India’s military veterans are being forced to wage a different kind of war, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed a fresh proposal to tax the pensions of former servicemen and women who have been disabled during military service.

On June 24, the Central Board of Direct Taxes said that veterans who suffered injuries in war or acts that can be attributed to service, will now have to pay taxes after retirement. Only those who are declared invalids by a formal military medical board will be eligible for tax exemptions. Previously, personnel under both categories were given tax exemptions.

The disability pension is an additional payment to the normal pension that military veterans earn during their service.

In fiscal terms, the additional income for the government is negligible and would not even show up as a footnote in its revenues. But it is an emotive issue with the Modi government constantly hyping the role of the military for its achievements.

Disabled by tax

In a series of messages, the army’s official Twitter account tweeted: “Over the years broad-banding and compensation awarded for disability with income tax exemption, have led to a rise in personnel seeking disability, even for lifestyle diseases. The trend is worrisome … when the security challenges to the nation are on the rise.” (Broad-banding is a personnel workers’ term for a method of evaluation and construction of job grading structure that replaces a large number of narrow salary ranges with a smaller number of broader salary ranges.

Major Navdeep Singh, a Territorial Army veteran and senior lawyer, said the “disability pension is granted either by the government itself on recommendations of the medical board, or on orders from the government’s appellate committees or on judicial directions.”

He said there can be no reason for any kind of “misuse.” In all cases, the process goes through multiple medical boards which certifies a particular percentage of disability, therefore it is impossible to “fake” a disability.

Singh is also the author of “Maimed by the System,” a collection of real-life accounts from defense personnel who suffered disabilities in service but never got their disability pensions.

“Many personnel are denied disability pensions by declaring their disabilities are ‘neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service, but are later granted benefits except in cases wherein the disability is caused by a person’s own negligence (for example obesity, or heart disease due to heavy smoking, etc) or substance abuse,” Singh said.

In the United States, military retirement pay is considered taxable income under federal income taxes. However, military disability retirement pay and veteran’s benefits, including service-connected disability pension payments, are excluded from taxable income. Similarly, in the UK, service pension is taxable but the pension for disablement is not.

“Ignoring the realities of the problems of the disabled, Army Headquarters has endorsed this fiat, not for the so-called personnel who have misused or obtained their disability percentage by unfair means, on its own a vague allegation without statistical backup, but for all disabled/war-injured personnel,” said a former vice chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, a disabled war veteran who lost a leg in the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

“This order shows failure of command and control in many ways and loss of confidence by the army hierarchy in its own people,” he said.

Major DP Singh, a Kargil war veteran, was invalided from service nearly 10 years after he lost his leg due to enemy shelling. He explained: “It is the other way round than what the army and the government are claiming. The personnel tends to hide their disability or injury so that it doesn’t hamper their promotions. Yes, this is hoodwinking of the system but it also proves that his injury is not affecting his service.”

The latest army order, he said, is not addressing the root cause. “The need of the hour is to strengthen the system so that personnel are not able to hide their injury. Also, it is important to plug the system so that the medical board is not under any pressure.”

Dealing with trauma

On a related issue, Singh said: “Through my research, I got to know that the army hospitals do not have a PTSD support system. In fact, there were around 10 vacancies for clinical psychologists in the hospitals which, despite bringing to the notice of officials, still remain vacant.” In 2018, during the “Year of the Disabled in the Line of Duty”, he initiated the setup of PTSD support and also held a conference on the difference between psychiatric and psychological counseling.

He said there is a continuing stigma surrounding the psychiatric disorders and people are not coming forward to seek counseling support, which is needed many a times due to the effect of exposure to harsh service conditions. If not looked after this leads to various ailments like stress infused hypertension or thyroid conditions.

“This policy change will also help ease the pressure on officers so that they do not need to hide their disability to get promoted. With this new order, now the disabled officers are getting a bad name,” he said.

Singh said an injury gets worse by age and the army’s claims that personnel have been seeking disability pension for “lifestyle diseases” is illogical. “I suffer from hypertension, but am I living a sedentary life?” asked Singh who is the first solo amputee skydiver and blade runner.

These “lifestyle diseases” are actually consequences of living in harsh conditions to which their bodies may or may not adapt. But since the service demands, they continue and it is only later in life that the disease gets either detected or worse, he said.

“What I am suffering is because of the multiple injuries, which will only get worse with age. A normal person suffering from obesity or hypertension would be living a sedentary life. But an army officer has to adapt to harsh terrain and weather during his service. Many times they even carry on despite an injury.”

Singh said that there is a need to carry out studies on this issue and bring out changes in policies. “We have no right to question the integrity of genuine people and by bringing a blanket curbing, we are doubting them.”

Oberoi pointed out that the compensatory package for the disabled must take into account the years and decades ahead of them as disabled persons. “It is equally important that the message that goes to the environment is that the army and the government will ensure that adequate monetary compensation is paid to them.”

The Indian Army’s official spokesman has not responded to a request from Asia Times for a comment on this issue.

Navdeep Singh said: “Taxation is a sovereign function of the government and is discretionary and it has the right to impose taxes. However, my objection is that disabled personnel have been demonized to justify the introduction of this interpretation of the exemption.”