Putting Criminals in Command?

Indian ArmyBY M G DEVASAHAYAM

Criminalisation of politics is the flavour of the election season. Aamir Khan, in his Satyameva Jayate Episode 5 presented on 30 March 2014, ripped open its underbelly, clearly bringing out that the bigger the criminals contesting elections, the higher the chance of their getting elected. And this has been going on for the last several years and the resultant loot and plunder indulged in by those who run governments has turned India from a functional democracy to a dysfunctional kleptocracy.

That this would afflict the Armed Forces was beyond one’s wildest dreams. But this is what precisely seems to be happening if one looks at the way persons are being selected and appointed to the highest command positions in the Army, including the Chief. When the appointment of General Bikram Singh was announced in a premature manner in 2012 after cutting short the tenure of General VK Singh through intrigues and deceit, ‘prominent citizens’ pointed out the fact that there were allegations of fake encounter against the former pending in the J&K High Court and a Court of Inquiry was on in Meerut for his lapses as Commandant of an Indian Army contingent on peace-keeping mission in Congo which was accused of sexual exploitation of local women. Yet the appointment was rammed through and a plea in the Supreme Court fell on deaf years! What is worse, ‘doctored’ papers were presented to get the PIL dismissed and despite efforts through RTI Act over the last two years Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Secretariat are keeping the ‘fudged file’ hermetically sealed!

[sociallocker]Now in 2014, as Bikram Singh is getting set to hang his boots, something similar is playing out. There are talks that he will be succeeded by Lt. General Dalbir Singh Suhag who has been accused of being accessory to more serious crimes indulged in by those under his direct command. This accusation is not coming from any busybody, but from serving Lt. General Ravi Dastane, who is just next to Lt. General Suhag in rank and seniority. He has done it in a sworn affidavit filed in Supreme Court in a Civil Appeal against an order passed by the Armed Forces Tribunal, Principal Bench, New Delhi. The Affidavit pertained to the criminal activities of one Colonel Shreekumar, who was commanding the Dimapur based Intelligence Unit (IU) of III Corps headed by Lt. General Suhag. These activities form two distinct events:

Event One was in July 2011 when Col. Shreekumar’s own Second-in-Command, Major Takula Ravi Kiran, wrote to the Brigadier General Staff of III Corps stating that on the 13th of March 2010, three Manipuri boys had been abducted and shot dead by Colonel Shreekumar’s outfit. Two days later, their bodies had been exhumed from a temporary grave in Rangapahar and thrown into a river. These bodies had been subsequently recovered by the Assam police on 19 March at Lakhijan in Karbi Anglong, but at the time they had no idea about who the deceased were. Despite the evidence on record with the police both Eastern Command and HQ III Corps refused to act on this crime.

Event Two happened in the early hours of the 20th of December 2011 when an armed party of fifteen soldiers dressed in battle fatigues under the command of Captain Rubina Kaur Keer, an officer of Col Shreekumar’s IU, raided the house of one Poona Gogoi, an army contractor in Jorhat, who was away in Guwahati. But all members of the family – wife (Renu Gogoi) and three children – were manhandled and tied up. On the orders of Captain Keer soldiers forcibly took the keys of the locked cupboards and took into possession a licensed pistol with thirteen cartridges, jewelry worth Rs. 6.5 lakhs and cash adding up to 1.5 lakhs. They also took away an assortment of items that included a laptop and four mobile phones. As the raiding party exited the house, they were accosted by the patrol van of the local police station, but slipped out giving some lame excuse.

On return from Guwahati, Poona Gogoi filed an FIR in the police station listing all the items that had been stolen. However, other than the fact that the raiders were army personnel, the police had no way of knowing who they were. For all practical purposes, the raiders had disappeared into thin air. The only clue they had was Renu Gogoi’s statement that the party was being commanded by a woman whose face she had seen and could possibly identify. A week after the incident, the police got a crucial break when a phone call was made from one of the stolen mobile phones and was traced to a number in Haryana. Police investigated and found that the call was made by an Army Havildar, Sandeep Thapa of III Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit and had participated in the raid.

Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, the Areas of Responsibility of III Corps are covered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Corps, then under the command of Lt. General Suhag, refused to cooperate despite the police directly taking it up with him. However police managed to intercept and interrogate Sandeep Thapa who though not arrested, spilled the beans about the incident.

Faced with overwhelming and embarrassing pressure, in an attempt to quietly bury the incident, the Corps handed back the stolen pistol, most items and the cash but the jewelry and cartridges were missing. The police were told by Lt General Suhag that the matter would be dealt with by Army authorities and that they had no further jurisdiction in the matter. But by now military circles were abuzz with the news and the spotlight turned to Colonel Shreekumar. Though the Colonel had denied being part of the raiding party, the police had accessed his mobile call records which clearly established that he was constantly in touch with Captain Keer before and after the raid.

Colonel Shreekumar had been General JJ Singh’s OSD during his tenure as the COAS and was known to enjoy his patronage later when JJ Singh became Governor of Arunachal Pradseh. Shreekumar had a virtual free hand as he reported directly to Suhag and Bikram Singh and was involved in various nefarious activities which included the flow of narcotics and a network involving vehicle thefts in Rangia district of Assam. Despite being posted in Dimapur, Col Shreekumar was mostly seen in Delhi doing hatchet work and assisting in the conspiracies and intrigues against General VK Singh, the then Army Chief!

After the Jorhat incident, Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi spoke to the then COAS, General VK Singh demanding action against the erring officers and men. Around this time, Major Kiran once again wrote to the Eastern Army Commander, Lt General Bikram Singh, repeating the allegations of the custodial killings. He had alleged that a cold blooded triple murder took place in the IU under the command of Col Shreekumar. According to the complainant three people were picked up by Major Nector and Capt Rubina Kaur Keer after an operation in Dimapur and that these ‘suspected terrorists’ were brought to the unit’s officers’ mess and shot. This complaint appears to have been investigated by a one man inquiry by HQ III Corps and ‘disposed of’.

In the meantime Poona Gogoi had moved the Guwahati High Court demanding action. As it turned out the reason for the raid was to kidnap Poona Gogoi and hand him over to a militant organization for extortion. This was done at the behest of one Nirmal Gogoi, another army contractor based in Dimapur, who was a business rival of Poona Gogoi. Obviously huge money was involved!

On receiving the report of this incident, a Court of Inquiry by a different formation which was not under III Corps was convened by the Headquarters Eastern Command to investigate the matter. But it was headed by only a Brigadier rank officer with the deliberate intention of keeping the Corps Commander (Lt. General Suhag) out of its purview. This was premeditated because being directly responsible for the IU he should have been the first person to answer for its illegal actions. The CoI was obviously orchestrated which is evident from the fact that despite clinching FIR and evidence the accused could get away on some technical ground or the other.

Top brass at Eastern Command and III Corps were shielding Colonel Shreekumar, refusing to act on Major Kiran’s two written complaints and also against the erring unit in the Jorhat case. It was fairly obvious that Dalbir Suhag was biding his time, for he knew that he would take over Eastern Command from Bikram Singh who would move to Delhi as the Chief on VK Singh’s forced retirement.

The Court of Inquiry Report was received in Army HQ through Eastern Command and directions on the same were given by the then COAS (General VK Singh) on 23 April 2012 which was in variance with the one issued  by the then Eastern Army Commander (Lt. Gen Bikram Singh). Further, the then COAS also gave additional directions on this CoI on 18 May 2012. That there was attempt to protect all those involved is evident when one sees the much lower scale of punishment directed by the then Eastern Army Commander and subsequently upgraded by the former COAS in his directions.

COAS Gen. V.K. Singh also issued a Show Cause Notice (SCN) on 19-05-2012 to Lt. General Suhag for certain lapses related to his command responsibilities and simultaneously placed him under a Discipline and Vigilance (DV) Ban. The SCN brought out lapses noticed by the then COAS for not handling a Unit placed under the Corps Commander’s direct command in a professional and appropriate manner and also for not following up on certain other complaints sent earlier through HQ Eastern Command.

The IU is only an intelligence gathering unit on ‘targets’ and then keeps them under surveillance till it is decided that the targets need to be apprehended. As per the drills and procedures mandated if raid is to be conducted there has to be a combat unit with the IU personnel accompanying them together with a police party. The repeated illegal acts of the IU was a just case for the Corps Commander to be held accountable for his acts of omission in failing to command his IU in a professional manner. In the event General VK Singh was perfectly justified in issuing SCN and place Lt. General Suhag under DV Ban.

That MOD received the information from the Army HQ on 25-05-2012 about the imposition of the DV ban and they in turn informed the Cabinet Secretariat on 29-05-2012. But much against Rules Lt. General Suhag was appointed in the acting rank of Army Commander w.e.f. 01.06.2012 even before he replied to the SCN and its detailed processing on merit. No Army Commander is given an acting rank. It is only given when there is no clear substantive vacancy. In this case there were two substantive vacancies that of Eastern and Western Commands.

There was serious conflict of interest in the matter of dealing with the SCN and the DV Ban by General Bikram Singh. He ought to have sent the entire file to the Government in view of the fact that he was the one who had directed the action to be taken against the personnel involved in the incident and his directions were not agreed to by the previous COAS. Instead he got the DV Ban lifted in two weeks time in an illegal manner. This was done without thorough investigation and due application of mind only to make Lt. General Suhag a regular Army Commander against the vacancy kept unfilled for 15 days. If this had not happened Lt. General Ravi Dastane would have become Army Commander and taken over as COAS on the retirement of General Bikram Singh on 31 July, 2014. Even now this could happen if Supreme Court rules in his favour.

Though the Eastern Army Commander (Lt. General Suhag) and COAS (General Bikram Singh), both products of the obnoxious ‘Line of Succession’, tried their best to hush up the whole thing the Court of Inquiry led to Court Martial.  In December 2013, the Court Martial concluded its deliberations and ordered the dismissal from Service for Havildar Sandeep Thapa. Colonel Shreekumar was given a severe displeasure while Captain Rubina was given a reprimand along with Havildar Bhupen Hatimuta and Havildar Jeevan Neog who got severe reprimands.

Considering the enormity of the crimes these are no ‘punishments’. Under Section 391 of Indian Penal Code dacoity is described as “five or more persons conjointly commit or attempt to commit a robbery, or where the whole number of persons conjointly committing or attempting to commit a robbery…” Punishment laid down in Section 395 is life imprisonment or rigorous imprisonment up to ten years. Section 397 prescribes a minimum punishment of seven years. If Event One is taken into account it could be the charge of cold blooded murder attracting Section 302 IPC!

The IU raid comes under the definition of ‘dacoity’ and is a huge blot on the credibility and integrity of the Army which both General Bikram Singh and Lt. General Suhag failed to protect. They are also guilty of criminal negligence and dereliction of duty. If Event One that could have attracted Section 302 IPC (Murder) is taken into account it is far worse. Placing them at such high positions in the Army is clear indication of a premeditated plan to criminalise the upper echelons of the Army with nefarious intention.

Now, as if driving a red hot spear into a festered wound there are reports of the UPA government planning to make Lt General Dalbir Suhag as the next Army Chief before it demits office in May. Ex-Army chief and now BJP leader VK Singh has accused the government of ‘playing with the institutional integrity of the Armed forces’. It is far more than that. Army Commanders are being criminalized. Can this ever be countenanced?

(M G Devasahayam was an IAS Officer and holds post-graduate degree in Economics. Previous to the IAS he served in the Indian army and has participated in the 1965 Indo-Pak war and counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland. He is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)[/sociallocker]

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