Beyond pop nationalism – How neoliberalism affects the jawan: Ujithra Ponniah

Guest post by UJITHRA PONNIAH

‘7th Pay Commission: Modi government’s Diwali bonanza to armed forces! Indian soldiers to get 10% arrears’, on October 13, 2016 Zee News the current government’s pet broadcaster, tried to quell the rising disquiet within sections of the armed forces with the 7th pay commission recommendations[i]. The recommendations of the 7th pay commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Ashok Kumar Mathur came into effect from the January 1st, 2016. The three military chiefs in an uncharacteristic move since then have written repeated letters to the government, expressing their rising unhappiness within the ranks only to be swiftly turned down. The last on the matter from the defence minister Manohar Parrikar is a promise of referring the anomalies to a higher panel, a black hole where many concerns in the past have also been lost. Along with the current serving military chiefs, 10 ex-chiefs have also written to the Prime Minister, only to be met with the selective silence that many in the country are well familiar with[ii]. So what are the military’s concerns with the current pay commission?[iii] They can be swiftly summarized around three points though the issues run deeper: an increasing disparity between the military and the civilian central government employees both in terms of pay and hike (for example a hardship allowance for an IAS officer posted in the north east is more than a soldier in Siachen); a downsizing of the disability pension in the military; and the clubbing of the military service pay (MSP) of junior commissioned officers (who rise from within the ranks of the jawans) and the jawans[iv].

Are the inadequate pay hikes in pay commissions and a call to reducing benefits a new phenomenon? Soon after independence, widespread changes were introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru to ‘coup proof’ the army and bring it under political leadership. Changes that were never introduced in our neighboring country Pakistan (Wilkinson 2015:19)[v]. The changes involved decreasing the power of the army commander in chief and putting him at the same rank as the chief of the air force and navy, the army’s own military finance department no longer had the power to decide expenditure but had to be sanctioned by the Ministry of Defence, making the top command more ethnically heterogeneous to reduce cohesiveness, decreasing the tenure of senior generals despite it being costly for military effectiveness, tabs were also kept on generals through Nehru’s then Defence minister Krishna Menon (1957-62) and a reduction of  the military’s status by decreasing pay and benefits as compared to the pre-independence army (Wilkinson 2015). Subsequent pay commissions have been careful in increasing the pay and benefits of the military as compared to the other civil central government employees. For example, the third pay commission soon after the 1971 war decreased the pension to 50 percent of the last drawn pay as compared to 70 percent while that of the civil servants was increased from 30 to 50 percent. The third pay commission brought with it the promise of the one rank, one pension (OROP) which has been the current government’s pet project[vi]. One reason attributed to the continuing military-civil disparity is the lack of representation of the military in the pay commission boards as well as the close proximity of civil servants to politicians. In lieu of keeping the Indian military non-political, they are not allowed to organize themselves and form associations like their civilian counterparts- the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), Indian Police Services (IPS) and Railways. Any act of politicization from within the military, can be read as ‘conspiring to commit or failing to suppress a mutiny’ and punishable by death[vii]. If inadequate pay hikes and a decrease in the prestige of the Indian military have been underplay since independence why is the present pay commission any different?

Neoliberalism and the Defence Sector

The nationalist government in power with its deafening war mongering and chest thumping post the Uri surgical strikes has also been first of its kind to lathi charge its ex-servicemen[viii]. Is the concern here only about not giving the military its due or a non-parity between the military and civil employees as an episode in the news talk show ‘We the People’ implies? Why would a government which is quick to use its military to crush and blind protestors in Kashmir, control Jat protests in Haryana, use air power against its own people[ix] and use them for relief work not reward them with handsome salaries? Certainly the ‘morale’ of the military, which is often cited as one of the prime reasons for not prosecuting grave travesties protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and atrocities committed by the armed forces (lately in Kashmir, where the atrocities spill beyond what ‘human rights’ can even capture) would be strengthened with a deserving salary? Like many other things with the current government in power, the answers are revealed in the contradiction between speech and action of its Pied Piper.

Earlier this year, the government allowed 100 percent foreign equity in the defence sector through the government approved route, especially in cases like the acquisition of modern technology. The earlier approved limit of FDI was 49 percent and the government could approve a higher limit on a case to case basis[x]. In the past a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) had to form a joint venture with a domestic firm before starting operations, however now they can directly set up shop. Monopolies like Reliance have cashed upon the policy change and begun investing heavily in manufacturing and forming international tie ups[xi]. The effects of this will outplay in the near future. However, the need for defence reforms and the basis for it have been spelled out by the government at different occasions. Soon after the Pathankot Air Force base attack earlier this year, the prime minister called for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the ‘beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies’ of his commanders. He highlighted six areas that required reform- ‘in defence planning, enhancing jointness (the ability of the army, navy and air force to operate together), urging manpower rationalization (smaller tooth to tail ration), emphasizing professional military education, restricting higher defence management and in the defence procurement process’[xii] Financial mismanagement and the huge proportion of the defence budget being used for ‘manpower costs’ have also been discussed (Bhardwaj, 2016: 11)[xiii]. An area the government would want to cut ends as seen with the 7th pay commission is the salary and other benefits (doing away with rations in peace stations) of the defence employees. The pension of civil central government employees since 2004 have been of a contributory nature, while that of the defence despite being downsized to 50 percent of the last drawn pay (in most cases) continues to be non-contributory in nature. The OROP pensions were seen as been a huge drain on the exchequer and a hindrance in capital acquisitions (ibid). Financial mismanagement is often cited to encourage the participation of private players in a neoliberal economy.

The question that many in the bureaucratic power lobbies seem to be asking is: why should the government pay for the upkeep of an ever expanding army and their families which comes into action only when in times of war?[xiv] This goes contrary to the imagined role of the state after opening up our economy in the beginning of the 1990s. Subsequent governments in power have been cutting down public expenditure in social spending while simultaneously bailing out capitalists and facilitating their mining of resources. Why should the defence sector no when it comes not to its capital acquisitions but salaries of its employees be any different?

What about the jawan?

The heart of any story are the people who constitute it, that in this case is the jawan[xv] on whose bent back rides pillion the political aspirations of his politicians. If the insincere trope of the ‘collective conscious’, had ever a worthy anchor it could be no one better than the jawan on our facebook wall, meant to silence us all into easy submission. Privatization of military manufacturing is not going to be limited to technological acquisitions in times to come. Within a neoliberal economy making the military cost-effective means ‘rightsizing’ it and getting men to man the state of the art warfare equipment (Kumar 2016). China recently announced a cut of 300,000 troops[xvi]. The groundwork for operationalising the products of the 100 percent FDI in defence is being laid out and the foot soldier for modern war fare will also have to be changed. A former senior finance official, unhappy with the high pension bill said ‘the contemporary emphasis is on educated soldiers fighting a technology-driven war with modern gadgets and machinery. The Indian soldier, representing the rural gentry is semi-educated and deployed in the traditional warfare system’. (Singh 2016 in Bhardwaj 2016: 11). Sizeable percentage of the lower ranks in the three forces is occupied by those hailing from rural agrarian families from marginalized castes. Employment in the military is both a source of steady government income in times of turbulent agrarian returns as well as a matter of pride for some families. There are numerous cases where people bribe their way to secure a job in the defence through middle men in villages[xvii] The meritocratic bias of the government is visible in its disinterest to pay these men the same salary as their civilian counterparts (ibid). If any of this seems to far-fetched one just needs to turn to the US who subsequent Indian governments hold in great regard and is the largest consumer of private military contractors (PMC).

At present there is an officer shortfall in the Indian military across the ranks. The 7th pay commission and the many commissions before it have ensured enrolling in defence services a non-attractive career option. Not only is enrollment on a decline but also pre-mature retirement is on an increase. After the sixth pay commission, a survey by the Sixth Central pay Commission in 2008 showed that 62 percent of the respondents did not feel the ‘joy of serving the nation’ and 77 percent did not feel they were adequately compensated (Kumar 2010: 16)[xviii]. The availability of lucrative employment in the private has also decreased the interest in joining the defence. A vacuum needs to be first created before it can be filled; this has been the neoliberal mantra internationally to allow markets to play a larger role. In times to come then private companies hired by the ruling capitalists will decide which wars are to be fought. Sustained disincentivising a career in the defence and a pressing need for future private replacements is then the message of the 7th pay commission to its forces and people. Just like the ‘make in India’ vision is far from its namesake, the adulations of the Indian soldier by the current government are empty.

The argument made for the ‘morale’ of the forces is a smokescreen protecting policies of an occupier state and probing into colonial systems of servitude like the sahayak system within the army, where trained soldiers have to undertake domestic chores. The debates and discussion at the current moment needs to go beyond the pay disparity between the civil and military employees and realize the elephant in the room that connects the kisan in the field and the jawan at the border beyond imagined kinship ties-that is neoliberal reforms. Liberal discourses also need to situate what they see as an Indian solider (rightfully as agents of hyper-nationalism and state patriarchy) within the workings of the neoliberal economy. The fight against which will need wide based solidarities in times to come. Pedestalisation of the solider only benefits politicians and goes against realizing that a solider is a worker in a capitalist economy who needs her/his rights protected and actions questioned without impunity.

Ujithra Ponniah is a research scholar

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[i] October 13, 2016, 7th Pay Commission: Modi govt’s Diwali bonanza to armed forces! Indian soldiers to get 10% arrears, Available at < http://zeenews.india.com/business/news/economy/7th-pay-commission-modi-govts-diwali-bonanza-to-armed-forces-indian-soldiers-to-get-10-arrears_1939382.html&gt;

[ii] As said by Retired Chief V.P Singh on ‘We the People’ telecast on March 20th, 2016, Available at < http://www.ndtv.com/video/news/we-the-people/fauj-vs-babus-why-7th-pay-commission-has-the-military-up-in-arms-408639>

[iii] For more details read <http://ajaishukla.blogspot.in/2016/03/military-seethes-at-pay-commission.html>

[iv] August 13, 2016, Unhappy with 7th pay panel, armed forces write to Modi, The Tribune, Availble at <http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/unhappy-with-7th-pay-panel-armed-forces-write-to-modi/280005.html>

[v]  See Wilkinson, Steven ( 2015) Army and Nation, Delhi: Permanent Black (with Ashoka University) for a detailed account.

[vi]  Bhat, Anil (2016, 11th March). Once again pay panel disappoints armed forces. The Asian Age, Available at < http://www.asianage.com/india/once-again-pay-panel-disappoints-armed-forces-270>

[vii] Cornell Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide, Available at <https://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=India>

[viii]  August 14th, 2015. Scuffle at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar as police try to evict ex-servicemen demanding OROP. The Times of India, Available at <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Scuffle-at-Delhis-Jantar-Mantar-as-police-try-to-evict-ex-servicemen-demanding-OROP/articleshow/48478622.cms>

[ix] Bhardwaj, Ashutosh (2015, 21st October) Anti-Maoist operations: Chattisgarh, IAF to carry out retailiation attacks from air. The Indian Express, Available at< http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/chhattisgarh-iaf-practise-air-attacks-on-naxals-addl-dg/>

[x] Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India, Available at <http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=146338>

[xi] Manu, Pubby (2016, April 16), How Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani is readying his companies to target big-ticket defence projects, Economic Times, Available at < http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/how-reliance-group-chairman-anil-ambani-is-readying-his-companies-to-target-big-ticket-defence-projects/articleshow/51886015.cms>

[xii] Mukherjee, Anit (2016, 25th January) The Big military challenge, The Indian Express, Available at <http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/narendra-modi-military-india-defence-manohar-parrikar/>

[xiii] Bharadwaj, Atul (2016), ‘Neoliberal Agenda: A Death Knell for the National Military’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol LI No 31.

[xiv]Shukla, Ajai (2014, 26th May) Ajai Shukla: Pressing the reset button in Mod, Business Standard, Available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/ajai-shukla-pressing-the-reset-button-in-mod-114052601255_1.html

[xv] I use jawan and soldier interchangeably in this section, both refer to Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) in the three wings of Defence.

[xvi] Mukherjee, Anit (2016, 25th January) The Big military challenge, The Indian Express, Available at <http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/narendra-modi-military-india-defence-manohar-parrikar/>

4 thoughts on “Beyond pop nationalism – How neoliberalism affects the jawan: Ujithra Ponniah

  1. Pingback: Beyond pop nationalism – How neoliberalism affects the jawan: Ujithra Ponniah – wingedream

  2. mohan dasa

    It is one thing to write papers as an academic exercise for recognition and fame: the hands – on experience of facing danger is denied to the researcher. He will not know about regimental bonding and esprit – de – corps. He will not feel the pain of rejection and being forgotten by the peple for whom he is playing with death.
    Lads join the forces for money. But the training that infuses in the jawan the above sterling qualities cannot be understood by the uninitiated. Young officers learn to guide and lead in peace and war from the date of commission. No other profession teaches this. Commitment is 100%, 24×7.
    The sacrifices of the Indian military are being considered routine stuff by armchair experts. It still is world – class because of what it is, not because of remote control. Neilther babus nor netas can give leadership.
    If paying for the soldier is a pain, manage with chowkidars.

    1. Ujithra Ponniah

      As I attempt to argue in this piece, that in times to come there will be an increase in pay cuts, perks and perhaps even laying off men in uniform. It does not suit the interests of the government to take care of an expanding force and its families (the 7th pay commission, takes away the provision of providing rations in peace stations among other things). However, this is not to argue, that the need for men or the military is going to die down. Bureaucrats and politicians might argue that the military comes into play only when there is a war, but this ‘war’ does not always have to be against Pakistan. Internal others have been created and controlled (kashmir, NE, Chattisgarh etc) through the military. Who is going to fight these ‘wars’ on multiple fronts? As modern equipment are bought and productions increased, the face of this war and the men who fight it will also have to be changed. The ‘paradigm shift’ that the PM is talking about is not just about making one’s will stronger against the enemy, it is changing military training and the recipients of it too. It is also perhaps about recruiting elsewhere to make up for a shortage that has been created over a period of time.
      At this moment, then, it is important to acknowledge the bravery and commitment of men in uniform. It is equally important to connect the dots and ask why are governments and especially this government (which is always beating the nationalism drum) deincentivising a career in the military? Why is the government selectively politicising the forces?

  3. GANESH Jadhav

    No comments b coz since independence, nobody heard the voice of Army personnel so nothing will be happened in future too. Neither Sarkari babu’s nor politicians have interest to solve it

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