Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

It's Not Just The Sand Mafia

What happened to Durga Shakti Nagpal is a well tried-out modus operandi to intimidate anti-corruption crusaders into submission. Remember how the defence mafia hounded the former Army Chief?

 An inefficient and a lethargic Uttar Pradesh (UP) government woke up in the evening of 27 Jul 2013 to suspend Durga Shakti Nagpal, a young IAS officer at midnight. There is an outcry from the Samajwadi politicians in UP to chargesheet her and her boss the District Magistrate K. Ravikant. The alleged reason offered, that she had vitiated social harmony by ordering to bring down the wall of a masjid in a UP village, is a blatant lie. It was an alibi to stop her going after the sand mafia who were looting the state and causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem. How can the political class lose lucrative loot money or not stand by those who are their partners in crime? What if their money making venture gets halted? It was a clear message to the state’s bureaucracy— fall in line or you will be punished, haunted and destroyed. This is a well tried out modus operandi all through India to intimidate anti-corruption crusaders into submission.

Irrespective of which party is ruling, whether it is the central or the state government, the responses to an officer trying to clean up the system of corrupt practices are no different. A very similar methodology is followed by the defence mafia.  In the ministry of defence, which is a lucrative money spinning department, only the pliable bureaucrats are posted to avoid trouble. They soon become part of the the politico-bureaucratic nexus. Irrespective of the number of times the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) is modified, the defence bureaucracy refuses to appoint an independent professionally managed body to do the defence purchases. The purchases are processed and the price negotiated by the bureaucracy themselves despite the fact that they neither have the expertise in defence equipment related technology nor management skills to process defence purchases in a time bound manner. The attraction, of course, need not be spelt out, as was seen in the last year in the whole controversy that was sought to be created regarding the then army chief. 
It is by now well-known that General VK Singh the former Chief of the Army Staff refused to endorse the demand for purchase of 600 odd Tatra trucks as he felt, besides other reasons, that these vehicles were costly and were being purchased through an intermediary thereby causing huge loss to the exchequer. He smelt a rat. The dilemma for the political class was how to avoid a money spinner deal from being sabotaged and what if the General continued with his honest approach for the rest of his tenure?

Step #1: Amicable settlement—making the dissident a partner:  The first attempt was to settle the issue amicably by trying to rope in the former Chief to become a partner in the deal. A retired Lt Gen is reported to have approached the Chief with an offer of 14 Crores to revive the order. The General refused to play ball and went on to report the matter to the defence minister, his immediate boss. If things were open and straight forward, the defence minister would have taken cognizance of the matter and initiated appropriate action to bring the culprit to book and the General would have received an appreciation for being honest. But the minister chose to remain quiet.

Step #2: Remove obstacles Because Step #1 did not provide the desired result, the obstacle in the way had to be removed. A novel procedure was invented to determine the date of birth of the officer—a certificate issued by the officer under certain circumstances replacing the officially recognized birth certificate and the School Leaving Certificate. Till date, not a single official or a minister has come out to declare that the former chief’s date of birth is 1950 and not 1951. The government went to the Military Secretary’s branch to verify the officer’s date of birth which had nothing to do with the verification of dates of birth of officers joining the Army. Interestingly, the Military Secretary’s Branch which had itself shown 1951 as the General’s date of birth in the Member Data Sheet (MDS) prepared for the officer’s promotion right from his promotion to the rank of Brigadier to Lt Gen told a white lie to declare that 1950 was the officer’s official date of birth. The Adjutant General’s branch was directed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to change their records. The Statutory Complaint put up by the Chief in accordance with the Army Act, an act of the Parliament, which was to be replied within 180 days, remained unanswered. Not even the courts pronounced on the correct date of birth. The people of the country could not read through the falsehood. The entire country was taken for a ride. In effect what the government did was to fabricate the date of birth of the officer to have him removed right under the full glare of the public in broad day light. The Indian government deserves full credit for outperforming the great Indian magician PC Sorcar.

Step #3: Exert Mental Pressure: Has the matter ended? No. A lesson had to be taught to the other serving officers in the line. A story was planted to suggest that the Army Chief had employed the Military Intelligence (MI) to bug the office of the defence minister, least realizing that it was the Military Intelligence which had reported their suspicion of the bug to the authorities. So it amounted to saying that the MI planted the bug and discovered it themselves. How bizarre! 

Then a story was put out to suggest that the Army Chief had leaked to the press his own Top Secret letter addressed to the Prime Minister. The entire Parliament was made to believe that the General had leaked his letter to pressure the government in the matter about his age. An enquiry by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was ordered and till date the public has been kept guessing about the source of leak. Why? Shouldn’t someone who leaks a Top Secret document be punished in national interest? Why this soft pedalling? After all we are running a government and not a private business. If you do not act in this case now, how will the government handle future cases of violation of the Official Secrets Act?

Yet another story was then put out to insinuate that the Technical Support Division (TSD) of the Army, created by the government while General VK Singh was the COAS had deployed the air interceptors in and around Delhi to snoop on the conversations of the officials of the MOD, and politicians. Another story was also put up to say that two of the interceptors of the TSD had gone missing and probably had been destroyed. A story also appeared in the newspapers that the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) under the ministry of defence headed by Lt Gen Tejinder Singh had purchased the air interceptors which they were not authorized to hold as per the list of authorized agencies specified by the Supreme Court. Who authorized the purchases? Who sanctioned the expenditure and from which funds? What is the truth? Whose interceptors were deployed to snoop? Was it that of the TSD or NIA? What are the findings of the investigations?

When this news was published in the media, the Army Headquarters carried out their own investigations and put out a press release to clarify the position. It briefly stated that the ‘fabricated fabrication’ was put out by a group of disgruntled serving officers of the MI working in connivance with a retired Lt Gen who was the head of DIA and an allottee of an Adarsh flat, to create a rift between the COAS and the government. It also mentioned that the said Lt Gen had offered a bribe to the then COAS.

Step #4: Harassment: Lt Gen Tejinder Singh, based on the press release, filed a defamation case on five officers of the army including General VK Singh. The question is this: Does the Army as an institution, clarifying its position to a defamatory press report amount to defamation by individual officers, especially after the matter regarding offer of bribe by a retired officer had been reported to the defence minister? Should the army have kept quiet allowing the people of the country and the troops to believe that the Army indeed was snooping on the political heads? By the same logic, wouldn’t the defence minister’s statement in Parliament naming Lt Gen Tejinder Singh as having offered a bribe to the then COAS amount to defamation?

The press report based on which the defamation case was filed, was to rebut the media story about the TSD deploying the air interceptors to snoop on the MOD bureaucrats and politicians. Strangely, no one seems to be questioning as to which organisation had deployed the interceptors and on whose orders. This issue does not seem to have been investigated and no answers on the mystery are forthcoming. In the meanwhile, another report appeared in the media alleging that Lt Gen Tejinder Singh had unauthorisedly entered into the area of TSD with a reporter of an English daily and the army sources seem to have confirmed the report but had said that they were not planning any legal action. The question is: Is this story true? If yes, why was the officer seen in that area? And if not, why did the newspaper publish the story? Strangely, snooping, the raison d’ etre for the Army’s press release seems to have been forgotten and the bribe issue, which is already under investigation by the CBI, has taken centre- stage in the defamation case. Shouldn’t the courts demand that an investigation be carried out on the snooping issue and monitor it to its logical conclusion in the interest of democracy and its attendant values which the country cherishes? The defamation issue will automatically get clarified when the puzzle of the snooping exercise is solved.

Recently, media reports have appeared suggesting that the CBI who was investigating the alleged bribe case, was planning to file a closure report on the grounds that the evidence provided by General VK Singh was not enough to prove bribery charges against Lt Gen Tejinder Singh. What evidence was expected from the General when the Lt Gen had met the Chief in his office in private? The message is unambiguous to future bribe givers and bribe takers. If you complain of someone offering bribes, there is no way the matter can be investigated, proved and the individual punished. On the other hand, you can be taken to the courts and hounded. As for the bribe giver, in future one can walk up to anyone and test the waters by offering a bribe for a favour without any hesitation. Can there be any other interpretation to the subtle message?

When the defamation case came up for hearing, the Metropolitan Magistrate Jay Thareja, while issuing summons to General VK Singh and four others, rejected the allegation of criminal conspiracy, saying that it was absurd and without any foundation. He further went on to state that “the accused are only being summoned qua offence described under section 499 (defamation) read with section 35 (criminal intention) of the Indian Penal Code.” It therefore raises a question shouldn’t the ministry of defence which goes to the court at the drop of a hat against the interests of soldiers and veterans not have defended the press release to prevent the defamation case being admitted? Should the defamation case have been admitted in the first place?

See the behaviour of the complainant in the court violating all norms of decency and the harassment to someone whose only fault was to complain that he was offered a bribe.

The Metropolitan Magistrate (MM) Mr Sudesh Kumar decided not to hear the case stating that the “Counsel Anil Kumar Aggarwal (appearing for Tejinder Singh) has exhibited lack of confidence over the court and the manner in which he tried to dictate to this court as to what is required to be mentioned in the proceeding and as what type of enquiry this court has to make, reflects his (complainant’s) lack of faith in this court.” In a subsequent hearing when the General came to the court and sat in the chair, the council was reportedly shouting at the judge to make the General stand up. 

All the five officers were granted bail by the court. When it came to hearing, the serving officers of the army, who were represented by the government lawyer, were exempted from personal appearance while the case regarding exemption to General VK Singh, represented by his lawyer, was kept in abeyance. As per General VK Singh’s statement in a media interview, when questioned, the judge had remarked that he did not press for the exemption. Press what? What does that mean? When four out of the five charged in a case with defamation were granted exemption from personal appearance, why not the fifth one?

The study indicates a number of wrong things which ought not to have happened. Every time something went wrong, an investigation was announced. But till date, none of the investigations seem to have fructified. No one seems to have been punished. Why? Are our investigating agencies all that inefficient? Or are we trying to hide facts which are unpalatable?

This is the first case in the history of independent India where a COAS has been charge-sheeted in a court. What is his fault? He decided to expose corruption and someone who offered him a bribe right inside his office. See the level the country has stooped to. Had the General been corrupt, by now the powers that be would have made sure that he was in jail. Is this a reward for being honest? Should the General have kept quiet and allowed the game to continue considering that even with his proactive approach nothing has happened to anyone till now?

What incentive does any government servant have to expose corruption? Harassment? Court cases? If these are the ways a former COAS can be persecuted, what will happen to the junior lot? Can they sustain such unrelenting pressure? Would they have the money, time, energy and the strength to fight court cases? This way, can India ever hope to be free of corruption? The message that the country is sending out is unambiguous. When you see corruption, turn the other way, become a partner in the game, accept the bribe and enrich yourself. If you go against the corrupt, cases will be invented against you, you will be punished, hounded and harassed. Perhaps the General would have been hailed as one of the greatest of the Indian Army had he towed the line. He would have then avoided the harassment and the ignominy of running around the courts like a criminal.


Is there a similarity between this case and the case involving Durga Shakti Nagpal in as far as the reaction of the government is concerned? See the other cases which are coming up from Rajasthan. May be the Supreme Court of India need to take suo motu cognizance of the problem and force a well-balanced system to safeguard the interests of the country failing which India has every prospect of becoming a banana republic. 

What could be the solution? An independent branch to deal with the HR functions including career management, postings, training, and disciplining aspects of IAS and the IPS officers including those who join the cadre from lower ranks needs to be created separately for each of these services. This branch should be manned by its own officers who may be posted in rotation for a fixed tenure as in the case of the Military Secretary’s Branch in the Army Headquarters. This branch should strictly follow certain laid down rules and be accountable to their respective ministries in the matter of promotions, appointment to senior positions etc. Similar arrangements need to be created in each state to manage the career of lower ranks.

Brig. (Retd.) V. Mahalingam is a security affairs analyst