The Indian Air Force has come under heavy criticism for denying study leave to a corporal-rank airman on the grounds that only officers were entitled to such a privilege.
The airman had sought the leave for pursuing M Tech from IIT Dhanbad after topping the entrance exams. The incident comes to light at a time when the armed forces are facing issues of strained relations between officer and soldier amid a growing demand for change in the archaic British-era rules and ensure equal benefits for officers and jawans.
Taking a strong view against the "discriminatory policy", the Delhi High Court in its February 20 order reprimanded the air force and asked it to frame fair rules for both officers and men.
A corporal is designated as non-commissioned personnel in IAF. "Don't deny them equality by refusing them leave to pursue higher studies only on the grounds of rank and status," the bench headed by Justice Indira Bannerjee said in the order. Ankur Chhibber, the counsel for corporal BK Verma, told Mail Today that Verma had sought permission for pursuing his M Tech from IIT Dhanbad, after appearing for the graduate aptitude test in engineering exam with permission from Air Force authorities.
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"However, that was rejected by Air Force on grounds that there was no provision for sending air force jawans on study leave and this was allowed only for officers," Chhibber said.
The IAF grants leave of maximum 28 months to its officers who have completed 15 years of service for pursuing courses in institutions which are approved and certified by it and the knowledge gained from them can be utilised by the service.
Aggrieved by the decision of the senior authorities despite recommendation by several of his officers to allow him to proceed for the course, Verma approached the Delhi High Court. Verma's counsel said the airman was a meritorious student and had completed his B Tech degree while carrying out his duties as a soldier in the force and had secured a gold medal in his B Tech course which was quite an achievement.
The Delhi High Court bench took a favourable view of the petition observing that the Air Force should appreciate the intellect and erudition of the soldier and encourage him by giving him opportunity to enhance his knowledge skills. The court stated that it is very difficult to appreciate the rationale behind differentiation between officer and airmen in the matter of granting study leave.
"It is, in our view, preposterous to assume that only officers would have aspirations of improving their knowledge and educational qualifications, and not the airmen," the two-member bench said. The court observed that the discrimination between officers and airmen for grant of study leave was "totally discriminatory and violation of the article 14 of the Indian constitution".
Setting aside the Air Force order to deny study leave to the soldier, the High Court ordered it to frame "non-discriminatory leave rules and reconsider the application of the soldier for study leave in light of the observations made (by the court)." Verma, according to his lawyer, has going through his first semester in Dhanbad as he was granted interim relief by the court. The Air Force is now considering whether it should go against the court order in the Supreme Court or not. Generally, Air Force is considered to be more lenient than the Navy and Army while dealing with its men.