What was hurriedly swept under the carpet with the dismissal of three officers by invoking the 'President's pleasure doctrine' (the President as supreme commander of the three forces can withdraw his pleasure) is now up for judicial scrutiny. And the role, if any, of the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, and his wife's nephew K. Shankaran in the espionage episode will be laid bare when the navy is asked by the court to explain why it dismissed the three officers without a court martial and punishing them with jail sentences.
Shankaran and his Shank Ocean Engineering, a naval supplies company, have been identified through media stories put out unofficially by sources in the navy as those who would have been the alleged final beneficiaries of the information. Naval headquarters even admitted to the media that Prakash had informed Union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee that Shankaran was a "distant relative". The case in a nutshell is that Shankaran, Kulbhushan Parasar and K.K. Sharma—all retired naval officers—were supposed to receive some information on a pen drive which was seized before the transfer actually happened from an Indian air force officer, L.S. Surve. According to the navy, among other data, this pen drive had classified information from the Directorate of Naval Operations (DNO).
Commanders Vijendra Rana, Vinod Kumar Jha and Captain Kashyap Kumar, who headed the DNO, have been accused by the navy of being behind the leak. But the navy has curiously not substantiated these charges in the Board of Inquiry (BOI) even while claiming that it has evidence to support them. The leak's alleged end-beneficiaries find no mention in the BOI's report which just says that they will be investigated by "appropriate authorities."
The punishment meted out was surely not commensurate with so serious a crime. According to a defence ministry note, "they (the three officers) have collectively, as well as individually, compromised the security of classified naval information and thereby jeopardised the interests of the State. The above acts of omission and commission can be summarised as copying/obtaining/retaining/disclosing classified information that is likely to adversely affect the interests of the State. They failed to take reasonable care of information likely to affect the security of the State. They accepted gratification other than legitimate remuneration." Despite all these accusations, the navy refused to court-martial the officers on the pretext that "since a trial by court martial could have led to considerable delays, the central government has decided to terminate their services forthwith."
The navy's concern for delay is being seen by some naval officers as a thin veil of a cover-up. A former judge advocate general of the navy told Outlook, "There are instances of the navy concluding court martials involving 150 witnesses in three months. Recently, a case with 30 witnesses and 32 counts of charges was wrapped up in 45 days. So, what are they talking about? Does it mean that henceforth there won't be any court martials for spying, whether commercial or otherwise?"
According to naval sources, information that was to be passed on to Shankaran from the DNO could have been about the offshore patrol boats that the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was planning to procure. Commander Vijendra Rana, dismissed along with Capt Kashyap Kumar and Vinod Kumar Jha, was a course mate of Shankaran. Rana was in charge of the Ocean Management Division of the DNO and oversaw the defence of installations like the offshore oil rigs of the ONGC. Thus, the qualitative requirements (QRs) for the patrol boats to be bought by ONGC and run by the navy were prepared among others by Rana. Normally it is the Directorate of Staff Requirements that deals with procurement and not the DNO.
A Chinese company was the lowest bidder in the first ever global tender. Not keen on a Chinese source, the navy decided to rework the QRs. It is these reworked QRs that are said to have landed in the pen drive that was to be handed over to Shankaran. Naval officers feel that Shankaran and his friends should have been investigated by someone within the navy who was not partial towards Admiral Prakash. But neither the defence ministry nor the navy explained what action has been taken against Shankaran and Co. Nor has it established a case against the three officers.
In the writ filed by Capt Kumar, he has submitted to the court that Shankaran is like an adopted son of Prakash, "who has only one daughter", and that on his Delhi visits, Shankaran stayed at the naval chief's official residence. And that despite his firm getting blacklisted due to a blast in INS Jyoti in 1996, caused by faulty equipment supplied by his firm, Shankaran still did business with the navy. According to the petition, "It is this Pandora's box that would have opened if an inquiry would have taken place."
In the writ, Kumar has stated that he was never charged with any offence and was called only as a witness to the BOI headed by Rear Admiral Ganesh Mahadevan, which the navy cited to dismiss the three officers. The Navy Act clearly stipulates that "full opportunity should be afforded to such person of being present throughout the inquiry and of making any statement and of giving any evidence he may wish to make or give and of cross-examining any witness whose evidence in his opinion affects him and producing any witness in his defence." Of course, the navy is tight-lipped and did not even accept a questionnaire on the issue, saying the case was subjudice.
Interestingly, the navy used both routes, of the BOI and the President's pleasure doctrine, which has raised doubts about the navy's eagerness to close the case. The defence ministry claimed on October 28 that the BOI has established that there has been an information leakage. But Kumar's writ claims he was never allowed to be present during the BOI proceedings or given an opportunity to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses.
The case is indeed unique. Since July 31, when the story was broken by a Mumbai daily, naval officers had consistently told the media in off-the-record briefings that the three officers were involved in a spying racket. And that they compromised the high-security Directorate of Naval Operations that plans which ship should be where and when during a war. Initial press reports were categorical about war plans getting leaked from the DNO. It is indeed a fact that in the DNO, 'top secret' files are prepared on water-marked sheets of paper using computers linked to each other through the local area network, but not hooked to the net. And the government has admitted that the pen drive seized from the IAF officer had classified information from the DNO.
By dismissing the three officers, the navy has let them walk free to share all they know with those interested. Kumar was a high-flier who was twice part of the delegation on the Sir Creek talks between India and Pakistan. He had always landed plum postings like commanding a ship, being posted in the Directorate of Naval Intelligence and then became the director of naval operations. Even in his worst nightmare he would not have expected to be waylaid by his naval intelligence colleagues outside his Asiad Village house and blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location to be interrogated by the raw and the Intelligence Bureau.
Kumar has dared the navy to prove its charges against him. It will soon be clear whether the commercial espionage story was all about a cover-up operation to protect Shankaran and his influential relatives. Or is it about a succession war in the navy that led certain officers to plant stories against their chief, so that they can at least aspire for the top job in case the incumbent resigns a tainted man.