Amidst the roars of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai, stand hundreds of former defence personnel battling for the implementation of One Rank One Pension scheme with immediate effect which is yet to be implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite several promises. Many of them are nearing 70 but stand tall with determination on their faces. Their courage and enthusiasm can bring even a 20-year-old to shame. You give them a chair to sit thinking they must be tired and they smile back at you with a straight forward reply - "Tired! No way!"
Sixty four days of non-stop protest in the form of a relay hunger strike has culminated into a fast-unto-death by three ex-servicemen who have patrolled India's borders and taken part in many military operations. They have guarded India's borders under inhospitable conditions, far away from their family members and under enemy fire to ensure we are safe and sleep peacefully at night.
The three on fast-unto-death are Colonel (retired) Pushpender Singh of 3 Grenadiers, Havaldar Major Singh of 3 Sikh Light Infantry and Havaldar (retired) Ashok Chauhan of Signals regiment. While Colonel Singh took part in anti-terror operations in Punjab, counter insurgency operations in the Northeast, served in Ladakh and guarded the borders in Jammu & Kashmir and Sikkim at extremely high altitude; Havaldar Major Singh was posted in Nagaland and the Indo-Pakistan border. Havaldar Ashok Chauhan took part in Operation Bajrang in November 1990 against the Assamese terror group United Liberation Front of Assam, Operation Rhino against the same group in September 1991 and Operation Parakram when the Indian forces were mobilised on the western front with Pakistan after the terror attack on Parliament.
After years of dedicated service to their nation, when the time came to rest and spend time with their loved ones, another battle was on the horizon. Years after hanging up their military uniforms, the defence veterans are out in the field yet again facing not only heat and rain but even police brutality in their demand for One Rank One Pension. The determined lot which gave its youth for India is once again standing tall with gallantry medals glued to the chest as they demand their rightful due.
As the doctor announces from the microphone that Colonel (retired) Pushpender Singh and Havaldar (retired) Major Singh, who have been on hunger strike since August 16, are fully fit, their comrade-in-arms burst into cheers and clap for the next several minutes.
"It is not our demand but our right. We just want what was taken away from us in an unjust manner. Our pensions were cut short due to certain bureaucratic decisions in 1970s. Even though the scheme has been accepted by the government, it has not been implemented. We want the government to act on an urgent basis," says Colonel Pushpender Singh.
Colonel Singh, who retired in 1998 from 3 Grenadiers, is full of energy and passion in his fight for the One Rank One Pension. He uses oxygen masks and is a diabetic, but he claims that hasn't taken medicines or has felt any need to use the oxygen masks since the day he started this protest. Why, you ask him and he says, "I don't need it now."
Despite appeals by other ex-servicemen and their own family members, the two along with Havaldar Ashok Chauhan, another soldier on hunger strike, are unfazed about the dire consequences on their health. All of them have vowed not to eat even a morsel of food till the government accepts their demands and implements the One Rank One Pension scheme.
Infused with energy, Colonel Singh gets up from his chair to show us photocopies of three handwritten papers. These papers he says, sums up all the details that his family might need about him. "These papers have the details of my bank account, my savings and all the financial information that my family might need after me. Whenever I used to go on the front, I used to write these details so that my family does not face any problems if something happens to me," he says while adding that he never fears for his life.
Havaldar Major Singh has even stopped taking phone calls from his family members because they urge him to end his strike. "I will not end my fast until the demand is met. This is not our demand, but our right. The PM will have to listen to us or he will see my dead body as I will not eat anything. It has been several years now that we have got assurances but no action has been taken yet. It is now time for the government to act on the promises that it has made in the past," he asserts.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech assured that the final talks are on and the scheme will be implemented soon. But mere assurances aren't enough for the veterans to make them budge from their stand and leave the protest site. Tired of waiting, the ex-servicemen say that the government has taken enough time and should act now.
"Everything has been decided in the past. They just have to act on the proposal. The implementation of One Rank One Pension scheme is only facing bureaucratic roadblocks," Chairman of Indian Ex-servicemen Movement Major General (retired) Satbir Singh, one of the leaders of the agitation, said.
Major General (retired) Satbir Singh was among the three men who met PMO's Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra on Tuesday to take forward the talks. Though he claimed that there was no conclusive outcome from the talks, the protesters have decided to give the government 10 days time to finalise the procedure. "We will wait till August 25, but if no decision is taken by then, we will go to meet the PM on August 26 at 11 am," he said.
Asked whether he is expecting a decision from the Prime Minister, he says "We are not just hoping for it, he will have to resolve the issue now."
While the government says that Rs 8,000 crore is a huge amount and financial implications to the state exchequer must be kept in mind, the veterans are quick to dismiss the claim. "They give Rs 1.65 lakh crore package to Bihar and say that they do not have the money for us. If that is the case, they should come up to us and say it to us that they do not have the funds for the defence personnel. We give our heart, our soul, our lives for the country, let them tell us on our face that they do not have money for us," Major General (retired) Satbir Singh says.
Several political leaders have tried to join the protest but the veterans have refused to join hands with any of them. "We will not let any politics be done over our demand. This is not a political platform. We are not here to blame anyone, we only want the government to listen to us," Major General (retired) Satbir Singh said at a time when Aam Aadmi Party leader Kumar Vishwas came to Jantar Mantar to show his solidarity.
Though Kumar Vishwas maintained that he was there to meet them as a 'poet' and not as a part of AAP, Major General Singh refused to meet him stating that "whether or not Vishwas wants to accept it, he is the part of a political party".
The ex-servicemen are also elated with the fact that several youngsters have joined them in their protest. They will be conducting a candle march and a bike rally to draw the government's attention to their demand but at the same time, continue to maintain that they will not escalate the protest.
As the day ends, those present at Jantar Mantar start to leave, sans those on fast and a few others. They part for the night but with a vow to return the next day to join their colleagues in their fight for the immediate implementation of One Rank One Pension.