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9-min read

Armed Forces Tribunal: Playing with fire

The order of the AFT has raised many eyebrows as it was by and large felt that the Indian Army had a watertight case against General Rath.

Kunal Verma, Vishwajeet Singh

Updated:September 8, 2014, 6:23 PM IST
Armed Forces Tribunal: Playing with fire
The order of the AFT has raised many eyebrows as it was by and large felt that the Indian Army had a watertight case against General Rath.

In an extraordinary order, the Armed Forces Tribunal has exonerated Lieutenant General PK Rath, the former General Officer Commanding the Siliguri based 33 Corps, of any wrong doing in what has been labeled by the media as the 'Sukhna Scam'. The bench, comprising Hon'ble Justice Sunil Hali and Hon'ble Air Marshal JN Burma has in their order virtually overturned the order of the General Court Martial that had found General Rath guilty of charges 2, 4 and 5 in January 2011.

The order of the AFT has raised many eyebrows as it was by and large felt that the Indian Army had a watertight case against General Rath. The bench can only go by what is put up to them, and it is felt that the Army has 'played the court' with an eye towards an even bigger game; the exoneration of a senior officer who has been issued a notice by the c of India accusing him of directly shielding officers involved in the Jorhat Dacoity case. In addition, another case against the same officer is also pending in the Gauhati High Court wherein he is again accused of shielding the same officers in the Dimapur Murder case where three Manipuri boys were tortured and executed by the same people involved in the Jorhat case. The main accused, a Colonel in the Intelligence Wing, involved in both the Jorhat and Dimapur cases, has earlier served as an OSD to two former Chiefs. He has since moved to Delhi on attachment and has been seen by serving officers regularly interacting with the Senior Officer who is now in a n extremely prominent appointment.

Lieutenant General PK Rath's petition before the AFT plays up the 'revenge' angle. This interpretation has (obviously successfully) tried to imply that the entire Sukhna land scam issue was a devious scheme hatched up General VK Singh (Respondent No. 2) when he was the Eastern Army Commander. Early in his petition, General Rath prays: "On 13.02.2009, Respondent No.2 visited HQ 33 Corps. The petitioner made a mention of the proposal received from the private parties while seeing him off at the helipad. At that time, respondent No.2 showed no reaction to the proposal. However, the matter was given undue prominence by Respondent No.2 later, since he had a serious grudge against the then Military Secretary Lt Gen Avdesh Prakash who he held responsible for obtaining a commitment from him on the issue of his date of birth which stood in the way of his extension of tenure as the Chief of the Army Staff."

That the AFT should buy this argument is ridiculous on two counts: a) Lieutenant General Avdesh Prakash was not on the horizon when the COI was ordered. His name tumbled out of the closet much later and b) General VK Singh, now a Minister in the Government, should not be called upon for his views even though the entire petition before the AFT now reads like a Shakespearean play in which he is the real villain. Somewhere along the line, presumably with the help of the Army (Respondent No. 1) the entire spotlight has been shifted. General Rath's petition is punctuated with references to the infamous age issue, which was the brainchild of a senior bureaucrat within the PMO during the UPA Government and then played out through the various bureaucrats and sections of the media who had been set up to discredit the General. None of this is implied, it is stated in black and white. To quote from the writ which has been reproduced as a part of the order:

"(aa) Respondent No.2 and the then Military Secretary Lt. Gen Avdesh Prakash had exchanged certain letters related to the issue of change in the record of the year of birth of Respondent No.2 from 1950 to 1951 even after his giving a written commitment earlier. Respondent No.2 again reiterated his written commitment sometime in 2008-2009 by accepting 1950 as the year of his birth. The commitment was projected as having been made under duress and coercion.

"(ab) Respondent No.2 was overlooked for being appointed as Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) during the time of his predecessor as the COAS and Lt Gen (Retd) PC Bhardwaj appointed as the VCOAS.

"(ac) Both these events resulted in a vengeance in the mind of Respondent No.2 for which he held the then Military Secretary responsible and was looking for an opportunity to get even."

So what does Rath's exoneration have to do with the Senior Army officer's case? In all cases that directly or indirectly affected this particular officer, the entire defence mechanism has been activated to paint a picture wherein the former Army Chief, General VK Singh, is somehow dragged into the scenario and the theme song becomes that of 'vengeance'. The various points of merit (or demerit) promptly lose their significance, as the former Army Chief becomes the de facto accused. From General VK Singh's perspective, the irony is further heightened as he is not allowed to depose in his own defence as he is not the main accused and therefore not involved in the principle case. It helps even more if Respondent No. 1 is the MoD or the Indian Army. After that, regardless of who is the chair Umpire, it is 'game, set and match'.

The AFT bench claims that it has 'righted a wrong' and have even refused the respondents the right to appeal, but one wonders if they have any idea of what they are doing? In effect, as Lieutenant General Rath's lawyer was at great pains to explain on NDTV later in the evening, the AFT had overturned the General Court Martial (GCM)'s findings on the ground that since the original complainant was General VK Singh, nobody involved with the GCM had the guts to go against a senior officer. This is an amazing charge, especially since the present VCOAS was also involved in the GCM that found Rath guilty on three counts. By the yardstick being employed by the media, should not the VCOAS be asked to put in his papers on the grounds of 'gutless sycophancy'?

The present Chief Justice of India, the Hon'ble Justice RM Lodha, had gone on record saying that judgments can be questioned, but motive cannot be attributed to the Judges. In this case it would seem an order has been passed that reeks of incompetence. If anything, it would appear the bench has done exactly what it accuses the GCM of doing - doled out a verdict to please the boss!

This automatically brings us to a sore point that needs to be addressed. The AFT continues, against all logic, to be under the MoD. The contradiction is obvious - in all cases brought before the AFT, the MoD is a respondent. Yet the boss of AFT is MoD. What has happened to the basic principles of justice in this country?

Interestingly, the AFT bench can very cleverly argue that in its 77-page order, it has not said a single word against General VK Singh and hence they have in no way indicted the General. However, it is well known that the entire game is more to do with 'Perception Management' and less to do with facts. The media has been cleverly manipulated time and again to run a hysterical campaign against VK Singh, the single biggest campaign being the age issue itself. For anyone watching the developments closely, the attempt is now to paint him as a 'vengeful, vindictive individual'; and by extension, anyone accused of any wrong-doing during his tenure is therefore being victimized regardless of the facts.

The same lobby, in defusing Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane's case, considered to be a fairly open and shut affair, used the same technique. Though the bribery case of Lieutenant General Tejinder Singh overshadowed his case against General VK Singh and four other officers of the Indian Army, the same technique was also considered. Who knows what strange turns that will eventually take? Left to the various lobbies working against the former chief, it will not be surprising if some day they arrest him for having refused a bribe!

The Army has once before already gone out on a limb to protect Lt General Tejinder Singh after he was caught red handed inside the TSD premises. Not only did the Army turn against the officers who filed a case against the former General, they even disbanded and took apart the Intelligence agency in the fond hope that they could find 'something' that would help write General VK Singh's epitaph. Today, the biggest loser is the country, for not only has the TSD been shut down, the main accused who actually controlled the Off-the-Air Interceptors, was allowed to go scot free on that score.

On the very day AFT was letting Lieutenant General Rath off the hook, a battery of senior lawyers at the High Court were trying to get Lieutenant General Tejinder Singh out on bail after he had been remanded to judicial custody. Forget all the other names, just calculate the fee of Mr Kapil Sibal and honestly tell me which Army officer can afford to hire such expensive council? Or was Mr Sibal there to defend the accused on behalf of the UPA on a pro bono basis? Maybe the IT people need to look into this as well.

Having set the tone, the AFT must realize the dangerous game it is being forced to play by its masters, which continue to be the MoD and not the Ministry of Law and Justice. What will they do next? Exonerate Lieutenant General Avdesh Prakash? Already, it's a good chance that the defence for the Senior Officer in both the Jorhat and Dimapur cases will be an all out attack on General VK Singh who initiated an enquiry into the first incident when he slapped a DV Ban on the said Senior Officer for inaction when he was the 3 Corps commander. It will be of little consequence that allegedly not only were heinous crimes committed, they were committed under the umbrella of ASFA. This much maligned act, so necessary for the protection of the soldiers who have to be protected from false charges in internal operational areas, loses its sanctity when people at the very top hide behind it to hide their own acts of omission. When that happens, it is a pity that the great institution, the Indian army, then has to resort to playing games to save these people who hold the reigns of power. Let us not forget that every man, be he/she a soldier, sailor or airman, knows what is happening.

We talk endlessly of Institutional integrity and the need to stand up when it comes to right and wrong. The learned bench of the AFT quotes Text 34 Chapter 2 of the Bhagwadgita: "People will always speak of your infamy, and for a respectable person, dishonor is worse than death." Today, it would seem the sacred message has been given a new interpretation - do what you want, just don't get caught! After this, which commander will ever pull up his subordinate who is caught with the hand in the till? The Army as an institution has suffered enough damage in this desire to get at the former Chief so that others with major cases against them can be protected. Question is, how far are we willing to go when every Tom, Dick and Harry knows what the real game plan is?

Kunal Verma is the author of 'The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why' and various other books including the highly acclaimed Northeast Trilogy. He is also the co-author of General VK Singh's autobiography, Courage & Conviction.

Vishwajeet Singh is a practicing lawyer and is currently prosecuting Lt General Tejinder Singh on behalf of General VK Singh.

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