THE impending appointment of the next Army chief to fill the vacancy arising on July 31, 2014, has raised a raging controversy. As the Ministry of Defence (MoD) commenced the selection process, General VK Singh, former Army chief, and his party, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), made this an issue, saying that with the present UPA government’s term ending in May, selection and appointment of the next Army chief should be left to the new government taking over.
Those who counter this argument say that the appointment of a new Army chief is a routine administrative decision and it should not be politicised. The appointment is necessary because a vacancy ‘looms on the horizon’. Seniority is the determining principle and normally the most senior Lieutenant General gets the job. The only grounds for suggesting otherwise is if the man appointed is seen as partisan or less than independent. But if he is the most senior, that will not be the case.
In the case of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, the ‘chosen one’, there is a lurking suspicion that the obnoxious feudal practice of ‘Line of Succession’ is being pushed to the extreme.
But in the case of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, the ‘chosen one’, there is a lurking suspicion that the obnoxious feudal practice of ‘Line of Succession’ is being pushed to the extreme. Under this practice, a favourite of powerful business lobbies or vested interests is selected well ahead and allegedly groomed for a top appointment by manipulating the ‘seniority’ and timing the promotion of the ‘chosen one’. For this purpose, dereliction of duty, command failures and even any criminal nexus of the ‘chosen one’ are allegedly suppressed and pushed under the carpet.
In Suhag’s case it happened not once but twice, and both related to severe abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) when Suhag was commanding III Corps, with Assam, Nagaland and Manipur as the Areas of Responsibility. Directly under Lt General Suhag was the Dimapur-based Intelligence Unit (IU), commanded by one Colonel Govindan Shreekumar.
The first incident of abuse came to light in July 2011 when Col Shreekumar’s own second-in-command, Major Takula Ravi Kiran, wrote to the Brigadier General Staff of III Corps, under Lt General Suhag, stating that on March 13, 2010, three Manipuri boys (Phijam Naobi and two others) had been abducted and shot dead by the IU. Despite an FIR and evidence on record, Suhag reportedly refused to act. Even after Major Kiran wrote again, giving lucid details of the cold-blooded triple murder that took place in the unit officers’ mess, Suhag allegedly ignored it and disposed of it with a one-man inquiry!
The second incident of abuse was the ‘dacoity’ committed by the same IU in December 2011. An armed party of 15 soldiers, dressed in battle fatigues, under the command of Captain Rubina Kaur Keer, had raided the house of one Poona Gogoi, an army contractor in Jorhat, who was away in Guwahati. All the 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 13 cartridges, jewellery worth Rs 6.5 lakh and cash adding up to Rs 1.5 lakh. They also took away an assortment of items, including a laptop and four mobile phones. After Poona Gogoi registered an FIR with the police station listing the items that had been stolen, III Corps handed back the stolen pistol, most items and the cash, but not the jewellery and cartridges. Later, Suhag told the police that the issue would be dealt with by Army authorities and that they had no further jurisdiction in the matter.
Both these serious crimes have been committed in an AFSPA-covered area by the IU under Colonel Shreekumar’s command. Though the Colonel denied being part of the raiding party, the police accessed his mobile call records, which clearly established that he was constantly in touch with Captain Keer before and after the raid. Shreekumar had avirtual free hand as he reported directly to Suhag and was reportedly involved in various nefarious activities, including the flow of narcotics and a network involving vehicle thefts in Rangia district of Assam.
The Court of Inquiry (CoI) ordered by the then Eastern Army Commander, Lt General Bikram Singh, was an eyewash and deliberately meant to protect Suhag as was evident from the fact that it was headed only by a brigadier-rank officer. This was premeditated because, being directly responsible for the IU, Suhag should have been the first person to answer for its illegal actions. The CoI was obviously orchestrated, which was evident from the fact that, despite a clinching FIR and evidence, the accused could get away on some technical ground or the other.
DESPITE this shielding, the former COAS, General VK Singh, besides directing stringent action against the culprits, issued a Show Cause Notice (SCN) on May 19, 2012, to Lt General Suhag 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 Court of Inquiry ordered in the ‘dacoity’ case in Jorhat by the then Eastern Army Commander, Lt General Bikram Singh, was an eyewash and deliberately meant to protect Suhag as was evident from the fact that it was headed only by a brigadier-rank officer.
Instead of taking notice of these allegations and much against the rules, the MoD appointed Suhag in the acting post of Army Commander from June 1, 2012, even before his reply to the SCN and its detailed processing on merit. What is worse, as soon as he took over as Army chief, General Bikram Singh got the DV ban on Suhag lifted in an illegal manner to make him a regular Army Commander against the vacancy kept unfilled for over 15 days. The CoI, on its part, led to a court martial which ordered dismissal from service of 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. This order, issued much after General VK Singh demitted office, fully justified the DV ban imposed on Suhag.
Under Section 391 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 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 10 years. Section 397 prescribes a minimum punishment of seven years.
The first case could attract the charge of cold-blooded murder under Section 302, IPC. Letting off the culprits with a mere reprimand is a joke. Is this how the draconian AFSPA is being implemented in practice in the most sensitive regions of the country?
Suhag and the MoD are respondents/accused in three writ petitions—two criminal and one civil—which are pending adjudication. On the dacoity issue, Poona Gogoi moved the Gauhati High Court with a criminal petition demanding action. In the case of abduction and murder of Phijam Naobi and two others, Phijam Manikumar has filed a criminal petition in the High Court of Manipur. Lt General Ravi Dastane’s civil appeal against Suhag’s promotion despite the DV ban is before the Supreme Court.
Despite the disturbing facts narrated above, the MoD is bent on the appointment of Suhag as the next Chief of the Army Staff, obviously due to extraneous considerations. The drum-beaters are applauding the move, saying this is in keeping with both technical requirements and established convention—that have no relevance to this case. As for the seniority of Suhag, it is not final since the same has been challenged by Lt General Dastane in the Supreme Court. If the SC rules in his favour, it is he who will be the next Army chief and not Lt General Ashok Singh, a relative of General VK Singh, as is being falsely propagated.
It appears that behind the push by the UPA government in its dying days to install Suhag as the next COAS is the powerful arms lobby which has billions of dollars at stake. This has been brought out in Dr Subramanian Swamy’s letter to the President, who has sent it to the Prime Minister for consideration and action. But, obviously, acting under the orders of their powerful masters, the MoD and the UPA spin doctors are at it again, blatantly suppressing heinous AFSPA abuse, trivialising facts and spreading lies and canard that cannot stand up to basic scrutiny.
FOR these worthies, civil liberty, human life, the nation’s interests and integrity of the Armed Forces are of no value. Serious abuse of AFSPA and gross dereliction of duty are of no consequence; line of succession of the ‘chosen one’ is all that matters. They are perhaps emboldened by their ‘success’ in consummating this practice by appointing the present Army Chief (General Bikram Singh) against whom an alleged fake encounter case was pending in the J&K High Court, seeking a Commission of Inquiry. Also, a Court of Inquiry was going on in Meerut over his lapses as Commandant of an Indian Army contingent on a peacekeeping mission in the Congo, which was accused of raping local women and siring illicit children. This was done through sheer skullduggery. Pleas in the Supreme Court against this appointment fell on deaf ears! The court relied on ‘doctored’ papers and fudged files presented by the government and did not make any inquiry. Despite efforts through the RTI Act over the past two years, the MoD and Cabinet Secretariat are reportedly keeping these papers and files hermetically sealed!
Being used to committing perjury in a routine manner, the MoD and PMO are already lying through their teeth in the Suhag matter and indulging in manipulation and terror tactics. Lt Gen Dastane’s civil appeal hearing in the Supreme Court was curiously shifted from May 2 to September, rendering his case meaningless. The Jorhat ‘dacoity’ is being brushed aside as being a case of a junior NCO stealing a cellphone. Major Kiran, the whistleblower in the triple murder case, is allegedly being coerced to retract his complaint! What a way to make the ‘chosen one’ the Army chief. The question is not whether the Army is being politicised but whether it is being criminalised. The jury is out.