In a shocking case of official apathy by the accounts establishment of the defence services, a widow of an Army Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) who was awarded Shaurya Chakra, the third highest peacetime gallantry award, has approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) for ‘liberalised family pension’ which has been denied by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts since 2007.
Sukhwinder Kaur’s late husband, Naib Subedar Kulwant Singh, was killed in 2007 in a massive explosion in an ammunition depot located in Counter Insurgency area in the Kashmir Valley under Operation Rakshak. The soldier lost his life while saving the lives of his colleagues and his dead body was also not recovered. He was posthumously decorated with the “Shaurya Chakra” by the President of India for displaying conspicuous bravery and was declared a “Battle Casualty”.
When the documents of the widow were sent to the office of Principal Controller of Defence Accounts in Allahabad, an accounts officer refused to release the applicable “Liberalized Family Pension” to her despite orders of the competent authority. Repeated requests by the Army also did not elicit any positive action and the case was rejected on the pretext that the soldier had not died in a ‘terrorist action’ though as per rules all deaths in notified operational areas were eligible for liberalized benefits.
On a petition filed by Sukhwinder, the Chandigarh Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal comprising Justice Mohammad Tahir and Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra (retd), has issued a notice to the government seeking their reply. Besides seeking applicable benefits, the widow has sought recovery of costs from the erring accounts officer.
Lawyers dealing with such matters say that there are numerous instances where directions by the competent executive authorities in Ministry of Defence, the Army HQs and the Records Offices are not honoured by officers of the Defence Accounts Department. “Courts have consistently deprecated such behaviour and have ruled that the role of the accounts branch was only to calculate and release pension and not to sit over the positive declarations of competent authorities or medical boards. The Courts have also held that even deaths due to natural illnesses in operational areas qualify for liberalized family pension which is higher than the normal rate of pension,” said a lawyer dealing with the case who did not want to be named.
In 2015, a Committee of Experts constituted by the Defence Minister had also castigated the financial authorities of the MoD for rejecting such claims without legal authority and observed “We are at a loss to comprehend why negative energy and multiple reams of papers should be wasted on such issues concerning benefits of soldiers and deceased soldiers, which are minor from the organizational point of view, when there are much more important financial matters worth pondering over. We find it difficult to digest as to how logic itself is being stretched to illogical limits due to an all-pervasive pessimistic environment just to deny benefits to our men and women in uniform,” the committee had noted.