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Freedom fighters’ army

- 65 years on, pension applications continue to pour in

New Delhi, Nov. 25: Now we know why the British packed their bags and left.

They couldn’t possibly have coped with the ever-increasing number of freedom fighters who are still trooping in, even 65 years after Independence, to claim the benefits the government gives those who gave the best years of their lives for the country.

And they have been coming not in ones and twos, but in thousands.

Home ministry officials say the number of applications for pension under a 1972 scheme for freedom fighters has been rising, with some 9,300 claims coming in last year.

In 2010, the ministry received nearly 7,400 applications, 1,400 more than in the previous year.

“This is astonishing. Many of these applicants were barely 10 years old in 1947,” a ministry official told The Telegraph.

“When we asked some of those who had come knocking on the ministry’s door for pension why they were so late, they told us they were not aware of the scheme. We later found the (freedom fighter) certificates of most of them were forged.”

An official said the policy the ministry followed for accepting claims was the applicant had to be at least 15 years old in 1947.

Sources said they have had to reject thousands of applications. “But what can we do as every year a large number of elderly people come seeking pension,” said a senior official of the ministry’s freedom fighters division.

From Bengal alone, more than 58,000 applications have been rejected over the past 40 years, sources said.

The state accounts for 22,487 freedom fighters/dependants — second after Bihar (24,876) — drawing the pension, according to home ministry records.

The government had in 1972 introduced the Freedom Fighters’ Pension Scheme for granting pension to living freedom fighters, families of those who were no more, and families of martyrs.

Last year, the ministry disbursed around Rs 750 crore in pensions and another Rs 30 crore on facilities such as free railway passes, medical treatment and telephone connections.

“Every pensioner (freedom fighter or surviving spouse) gets Rs 15,000 a month, besides enjoying other facilities. After their death, three unwed and unemployed daughters are entitled to Rs 1,500 each,” said Sadhana Hiranandani, undersecretary in the freedom fighters division.

Since the scheme’s inception, the ministry has sanctioned pensions for 1.7 lakh freedom fighters or their dependants.

“The number of pensioners is decreasing every year but the number of new claimants is increasing. We have also come across cases where lawyers have connived with district officials to forge certificates for elderly persons showing them as freedom fighters. Some 2,000 such cases are going on in courts,” said an official.

This August, the ministry rejected 56 applications for lack of valid documents.

One of those whose application was rejected was Bengal’s Aparna Roy. The Nadia resident said she had participated in the Quit India Movement and even went to jail.

“But she did not furnish the primary evidence and the certificate was not attested, neither had its authenticity been verified,” said an official.

To be eligible for pension under the 1972 scheme, applicants have to fulfil certain conditions, including imprisonment for at least six months, externment, confiscation/attachment and sale of property because of participation in the freedom struggle, permanent incapacitation due to firing or lathicharge, and loss of job.

Applicants have to produce documents like jail certificates, documentary proof of arrest, detention or externment orders, or orders for confiscation/sale of property or dismissal from service. There is also a provision for “secondary evidence” under which a known freedom fighter has to endorse an applicant’s participation.

“Pensions are sanctioned to only those fulfilling the eligibility conditions prescribed under the scheme,” said an official.

Home minister Sushil Shinde had recently asked the department to check possible fraud by people claiming to be freedom fighters to access the benefits.

Ministry officials said one problem they faced was the absence of a centralised database of surviving freedom fighters. “We do not have a database of our own as we are only given charge of giving pensions to freedom fighters after verifying their documents once they are recommended by states,” said an official.

The ministry has also had to deal with unusual queries under the Right to Information Act.

“Last month, one person from Bihar sent a query asking whether Mahatma Gandhi was a freedom fighter,” said an official. “We replied, saying according to historical facts, he was a freedom fighter.”