Amid a row over Union finance ministry's decision to tax the disability pensions, the government on Tuesday informed the Parliament that at present 26 appeals are pending against the grant of disability pension before the Supreme Court.
In reply to a question raised by Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed the upper house that after the then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman's decision in February regarding withdrawal of 60 civil appeals filed by the government in the apex court, all these civil appeals have been processed for withdrawal.
"Out of these 60 appeals, 17 are related to disability pension," Rajnath Singh told the house.
It may be noted that after the then Congress-led UPA government went overboard to file appeals against disabled soldiers being granted relief in monetary benefits by courts and Armed Forces Tribunals, the BJP took up the sensitive issue during the 2014 general elections. In fact, the ministry of defence became the biggest litigant in government as 90 per cent cases in Supreme Court were related to disability pensions.
During the campaign for 2014 general elections, the BJP targeted the UPA, accusing it of being anti-soldiers. In its manifesto, the BJP had stated that it would minimise appeals in court verdicts rendered in favour of defence personnel.
Soon after coming to power, the first Modi government asked all wings of the MoD not to litigate in matters already settled by courts in similar cases. Then defence minister Manohar Parrikar, while expressing concern over MoD becoming a 'compulsive litigant', constituted a high-level Committee of Experts to reduce litigation. Moreover, the attorney general in 2015 also advised MoD to withdraw appeals to save the government from unnecessary embarrassment and costs. In fact, the apex court had dismissed about 800 appeals filed by the ministry in three years (2014-2017).
However, the issue took a strange turn when Sitharaman in 2018 informed the Parliament that her ministry had no proposal to withdraw appeals in such matters. After facing criticism from the military fraternity and in view of the 2019 general elections, Sitharaman decided to retract her statement. In February 2019, she tweeted from her official handle that her ministry would not contest any decision related to disability benefits.
Now, Sitharaman-led finance ministry's latest decision to tax the disability pension is creating a lot of noise in the armed forces.
In a notification dated June 24, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) under the Union Finance Ministry said that “such tax exemption will be available only to armed forces personnel who have been invalidated from service on account of bodily disability attributable to or aggravated by such service and not to personnel who have been retired on superannuation or otherwise.”
After facing growing criticism from the military fraternity on the sensitive issue, Sitharaman defended her ministry's decision and put the onus for the initiative on the armed forces. Army headquarters claimed that it has observed a huge hike in numbers of army personnel, especially senior officers, asking for disability pension benefits.