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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX No 6 , January 29, 2011

National Role for India’s Veterans—Learning from USA’s Veterans

Monday 31 January 2011, by S G Vombatkere


With deepening strategic ties between India and the USA, there is also increased military-to-military contact for training and inter-operability. Both India and the USA are democracies, one the largest and the other the oldest, both with volunteer militaries statutorily under civilian control. Just as the two democracies have much to learn from each other, so too, have their respective militaries and their respective veterans.

However, there are differences in the national strategy, politics, politicians and the militaries of the two countries. There is unease among serving military personnel (all ranks of the Army, Navy and Air Force, referred to as “soldiers”) and also among veterans (retired soldiers) in both countries. There are different causes for that unease, and the expressions of protest by veterans are also different. Soldiers, governed and administered under military law, are not permitted to protest or allowed to communicate their problems or grievances to the media or any person outside of the military. But this does not apply to veterans who revert to governance under civil law on leaving the military.

A unique feature of Indian veterans is that the large majority are obliged to leave the service at a young age (32-40 years) when their family and personal life commitments are growing. Thus, the things that occupy the minds of veterans depend upon their experience during military service and the conditions to which they are exposed when pitch-forked into civilian life on retirement. Veterans have the potential for an active role in civic life because of their assets of physical fitness (barring those disabled due to military service), discipline, and the special skills of focussed effort acquired during military service.

Beginning with the role and deployment of the Indian and US militaries, the present article takes a view of the US and Indian veterans’ role in civic life with the focus on India. It offers suggestions how the Indian veterans’ current peaceful agitations can be widened to make greater impact on the polity with benefit to India at large and to veterans themselves.

The Two Militaries

THE US war machine is awesome in its global intelligence, logistic and combat reach, with enormous power for conventional and nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) attack. It is a hi-tech military with a global geo-political vision, providing a growing role for military corporations in intelligence and logistics and even in combat roles. The US military is an essential part of US foreign policy expression, in which top military commanders have an important position. Armaments production and export business by business-industrial corporations is closely linked with US foreign policy, and military strategy and planning. There is an organic link between US national strategy and US military strategy, both of which are aggressive. Presently the USA has about 700 military bases, stations and installations (for combat or communications-surveillance-intelligence functions) in 63 countries around the globe, with about 250,000 military personnel deployed abroad out of a 1.4 million-strong military. [Ref. 1]

The 1.2 million strong Indian military is a national force with reach in South Asia and growing conventional and nuclear missile strike capability. It is rapidly adopting high-end technology and adapting to the technology-based battlefield of the future. A large proportion (about one-third) of its military manpower is deployed in “aid to civil power” at the instance of Central and State governments on internal security (IS) duties on a more or less permanent basis, primarily in the counter insurgency (CI) role. With the exception of China, India’s immediate neighbours are smaller nations and its foreign policy has little or no real-time military linkages. India’s top military commanders are kept at arms length by the bureaucrat-dominated government, with little influence on national strategy. [Ref. 2]

US Veterans Agitate

GOING into relatively recent history, it is well known and documented that the USA’s veterans had been neglected by the state, causing serious discontent among them. They had suffered during and especially after service in Vietnam, and agitated for better treatment by the state. But the scale, style and cause of veterans’ protests today has changed, as demonstrated in a picture showing a US veteran being dragged off by police, with other veterans holding placards and banners, one of which reads “VETERANS SAY “RESIST!” // Refuse to fight another rich man’s war // This is one of a series of pictures of the December 16, 2010, US Veterans’ Stop-the-Wars Peace Campaign in Lafayette Park, Washington DC. [Ref. 3] Their demand now is in the larger international and human interest, using peaceful, Gandhian civil disobedience to stop the USA’s wars.

So why are US veterans now demanding that wars should be stopped, “Not tomorrow, not next year—NOW!“, as one placard reads? The reason that they oppose wars is, quite simply, their collective realisation that wars and armed conflicts provide handsome profits to those who benefit from them [Ref. 4], while the people of both warring sides lose heavily and the soldiers are the instruments of violence. And that, especially post-9/11, the military-industrial complex (MIC) influences the policy of the US Administration to engender more wars. Thus, another veteran’s placard, in a clear message for serving US soldiers, reads, “Veterans say, ‘DON’T BLEED FOR WALL STREET GREED’ “. There is a lesson in this for Indian veterans, about which more later.

Every soldier of every nation knows that wars cause huge casualties of hapless civilians. No soldier can honestly claim to like wars—he fights because he is duty-bound to do so. US soldiers and veterans have learnt this through hard experience in many wars starting from the 19th century, and the World Wars, Vietnam and elsewhere in the 20th century, and in the on-going wars mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of these wars have been waged by the US Government to protect the investments or interests of US commercial corporations abroad and more recently, also to maintain or enhance the production and profits of the armaments industry. A soldier cannot speak out because the conditions of service prevent him from doing so [Note 1]; but veterans can, and this is unambiguously stated by retired US Marines Major General Smedley Butler, albeit in the early 20th century. [Ref. 1] Today, US veterans understand very well that whatever the US Administration may declare, ongoing wars are principally in the corporate interest, centred on oil and the strength and stability of the dollar, and that the US MIC commands the most powerful military that the world has seen. [Note 2]

Indian Soldiers and Veterans

WHILE the USA has fought offensive global wars that enrich business corporations, the Indian soldier has fought defensively on Indian soil to resist or contain military aggression from neighbours and maintain India’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. There are, of course, the exceptions of fighting in Sri Lanka as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and as part of United Nations troops in Africa and elsewhere. And the 1962 debacle in the conflict against China, the causes for which are non-military, as evidenced from the fact that the government has refused to place the Henderson-Brookes Report on the conflict in the public domain. But in addition to preparing for or fighting wars against external threats, the Indian soldier continues to play a key role in the decades-old deployments in internal security (IS) or counter-insurgency (CI) duties in India’s North-Eastern States and Kashmir, at the behest of governments. About one-third of the Army is deployed in IS duties.

There is growing public realisation that the unrest in India’s North-Eastern States and Kashmir is caused essentially by poor and rapidly declining—and most recently, plunging—governance standards provided by the elected executive through the bureaucracy-police. It is also clearly understood by the soldier that the military is deployed in “aid to civil power” because of the incompetence of Central and/or State governments to handle situations created by their own incompetence, corruption and chicanery. [Ref. 5] This comment is not targeted at any single political party, but at the politician-bureaucrat-police nexus in general.

The Indian soldier has carried his service discipline into retired life, these past decades. But the anomalies in the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission have caused deep disquiet among veterans, whose decades-long demand for One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) has been neglected primarily due to bureaucratic machinations. Continued neglect and stone-walling by government (heavily influenced by bureaucrats) has caused consolidation of veterans’ forces to form the Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (IESM). After months of unsuccessfully petitioning the government for OROP, as a mark of protest at not being given a hearing even after eight visits, thousands of IESM veterans have handed their hard-earned, precious war and service medals along with a petition signed with their own blood, to the President of India, who is the Supreme Commander of India’s military. Sadly, the President of India has not seen fit to give the veterans a hearing, and the petition was not even accepted by the President’s staff. The government remains cold and unmoved by veterans’ agitations, influenced, it is suspected, by senior bureaucrats. It is not clear whether or how long the veterans’ patience and forbearance will hold out. [Note 3] What is clear is that government neglect of veterans’ problems can have an irreversible negative effect on serving soldiers and thereby on the security of the nation. [Ref. 5]

Military CI Deployments and Civilian Reactions

DUE to the governments’ continuous need for military deployment in India’s North-Eastern States and Kashmir, the Army has a standing training establishment in the School of Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare in which officers, JCOs and other ranks are trained as required for their secondary role, which is doctrinally different from the primary military role against external threat.

There is growing public realisation that armed violence by Maoists or Naxalites is in response to economic violence by the state against its own citizens through decades-long neglect and latterly, by acquiring land for industrial corporations. [Ref. 4] At present, the armed militancy in Central India is being tackled by the use of State and Central police forces, but there is pressure to call in the Army and the Air Force. This is being resisted by the Ministry of Defence and senior military ranks, but if and when this resistance is overcome, soldiers will have a whole new deployment to deal with in addition to the present commitments in the North-Eastern States and Kashmir.

Since military deployment in our North-Eastern States and in Kashmir for internal security (CI) duties goes decades back in time, most of today’s veterans have been part of that deployment in CI operations and have first-hand knowledge of its risks and difficulties. Many soldiers have suffered physical and psychological casualties, the latter evidenced by increased suicide and fratricidal killings. The pre-condition for deployment of the Army in its CI role, is the State governments’ declaration of an area as “disturbed” in order to invoke the AFSP Act—which amounts to admission of political-administrative failure.

Irom Sharmila’s historic, 10-year-long, on-going fast demanding withdrawal of the AFSP Act, or the women’s naked protest in Manipur daring the Assam Rifles men to come out and rape them following Thangjiam Manorama’s custodial death after her alleged rape, are entirely justifiable civic actions. Where the Army has been deployed for CI operations over decades, its presence has led to the withering of normal political processes of dialogue and negotiation, and militancy levels have grown. This demonstrates the truth that violence begets violence in cycles of increasing intensity, and democratic political processes suffer attrition. In this politically degraded scenario, people’s basic problems and needs remain secondary in the vicious power game between armed militants and the failed state policy that uses the Army against its own citizens instead of the political tools of civilised dialogue, discussion, debate and consensus.
[Ref. 6]

It is well to recall that the AFSP Act bears the sanction of the Lok Sabha. It is not a legislation enacted at the instance of the military. The Indian Army has no organisational or professional stake in CI operations, which are its secondary role performed at the behest of the state to compensate for politician-bureaucrat-police failure, detracting from training and deployment for its onerous primary role of national defence. In the present context of regional external threats, this neglect of preparedness for the military’s primary role could be at enormous cost of national honour, even sovereignty, at some future date. Continued military deployment as at present, unbroken over decades, amounts to the governments’ misuse of military power that exacerbates socio-political problems. It also brings a bad name to the military due to excesses committed by a few soldiers, even though these are rapidly and severely punished according to military law; similar excesses by police personnel rarely if ever attract attention and when they do, are met with leniency. Thus, military deployment in the CI role is an avoidable burden on soldiers at the individual level and on the military establishment at the organisational level.

Indian Veterans’ Larger Concerns

VETERANS recognise that Army deployment in its secondary role of aid to civil power for IS duties, including CI operations, is admission of failure of the civil administration including State and Central police forces. When the military takes up arms against Indian citizens in IS duties, it does so only for the particular requirement of the civil administration, which invokes the AFSP Act to give mandate to the soldier to take up arms. Thus, the people’s call for withdrawal of the AFSP Act is, in reality, a call for withdrawal of the Army from the area, to return to its primary role of defending the borders, making the hated AFSP Act irrelevant.

It would be an act in favour of their serving brethren if veterans peacefully agitate and demand that governments withdraw the Army from CI operations and resort to legitimate political processes to address the long-standing social unrest. This will amount to a demand for better governance from governments that will not only address social unrest but also benefit the common man in other ways. It is nobody’s case that improving governance to solve social unrest problems is easy, but veterans’ agitations will bring to the attention of the public at large that firstly, social unrest due to decades-long neglect of people’s genuine concerns and needs cannot be solved by the use of military force, and secondly, that the use of state force as a substitute for honest political efforts only raises levels of violence, making situations more complex and solutions all the more difficult.

If veterans bring the demand for withdrawal of the Army from IS duties before the people through peaceful agitations (while continuing their legitimate demands for OROP), it will achieve the following things: One, the public in general and governments will understand and realise that soldiers have no stake or particular interest in deployment in their secondary role of CI duties in “aid to civil power”; Two, the public will understand that veterans are interested in genuine democratic processes and be more sympathetic to veterans’ causes including their demand for OROP; Three, use of honest and genuine political methods to address social unrest can reduce public pressure on governments to rescind the ASFP Act, thus keeping open the governments’ option of “aid to civil power” for inescapable short periods; Four, senior military officers in command at various levels will be able to concentrate more on their onerous primary role on the nation’s borders to counter external threat and aggression; Five, veterans will see a national service role for themselves in demanding good governance which is dangerously lacking at present; Six, governments will be motivated to improve standards of governance and be accountable to the people.

Role for Indian Veterans

MILITARY veterans are a body of relatively young, physically fit, disciplined men, experienced in work in difficult, risky and dangerous conditions. They have special economic problems on retirement from military service because of their young age (32-40 years) at retirement. This has led to repeated peaceful demands over decades for one-rank-one-pension (OROP), which have been systematically neglected by successive governments.

If veterans engage peacefully in national issues in addition to their ongoing OROP demand, it can influence the general public and through them, governments, to deliver better governance within India’s constitutional framework, especially in the North-Eastern States and Kashmir, and in the Central Indian States that are increasingly subject to police repression of Maoist violence. The present article suggests the wider benefits that may accrue from such national involvement of veterans.


1. Vombatkere, S.G., “The US War Machine—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol. XLVIII, No. 17, April 17, 2010, pp. 25-30.

2. Vombatkere, S.G., “Deepening India-US Strategic Ties—Evidences and Repercussions”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol. XLVIII, No. 40, September 25, 2010, pp. 13-15.


4. Vombatkere, S.G., “An Examination of Conflict—Costs, Benefits and More”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol. XLVIII, No. 19, May 1, 2010, pp. 11-17.

5. Chakravarthy, N.S. and S.G. Vombatkere, “Pay Commission and Morale among the Defence Services”, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, Vol. XLIV, No. 17, April 25, 2009, p. 15.

6. Vombatkere, S.G., “Governance by Ballot or Bullet?—Armed Forces Special Powers Act”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol. XLIV, No. 50, December 2, 2006, p. 21.


Note 1. Private Bradley Manning allegedly leaked out information of US soldiers in Afghanistan killing civilians from a helicopter without any operational necessity, and is paying the price. This, along with a great deal else, has been placed in the public domain by Wikileaks, whose Australian author, Julian Assange, is now under serious threat from the US administration.

Note 2. “Our government is seen here as controlling a global military and espionage empire that impacts every region of the globe and deceives its own population. Secrecy, spying, and hostility have infected our entire government, turning the diplomatic corps into an arm of the CIA and the military, just as the civilian efforts in Afghanistan are described by Richard Holbrooke, who heads them up, as “support for the military.” Secret war planning, secret wars, and lies about wars have become routine.” With Wikileaks Revelations, Peace Community Redoubles Demand for End to Wars and Voices Support for Whistleblowers; Wednesday, December 8, 2010; Z-Net.

Note 3. Communication—December 16, 2010. “The IESM is trying its best to ensure that all rallies organised by it remain peaceful, but the opposition to its peaceful ways is gradually rising among the veterans. IESM Governing Body and its conveners at state, district and lower levels are hopeful that at least the IESM rallies will continue to follow the ethos of Indian Military—but for how long?”

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi, after 35 years in the Indian Army with combat, staff and technical experience. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. He coordinates and lectures a Course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students of University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their Studies Abroad in South India. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.

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