COVER STORY

Dividing lines

Why families of those killed on Pakistan, China border get unequal benefits

Gurmail Singh Gurmail Singh

It took seven years for the Indian Army to get a typographical error rectified by the ministry of defence. Owing to the error, the kin of soldiers who had died on the China border were receiving fewer benefits than the families of those who had died on the Pakistan border. The Indian Army has nearly 1.2 lakh troops deployed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC, Indo-China border), and over 2.5 lakh troops on the Line of Control (LoC, India-Pakistan border).

An amendment order dated February 3, 2011, from the pension department under the ministry of defence stated that battle casualties—cases of accidental death or injury owing to natural calamities or lightning or drowning while on operational duty or in action against enemy forces and armed hostility—be given liberalised family pension and enhanced ex gratia payment. Moreover, enhanced ex gratia rates were applicable to those who died on duty in specified high altitude areas and inaccessible border posts, because of extreme weather. But, the notification wrongly mentioned that the benefits were applicable to only those deployed on the International Border ‘of’ Line of Control, instead of International Border ‘or’ Line of Control.

The error was rectified on March 7, 2018, with the inclusion of ‘Line of Actual Control’. But, with no retrospective effect, 52 families of battle casualties would not get the said benefits. One such family is that of Major Neeraj Pandey, an officer with the Corps of Signals who died on March 17, 2016. He fainted while carrying a highly sensitive electronic warfare system with his unit in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district, barely a few kilometres from the Indo-China border. He was flown to the military hospital, where doctors declared that he died of cardiac arrest, triggered by the inhospitable conditions.

For the last two years, we are running from pillar to post to get our dues. How can someone differentiate on the basis of geography? - Virender Kaur, daughter of Naib Subedar Gurmail Singh (in pic), who died on duty in 2016

In her petition to the Armed Forces Tribunal last October, Pandey’s widow, Sushmita, said that despite her husband’s death being classified as battle casualty by the Army headquarters, the ministry of defence had denied benefits on “hyper-technical grounds”.

Sushmita, 32, has now joined the Indian Army. Her brother, Shashank Tripathi, told THE WEEK that they had made several representations before the ministry and officials of the defence accounts department. “Now it is a fight for his honour,” he said. The family had also met former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who had assured them of justice.

Army headquarters has been maintaining that it is highly unfair for troops deployed along the LAC to be denied benefits on par with those on the Line of Control and the International Border, despite similar risks and hardships and operational stress. “Depending on terrain and altitude, areas on LAC may be even more difficult than the Line of Control at places,” an army headquarters communication stated.

Unlike on the LoC, the ministry still does not cover deaths owing to inclement weather and treacherous terrain along the Indo-China border, says advocate Aditya Puar, who is representing the Pandeys in the Armed Forces Tribunal. Take, for instance, the case of Naib Subedar Gurmail Singh, who was deployed in the eastern Ladakh sector in 2016. On March 26, Singh reported severe abdominal cramps, while reinforcing a patrol that was already in a face-off with Chinese troops. He was given first aid and flown to the military hospital, where he was declared dead. Though Singh was declared a battle casualty by the Army, the defence accounts department overturned the observation, saying that while death or disability on the LoC are covered, those on the LAC are not.

Singh’s widow Rajbir Kaur challenged the argument in the Armed Forces Tribunal last November. “He was guarding the nation from Chinese incursion,” she told THE WEEK. “How can authorities discriminate against my husband’s sacrifice?”

Virender Kaur, Singh’s 18-year-old daughter, said she had lost respect for the system. “For the last two years, we are running from pillar to post to get our dues,” said Virender, who plans to study chartered accountancy abroad. “How can someone differentiate on the basis of geography? Earlier, I wanted my younger brother to join the Indian Army. But now, my family has decided otherwise.”

Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser to the defence ministry, said disbursement of pensions and other monetary benefits are given only on the basis of the report prepared by the medical board. “We have never objected to giving what is due to the families of martyrs,” said Cowshish, who also worked with the office of the principal controller of defence accounts, which calculates pension and other monetary benefits. “Just because the Army headquarters pushes for a case, it does not mean that we can do it without looking at the rules.”