In June 2019, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) issued a notification directing that income tax exemption on disability pension would be given only to such Armed Forces personnel who had been “invalidated from service.” Military veterans in India considered this notification to be discriminatory and approached the Supreme Court for relief. The Supreme Court directed all parties to maintain ‘status quo’ on the matter vide its order dated August 30th 2019.
In the meantime, PCDA (Principal Controller of Defence Accounts–Pensions), Allahabad issued a circular, dated February 20th 2020, directing deduction of the said Income tax in accordance with the CBDT notification. Accordingly, the State Bank of India (SBI) debited as Tax Deduction at Source (TDS) the entire amount for the financial year, from the pension of the disabled personnel for the month of February 2020. As a result such personnel received only Rs 100/- as pension for the month.
There was widespread criticism of the step taken by the SBI as the disabled pensioners were left with no money to meet monthly expenses. Also, the action taken by PCDA, Allahabad and SBI constituted a “Contempt of Court.”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh moved with exemplary speed, cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that his ministry is infamous for, and got the order rescinded. Within two days, the disabled veterans had their pension credited to their account. This prompt action by the Defence Minister has won for him many hearts and accolades from among the military veteran community.
Soldiers lead a very tough life indeed. They go through the extreme hardship due to the love bestowed upon them by the nation and their families, as also, for the glory of their Units/Regiments and the Indian Army. They spend their youth in hard conditions with the hope that once they get back home after a distinguished service, they will be well looked after and respected by the nation and the family for whom they have sacrificed so much.
If serving soldiers see military veterans being badly treated by the nation as well as by the families, the very reason for hard work and sacrifice becomes redundant. Such a situation where soldiers function without morale and motivation can be very dangerous for the security of the nation. It is a danger whose negative manifestation would come out only on the battlefield when the soldier does not exhibit the will to fight. By then it will be too late to rectify the situation.
It is not the weapon/machine but the man behind the weapon/machine who wins battles. The best of weapons and training holds no value if the soldier does not have the desire to fight and win. This has been the case over millenniums of warfare, well exemplified by small armies winning over very large, well equipped ones.
Military veterans play the biggest role in motivating the serving generation towards upholding the highest tenets of military ethos and courage. They meet the serving soldiers frequently, tell them stories of the times when they faced similar difficulties and came out victorious. Veterans assist the serving soldiers in getting over the insecurities that they face in pursuance of their very difficult task and very hard life. If these veterans are left unmotivated what will they teach to the younger generation?
For any government be it a democratic, communist, fascist, dictatorship, monarchy and autocracy, keeping a strong, well equipped and motivated Armed Force is the first priority. History is replete with instances when rulers have failed to look after their soldiers and have paid for it with decimation of their regimes.
It is known that leaders of democracies have a need to show development for their political survival. However, to go for development at the cost of defence is a blunder that no nation can afford. In India, a system has evolved where the bureaucracy controls all matters relating to the defence of the country. It is okay for the bureaucracy to facilitate the upkeep of the forces in terms of weapons, administration etc. The political leadership, however, cannot depend upon the bureaucracy in matters pertaining to the leader-soldier-veteran relationship. It is something that is very personal. When a nation loses a war, it’s never the bureaucrat who is held responsible. The onus of the loss is put upon the leader and the eternal shame comes to the lot of soldiers. Can there be a bigger reason for maintaining a personal connect between the two?
India is a fledgling democracy surviving in an inimical neighbourhood. There are many global forces that do not wish to see the country prosper. Under such circumstances it is the Armed Forces that need to be the strongest element of power projection. If the military is strong, hostile voices will be automatically subdued.
It is, therefore, very necessary for a Defence Minister of the country to take a lead in meeting the aspirations and requirements of the serving as well as veteran community of soldiers. In this the Defence Minister needs to get complete support of the entire government apparatus.
A soldier does not like to demand what little he needs, it is the leadership’s responsibility to understand his needs to give beyond them and thus build a strong foundation of the Armed Forces. If such circumstances are created then the soldier will defeat the enemy even with bare hands.
The matter of removing income tax exemption on pension being given to military veterans is just one of the many pinpricks that are vitiating the relationship of the government with soldiers, serving and veteran. There are matters like implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, curtailing of canteen facilities, shoddy implementation of the health insurance scheme (ECHS) and many others that are causing an avoidable friction between the government and the military veterans.
There is a perception that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will take affirmative steps towards bridging the gap between veterans and the government. This perception needs to be turned to reality. To start with let it be ensured that no soldier, serving or veteran, ever has to go to court to get his dues from the government since there can be no bigger shame than this in the holy relationship of the soldier with his leader.