
The armed forces emphasise that their grievances are not about money but about how the existing pecking order has been disrupted. Lt-colonels and their equivalent, wing commanders and commanders, have been put in a pay bracket lower than their counterparts in the police and paramilitary forces.
This grievance ironically surfaced after the recommendations of an anomaly committee set up to review the Sixth CPC. Lt-generals have been kept out of the higher administrative grade where director-generals of police are included. Even pension of soldier has been reduced.
“The issue is not about money but of status equivalence. There are certain functional requirements working at a certain level,” says Admiral Mehta, who is also the chairman of Chiefs of Staffs Committee.
Government rules determine an officer’s seniority on pay and the date of his entry into the pay band. While raising IPS ranks, what the Sixth CPC did was to raise paramilitary ranks also.
An imbalances which can prove disastrous when the armed forces operate in conjunction with police and paramilitary agencies. “India will be the first country where the paramilitary will be senior to the armed forces,” says Vice Admiral (retd) A.K. Singh.
Murmurs of the status quo being upset are already apparent. Last week, the Indian Defence Services Employees’ Association, which represents civil engineers, informed employees of ‘altered relativities’ of the Sixth CPC. The implication was quite clear-the civil engineers have been upgraded to the pay bracket of their erstwhile superiors, the army officers.
The last two commissions were hotly contested by the armed forces with the Fifth CPC triggering off a near-revolt among the technical cadre of the Indian Air Force. “This time around the Government has been more standoffish, leaving the services little room for manoeuvre,” says Major General (retd) Surjit Singh , a member of two previous commissions.
The Sixth CPC has led to silent yet widespread discontent among the men in uniform and continuing protests by ex-servicemen’s organisations. This peculiar situation has led to the unhappy sight of service chiefs almost reduced to the role of playing union leaders bargaining for higher pay.
Expressing a lack of faith in the committee of secretaries which was to look into their grievances, they have turned to the political leadership. The chiefs have pushed their case with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. How did these imbalances creep in?
The chiefs say they were not consulted by the Government before the gazette notification was issued. The military points to their old bete noire-the civilian bureaucrats at the MoD-and allege the entire episode is the outcome of their ‘subverting the democratic functioning of the state’.
When the chiefs met Antony last month to protest over the four anomalies, he assured them that he would take up the issue with the Prime Minister. MOD bureaucrats were instructed to communicate with the Prime Minister. But inexplicably, they sent it to the Finance Ministry without mentioning these anomalies.
“The military is subservient to civil authority which includes the government, Parliament and the Constitution. On day-to-day functioning the bureaucracy may represent the Government but it cannot replace it,” says an army official.
Antony, however, chose to play down the rift. “There is no difference between the government and the services, because they are also part of the Government,” he says.
The three-member ministerial committee which Antony is part of is set to present its findings well before the unofficial Diwali deadline. MOD officials say the committee is not averse to putting Lt-colonels in the higher pay band and giving them the same grade pay as their civilian counterparts.
But it is unwilling to accede to the other two demands. The only certainty in this sad dispute is that the gap between the bureaucracy and the armed forces is set to widen into a chasm.