Friday, 24 February 2017

Stolen gold: A ghost from the past that scares none

Media reports of a former officer dismissed from service for stealing money let off a quarter century later by the Armed Forces Tribunal. The Tribunal as reportedly asked the government to pay him Rs 4 crores as damages caused. The media report on the case says that the petitioner claimed that his search party in a military operation had recovered some 25 kgs of gold biscuits. These he says were appropriated by his seniors, among whom he reportedly includes the then corps commander. When he remonstrated he was accosted, brutalized, declared mentally unsound, shot at and finally dismissed from service. 

The corps commander for his part in an interview carried alongside the article in a leading weekly clarifies that on hearing from the Adviser Home to the Governor that a theft had occurred in the locality where a military search operation had taken place, he had ordered an inquiry that yielded up the officer, then a second lieutenant, as culprit. Thereafter military law had taken its own course and after the corps commander had demitted his appointment, the military court had punished the offender. Later, rumours had reached his ears that he as corps commander had allegedly misappropriated the recovered gold. Apparently, he had given no cognizance to the rumours and these had died down. In his interview, the corps commander stood up for his administrative staff that handled the case and the chain of command including the commanding officer of the alleged offender in question. 

The Tribunal in its verdict - that is currently not on its website - is reported in the media as stating that the procedural lapses and the failure of the corps commander to investigate allegations of the young officer that his seniors had stolen gold owed to 'extraneous considerations'. The implication appears to be that the corps commander had conspired with the seniors of the officer - presumably his commanding officer and others - to pocket the gold. Since this is from media reports - likely to have been released by the petitioner who has liberally given his version to the media - it requires to be treated with a pinch of salt. 

In case taken at face value, it is clearly the Tribunal going overboard in not only swallowing the petitioner's story but going beyond it to implicate others. The judge and air marshal on the panel have asked for the army to conduct an inquiry into the gold stealing episode and revert within four months. Perhaps the Tribunal could have kept its comments to itself for four months longer rather than attribute ill intent to the corps commander.

It is one thing to say procedural shortfalls undermined the case of the army against the officer and another to say that these were deliberate in order to hide the tracks of the stolen gold. It is difficult to believe that the court had the evidence not only on a messed up court martial but from that could deduce that gold was stolen. A court cannot hide behind the logic that it is now the post truth age. 

What the court has in one fell swoop done is to attempt destroy the credibility of the first corps commander in the trouble times in the Valley. This is tragic in that his tenure has turned out to be the touchstone of leadership in the Valley. His successors have had the disadvantage of their endevours being reviewed against the bar he had set as a professional and leader. Unfortunately, not all of them have measured up, while some have failed spectacularly, including those who went on to hold high office. 

Take the case of the phone call from the Adviser Home to the corps commander that set off this episode. The Adviser Home surely would have reckoned that the corps commander would have been exercised by the information based on his reading of the man. Such a reputation can only be that of an upright officer, unable to bear with equanimity that his soldiers have exhibited moral turpitude in stealing money from a house that has been searched. His response was predictable. Instead of defending the indefensible, he did the right thing - ordered an investigation and finding that wrong doing had occurred, had followed through with the military judiciary. 

Not a few commanders have looked the other way wrong doing has occurred in their command, worrying how it will look on their leadership and wondering what it would mean for their record and careers. Some have believed that since it would show up the army in poor light, it is best swept under the carpet. Others worry that it would give ammunition to the army's critics both within the people and outside the Valley amongst liberals. A few would rationalize inaction thinking acknowledging wrong doing would provide grist to the opposition's propaganda mill. To some, since others have not taken action in such cases, it would not do to set a precedent or rock the boat. A few might take non-judicial action, using cultural punitive practices to dispel the need for military judicial action, which is known to be most cumbersome and tiresome for those engaged in operations. 

Ignoring responsibility in such ways leads to a culture of impunity, which has manifested in the Valley in worse ways - evidence of which is in the two thousand or so unmarked graves all over the Valley and the some 10000 missing persons, some of whom are surely in those graves. It is clear that the rot did not set in with this corps commander. He instead set the standard against which we can now measure the military's record and find it wanting, not wholly, but only episodically and along segments of its mandate. 

That the corps commander's tenure was a standard setting one is clear from Jagmohan's memoirs of the period in Kashmir. Apparently, Jagmohan was apprised of allegations that the corps commander was being 'soft' on people, by ensuring food distribution to the people inconvenienced by military operations. This was taken as evidence of his communal bias, since he was a believer, a practicing Muslim. Jagmohan was dismissive of the allegations, but the fact that these were swirling and brought to his ears by interested parties indicates the ugly and conspiratorial climate that prevailed at the outset of the troubles in Kashmir. If a military leader in such circumstance hewed a lonely furrow, it is to his credit as a person and professional and that of the army that put him in a position of leadership. 

If the Tribunal has been unmindful in its judgment of the collateral damage it is causing by its ill considered statements, then it is a disservice to the reason why Tribunals were set up in first place. They are to redress wrongs inflicted on individuals by a strict military judicial system, which being overseen by non-judicial professionals can lead to injustice to individuals. By no means does redressing such injustice permit the Tribunal to trespass on logic and judicial standards by tarring others with a broad brush under cover of judicial impunity. 

Even if procedural shortcomings are pointed to, the air marshal on the panel should have harked back quarter century to when he was a squadron leader and imagined how the situation was in the Valley back then. Even if he merely sat through his tenure on the Budgam airfield, surely he would have known there was a situation outside that precluded churning out of doctoral length judicial proceedings. It is for this reason former professionals sit on these Tribunals, those expected to understand the system and its circumstance. 

Clearly, there is an equal case to be made of 'extraneous circumstances' driving this particular judgment. Is it that standard setting done a quarter century back needs dismantling? Is there a purpose to such tearing down of hard earned military reputations? Is it of a piece with the recent revision by the army chief no less of the distinction between combatant and civilian? Does the petitioner's association with the BJP tell us something?