India, We Are Fighting Our Own Disabled Soldiers

While responding to a query in the Rajya Sabha on 28 March 2017, the government informed that between 2014 and 2016, as many as 794 appeals were filed against soldiers with disability in respect of ex-servicemen in the Supreme Court. About 61.5 percent of all the appeals were against soldiers with disability, while only 1 percent was ruled in favour of the government.

The following article, originally published on 30 April 2016, delves into the life expectancy of soldiers, and non-combat-related injuries of soldiers, including excessive heat, injuries sustained while para dropping from helicopters and snake bites that even caused the death of three soldiers during a high-profile military exercise in Rajasthan.

Most nations recognise the inherent stress and strain of military service and its detrimental effect on the health and daily lives of soldiers. India does too. But only in theory, not in practice.

Lip service galore, zilch on-ground support.

Contrary to popular perception, the life expectancy of soldiers is lower than their civilian counterparts. The reason is not difficult to understand. Soldiers live in a regimented lifestyle, away from their families and at times under the shadow of the gun for most of the year. Covered by a tough disciplinary law for twenty-four hours, they face unique stressful conditions which aggravate even regular diseases and ailments.

There is little doubt that soldiers face higher stress levels than ordinary citizens living with their families. This is because soldiers are away from commune living and so, cannot adequately cope up with domestic commitments and stresses.

But in a strange and ironic kind of incorrigibility, it is the defence establishment which is not ready to accept this proposition – a statement which is not rocket science but just common sense.

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Soldiers disabled by high stress levels and other ailments are released from service without regular pension or disability benefits.
Despite Supreme Court orders, Army headquarters has filed appeals against tribunals which have granted disability pension to soldiers.
According to the rules, for a soldier recruited in fit medical condition, any disability is considered to be influenced by service conditions.
Still, benefits are refused on excuses such as ‘disability was incurred in a peace area’ or ‘disability was due to domestic stressors’.
Contrary to popular perception, the life expectancy of soldiers is lower than their civilian counterparts.

Indian Army dress rehearsal for Republic Day Parade. (Photo: Reuters)

Denying Basic Human Dignity to Soldiers

Medical specialists all over the world recognise higher stress and strain in uniformed forces. All democracies endorse this. Disability rules in India also state the same. The Prime Minister feels this to be true. And so does the Defence Minister. The apex military medical body is in agreement. Even the courts, including the Supreme Court, have issued directions along these lines.

But still, many of our disabled soldiers are released and sometimes even thrown out of service on medical grounds, without regular pension or disability pension. This denies them a life of basic dignity – on the pretext that their disabilities were declared ‘neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service’.

This declaration by military medical boards is a blatant disregard of practical realities, to say the least.

Also Read: Shashi Tharoor on the Declining Status of the Indian Armed Forces

When such soldiers fight long legal battles for their dues, the official establishment is quick to file appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court. And why? In order to deny these soldiers and their families a few thousand, and at times a few hundred rupees. The officialdom is comfortable wasting money and resources on expensive lawyers and litigation. But not with releasing lesser amounts to those who have served us.

Nothing could be more shameful for us as a nation.

An Indian army soldier mans a gun inside his bunker in Odusaa, 79 miles west of Srinagar. (Photo: Reuters)

Hostage to File Notings?

The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, has directed the Ministry of Defence to grant benefits to disabled soldiers. The Defence Minister constituted a Committee of Experts to look into rising litigation against soldiers, of which incidentally I was a Member. The Committee also recommended the withdrawal of such litigation as well as appeals by the Ministry of Defence against its own soldiers.

Despite all this, recently, elements in the Ministry of Defence had asked the Army Headquarters to file appeals in the Supreme Court against tribunals and court orders wherein disability pension had been granted to disabled soldiers.

And it seems, the Army Headquarters has readily complied.

Having worked for disabled soldiers for close to two decades now, what pains me greatly in writing this, is the fact that even though all stakeholders, including the political executive, are on board and there are all encompassing directions of the highest court of the land, the system is held hostage to contemptuous file notings of lower level officials.

These notings are purportedly based on some legal advice egging on the establishment to file appeals against verdicts rendered in favour of disabled soldiers. The Headquarters of the Defence Services are also meekly accepting this bloodbath, without taking a strong stand on file by pointing out this malaise to the powers that be.

(Photo: iStock Photo)

But, What Do The Rules Say?

Our rules, paradoxically, are liberal and sensitive.

The rules provide that in case a soldier is recruited in a fit medical condition, then any disability arising during service, except when caused due to his or her own illegality such as substance abuse, is deemed as having been affected by service conditions.

This presumption is not unique to India but is followed in almost all democracies. This is because the harmful effects of insidious and invisible pressures of military life are known to manifest themselves negatively on the health of soldiers.

Still, benefits are refused on unforgivable excuses such as ‘disability was incurred in a peace area’ or ‘disability was due to domestic stressors’ without realising that the inability to attend to personal requirements has a direct link with the military – since it is due to service in the defence services that a person is not there all the time to take care of his or her domestic needs. This is a fact even recognised by successive defence ministers, who themselves have underlined the rise in stress levels faced by soldiers.

Additionally, soldiers living in barracks need permission, even to go to the washroom, are required to sign registers and take an out-pass for a visit to buy a toothbrush from the market. They are denied basic needs such as physical proximity, emotional warmth or even sexual fulfilment for months together.

In such circumstances, it hardly matters whether they are serving in a ‘peace’ area or ‘field’ area. And to top it all, the rules anyway progressively provide that service in ‘peace’ or ‘field’ makes no difference for disability benefits.

On 24 April 2016, three soldiers of the Indian Army lost their lives during a high-profile military exercise in Rajasthan.(Photo Courtesy: Facebook page of ADGPI)

In the ultimate analysis, it seems that it is not the directions of the apex court or the will of the political executive that would be allowed to prevail in our homeland but the sadistic urge of a few stray voices that are holding the morale of our nation to ransom. The courts are clogged with mundane disputes and unwanted litigation thereby burdening the judiciary to unprecedented levels. And here we are, in this great nation of ours, wasting taxpayers’ money in fighting cases against our own disabled soldiers, the ones who silently sacrificed their health to protect us.

Shame on all of us.

(Major Navdeep Singh is a practising Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court. He was the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. He is a Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels. He is also the author of “Maimed by the System”, a collection of real life accounts of military veterans and their families who had to fight to claim their rights.)

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