Lesser soldiers? Coast Guard sailors jailed & penalised for demanding dignity
While the Narendra Modi government has been extremely vocal about the Indian Army's bravery, some personnel of the Indian Coast Guard have been getting the rough end of the stick.Four Indian Coast Guard personnel were thrown into jail, where one's hearing impairment, sustained while on duty, got aggravated. Forty-six others were slapped with salary cuts.
Their crime? Writing a letter to the Prime Minister of India, demanding better pay and dignity in service. However, PM Modi failed to acknowledge the allegations.
In December last year, Maneesh G, an Uttam Navik (sailor), who had served in the Indian Coast Guard for five years, wrote to the Prime Minister, expressing his anguish at what he alleged was the 'ill-treatment' meted out to him and 10,000 other Naviks.
Earlier this year, Maneesh, 24, was thrown into detention, where he languished for over a month.
Maneesh's story is almost an aberration in the 38-year history of the Indian Coast Guard, where voices of dissent are seldom heard. Maneesh alleged there was a huge disparity in the way the Indian Coast Guard personnel and the Indian Navy staff were treated.
He questioned the system itself. Maneesh demanded to know why Naviks were not entitled to MSP (Military Service Pay), despite being under the Ministry of Defence. He also questioned the work hours of Naviks like himself. This led to his detention.
Maneesh had written to the PM on 8 December 2015. Catch has accessed the letter, copies of which were also sent to the President of India, the Defence Minister and the Defence Secretary.
Why are we treated like 'slaves'?
Here are a few questions that the letter raised [reproduced as they were in the letter]:
- "Why are sailors at Indian Coast Guard Services treated like slaves?"
- "Coastguards sail for 22 to 28 days in month, on 24*7 hours of rotation basis, like a military force. Bear all kind sickness (vomiting, fainting, fever etc) during sailing and still serve without complain.
- "In practicality, there is no difference between the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard Services. Then, why is it that after five years of service at Indian Coast Guard I am being paid only Rs14,500/month and a navy sailor gets more than Rs 31,000/month?"
- "If Indian Coast Guard is under the Ministry of Defence, then why the Naviks are not entitled for MSP (Military Service Pay) like MNS (Military Nursing Service) and DSC (Defence Security Force)?"
Maneesh levelled the following allegations against the authorities in his letter:
- "We join all military exercises, search and rescue operations; protect our massive seas and precious islands like the Indian Navy," he said, adding that it was unfair that the Coast Guards were discriminated against when it came to salary.
- He alleged that the Coast Guards were paid like civilians in Defence Services, under the CCS (Central Civil Services) Rule.
- "If we are under CCS Rule, we are supposed to be on duty only for 8 hours/day."
- "10,000s coastguard sailors pray to god for a new sunrise in their lives. Will it come?"
A few months later, Maneesh found himself in a cell at a military detention quarter under the Indian Navy.
Undeterred, he wrote yet another letter to the Prime Minister, on 2 June 2016.Referring to himself as the 'crushed service personnel in the Coast Guard', Maneesh asked: "If I can be punished as a Coast Guard personnel in the military detention quarter under the Indian Navy, why don't you upgrade the salary and benefit level of the Coast Guard to the same as other defence forces?"
"All things are equal. Like training, system, laws, organisations and punishments. Except salary and pride," he wrote.
At the time of penning the second letter, Maneesh was suffering from a hearing impairment that was brought on by an accident while he was on duty. He was recommended medical attention. Instead, he was thrown into a jail complex that shared a wall with a firing range. When his condition deteriorated, he was admitted to a hospital in Visakhapatnam for treatment. He has suffered partial hearing loss in his left ear.
On 24 August, Maneesh had told Catch that he had not been paid a salary in over three months.
In solidarity with Maneesh, 49 other sailors of the Indian Coast Guard Services wrote to the President of India. They sent a copy of the letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Indian Coast Guard Headquarters, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Supreme Court of India, highlighting similar concerns.
In response, three other sailors were detained, while, reportedly, 46 other sailors were slapped with salary cuts. The exact number of the sailors who were fined cannot be ascertained, as not many were willing to speak to the media.
The plight of Maneesh and the 49 other sailors is not new. In 2012, similar questions were raised through an anonymous RTI.
The allegations levelled by Maneesh and other Indian Coast Guard sailors come at a time when India has been thumping its chest over its mighty defence capabilities in the wake the surgical strikes across the Line of Control.
Who controls the Indian Coast Guard?
Unlike India, where the Coast Guard is administered by the Ministry of Defence, nations like Australia, China, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and several other countries consider the Coast Guard to be a civil force.
In these nations, the Coast Guard comes under different ministries like Transport and Communication, Tourism, Infrastructure, Interior, and so on.
The United States considers the Coast Guard to be a military service, but places it under the US Department of Homeland Security.
In India, Norway, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, the Coast Guard comes under the purview of the ministries of defence.
However, while the Indian Coast Guard falls under the Ministry of Defence, members of the force are exempt from a number of benefits awarded to defence personnel. For example, Coast Guard personnel do not get Military Service Pay. This has been a major cause of concern for the Coast Guards.
Catch spoke to a handful of senior defence personnel and experts, who had different views on who should administer the Coast Guard.
Captain Alok Bansal, former executive director of the National Maritime Foundation, told Catch: "The Indian Coast Guard definitely needs better training, improved infrastructure and better attention. But it must remain under the Ministry of Defence for better co-ordination with the Indian Navy."
A former DG of the Coast Guard told Catch, on the condition of anonymity: "The Coast Guard has a very important role in maritime security, but has no place under the Ministry of Defence. It should be accepted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, where it can actually understand how important it is for the nation. Being administered by the MHA, the Coast Guard can also build its own identity and get rid of the inferiority complex.
Defence expert Mohan Guruswamy had a different take on the issue. "The Indian Coast Guard should be under operational control of the Indian Navy, as it is too small to operate independently," he said. "The Coast Guard is useless without the Indian Navy, and therefore, should continue to be under the Ministry of Defence, with a Director General appointed from the Indian Navy," Guruswamy said.
But Captain Bansal reiterated: "The Coast Guard should remain under the Ministry of Defence, because if it is administered by the MHA, it would be headed by an IPS officer, which would be a bigger disaster. Though the Indian Coast Guard is not a defence force, its collaboration with Indian Navy is very important. Especially in times of war, it has to work under the Indian Navy."
'Inferiority complex' or under-appreciated?
Some of the senior defence personnel that Catch contacted were of the opinion that the Coast Guard needs to acknowledge and overcome its 'inferiority complex'.
"The Coast Guard should realise the importance of its responsibilities, and instead of fighting to be equivalent to the Indian Navy, it should fight for its own identity," the former Coast Guard D-G said.
Stressing that the 'inferiority complex' in the Indian Coast Guard was 'a matter of serious concern', Captain Bansal said: "Military ethos is most important - every role and responsibility has its own sanctity."
While the Indian Coast Guard did not reply to questions emailed by this reporter, the Indian Navy refused to take a stand on the issue.
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