An Indian army soldier keeps guard from a bunker near the border with Pakistan in Abdullian. Photo: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta

Thousands of Indian military families are currently pursuing entitlements due to them when a soldier in the family dies or is disabled on duty. Military veterans have been petitioning the Indian government to step in and resolve the issue, but the Ministry of Defense insists the court cases will continue.

Here, Asia Times presents the story of a bereaved father who had to wage a protracted battle with officialdom to claim the basic compensation owed to the family.

What becomes clear is that the institutions entrusted with a duty of care for India’s military veterans and their kin are failing in that responsibility. The situation is now one of extreme discontent – and one where statutory benefits come at a price.

Major Nitin Gautam’s story

Imagine the agony of a father who loses his son at the age of 25 and then has to fight a battle with the military bureaucracy to claim his dues.

Nitin Gautam was a bright boy. Like many others from the state of Himachal Pradesh, he was seduced by the Indian Army’s Olive Green (OG) uniforms. He chose to attend the Sainik Military School in Sujanpur, where he excelled in both literature and sports. After passing his exams and the Services Selection Board interview, Nitin joined the National Defense Academy and was later commissioned into the Garwhal Rifles of the Indian Army in June 2010.

Tough yet amiable as a youth, friends and family recall his cordial nature around his friends, especially his juniors in school.

Things were going perfectly – until 2012, that is, when he was deployed in a high altitude area in the State of Jammu & Kashmir. Nitin fulfilled his operational duties diligently and with vigor, but on September 15, while leading his ‘Ghatak Platoon’ (assault platoon) in the Drass Sector of Jammu & Kashmir, on the Line of Control, a ‘notified operational area,’ under extreme weather conditions, he suffered a cardiac arrest.

The death of the young officer was declared a ‘battle casualty’ by a Statutory Court of Inquiry conducted by the Army, a finding endorsed by the competent military authority in the following terms:

“Capt Nitin Gautam of 9 Garhwal Rifles was part of the patrol comprising one officer one junior commissioned officer and 10 other ranks detailed to operate in general area XXXXX as part of the counter insurgency grid with effect from 1 September 2012

[…] On 15 September 2012, Capt Nitin Gautam while operating with the unit Ghatak platoon in general area Dras (high altitude area), south-east of village XXXXX at an altitude of 10670 feet close to Line of Control, felt uncomfortable at about 0750 hours and collapsed.

[…] Since Capt Nitin Gautam was on operational duty and died while operating along the line of control due to illness caused by climatic conditions, his death is attributable to active military service and nobody is to be blamed for the same. It is directed that the deceased be treated as Battle Casualty in accordance with Para 4 and 5 and Para 1(g) of Appendix ‘A’ to AO 01/2003.

[…] I direct that all the death benefits as admissible to a Battle Casualty be given to the next of kin of the deceased.”

The rules are very clear that any death that occurs in the proximity of the Line of Control, or in a notified operational area, is deemed to be a ‘battle casualty,’ meaning his or her family are entitled to a higher rate pension, known as the ‘Liberalized Family Pension.’ Deaths in operational and high altitude areas also entitle the family to ex-gratia compensation.

The system is known not to pay families their legitimate dues punctiliously, however; rather, it makes them slog for their claims. Nitin’s father, Kameshwar Gautam, a soft spoken man with mild manners, was in for a rude shock. Not only did Army Headquarters refuse him a Liberalized (Dependent) Family Pension, but they also rejected his claim for ex-gratia compensation without assigning any valid reasons. They even cancelled the declaration of ‘battle casualty’ granted by the competent military commander.

The ostensible reason offered was that the officer had not died ‘in action.’ In reality,  the term ‘battle casualty’ covers not only injuries, disabilities and fatalities that occur during battle, but also those which may happen under ‘operational circumstances’ more generally. This can include natural illnesses that strike while operating near borders, or the Line of Control, and injury or death suffered during flood relief or earthquakes.

After all his protests fell on deaf ears, Gautam finally approached the Armed Forces Tribunal. As the case was pending, the Indian government agreed to release the ex-gratia amount owed but not the pension. Nitin’s battalion, the regiment, and other military authorities, have continued to help the family, but faceless bureaucrats in Delhi have opposed their appeals.

Gautam was finally granted relief by the Tribunal and his dues have been paid. The cancellation of the battle casualty status was also revoked. But the scars remain. He only hopes that other bereaved families will not be forced to litigate for their entitlements. For Gautam and others, the battle is not for money, but for respect.

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