IN the ancient treatise Arthashastra, legendary Indian philosopher and strategist Kautilya emphasised the importance of a ruler’s duty to protect and support his warriors. He asserted that the strength of a kingdom lay as much in the valour of its soldiers as in the justice and care provided by its rulers. In contemporary times, as India grapples with evolving security challenges and the complexities of military engagement, Kautilya’s words echo with renewed significance.
Rulings given by the Armed Forces Tribunal in favour of soldiers, particularly on pension matters, are routinely contested.
This relationship between the soldier and the state has many facets. Laws, statutes and military codes define the legal relationship between soldiers and the state. In democracies, these often derive from the Constitution or foundational laws that outline the military’s role, the rights of service members and the civilian control of the military.
Soldiers are instruments of state policy and strategy. The state is responsible for employing its military judiciously and avoiding unnecessary conflict, ensuring that the sacrifices asked of soldiers are for just and strategic purposes that serve the nation’s interests.
A good balance in civil-military relations ensures that the military remains subordinate to civilian authority while retaining its professionalism. Military culture, traditions and the soldier’s identity within the broader national context also shape the soldier-state relationship. The state must respect and understand the unique culture and ethos of the military.
At the heart of the relationship between the soldier and the state is the social contract, where members of the military accept ‘unlimited liability’ in return for the state’s promise of fair and equitable treatment, care for their physical and mental health, and ensuring their well-being during and after their service.
In his book The Profession of Arms, Gen Sir John Winthrop Hackett, an Australian-born British officer, elaborates on the concept of ‘unlimited liability’. According to Hackett, soldiers, by virtue of their role, accept a unique contract with their nation that involves the possibility of having to make the ultimate sacrifice. A soldier’s commitment could require laying down one’s life because of the duty to obey lawful orders — which could include orders that lead to almost certain death. This notion is foundational to military ethics and understanding the military service as a profession. The fundamental nature of soldiering is not in the readiness to kill (although this, too, is important to achieve victory) but in the willingness to suffer and die.
For Hackett and others who share his views, this concept is integral to the moral and ethical dimensions of military service. It also underpins the special relationship between the military and society, where the state assumes significant responsibility towards those who agree to this level of sacrifice. The concept of unlimited liability shapes not only the military ethos but also places obligations on the state that must be honoured in its dealings with military personnel. This mutual obligation is known as the ‘Military Covenant’, and it requires the state to treat its service members with honour and dignity and to provide for them and their families, particularly if they are wounded or killed in the service of their country.
Not many countries have a formally documented ‘Military Covenant’, and it may not be legally binding, but this interplay has sustained the bond between the soldier and the state for centuries. A soldier’s service in the military may be temporary, but that does not diminish the state’s obligations; it underscores them. That is why the state provides pension, healthcare, disability benefits, etc. to ensure a dignified existence after service in return for sacrifices rendered.
Since Independence, the military has been almost continuously engaged in combating external and internal threats. The morale, motivation and professionalism in the Indian military have been sustained by the respect and support that it has received from the state. In this context, it is somewhat distressing to hear disparaging comments on the cost of pensions and claims that there is some kind of a racket running on disability pension cases. In September, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) rolled out ‘Entitlement Rules for Casualty Pension and Disability Compensation Awards to Armed Forces Personnel, 2023’, tightening the conditions for the grant of disability pension.
In March, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) asked the MoD to carry out an analysis of the reasons for disability among soldiers on the back of its finding that 36-40% of the officers and 16-18% of the personnel below officer rank (PBOR) who retire every year are drawing disability pension. The CAG also flagged concerns about disability pension being awarded on account of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
The CAG’s findings should not be considered unusual. Officers retire at a much later age than PBOR and serve for more extended periods in the extremely harsh conditions along our borders that impact their health. As far as total numbers are concerned, officers constitute less than 5% of the military and taken as a whole, going by CAG data, perhaps 18-20% of those retiring each year are granted disability pension. Again, this is not extraordinary. The US has a projected veteran population of about 18.6 million. Of these, 5.6 million (30%) are in receipt of disability pension, a tax-free compensation.
I do not intend to go into the merits or otherwise of the new disability rules as this is a matter for legal experts, based on various court rulings on the subject. There is also no contesting the fact that any misuse must be curbed. There is, however, concern that some actions could convey an impression that the state is shying away from its obligation.
Rulings given by the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) in favour of soldiers, particularly on matters of pension, are routinely contested. A recent letter by the Adjutant General’s branch has asked the legal cells of all Army commands to file writ petitions in the jurisdictional high court against various AFT judgments.
In the final analysis, the covenant between a soldier and the state is not merely a financial transaction but a moral imperative. Let us not falter in our duty to those who have never hesitated in performing theirs.
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