Last week, when the current Chief of Army Staff Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag accused a predecessor and a serving minister, Gen (retd) VK Singh, of trying to stall his promotion “with malafide intent”, it was seen as a glimpse into the internal wrangling of the army command. What largely escaped attention, though, was the episode near the centre of the row: an alleged fake encounter carried out by army personnel.
Suhag levelled the allegation against VK Singh in an affidavit submitted in “personal capacity” to the Supreme Court. The affidavit says that VK Singh, as the Chief of Army Staff, sought to “victimise” him “with the sole purpose of denying me promotion to the appointment of Army Commander”. It was filed in response to a petition moved by Lt Gen (retd) Ravi Dastane, who alleged “favouritism” in Suhag’s selection as army chief.
The messy affair goes back several years.
Suhag was the General Officer Commanding of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps in 2012 when allegations were made against the 3 Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit. In January 2012, a military intelligence official, Maj T Ravi Kumar, wrote a letter to Suhag accusing colleagues of his Intelligence Unit of a triple murder. In the letter Kumar alleged that three suspected militants were killed in the unit’s officers’ mess.
Ravi Kumar claimed that Col Gopinath Shreekumar, Commanding Officer of the Intelligence Unit, was behind the killings, which were aided by Maj Rubeena Kaur Keer and Maj Nector (of 21 PARA-SF, Jorhat, who was then on probation to the Intelligence Corps). A copy of the letter was marked to Lt Gen Bikram Singh, then the Eastern Army Commander, and VK Singh, then the army chief.
Although the Army Headquarters in Delhi issued explicit instructions for an investigation, only a one-man inquiry led by a brigadier was set up. This is where the mystery deepens.
Not long after, VK Singh issued a show cause notice to Suhag. This meant that, as per procedure, there was a ban on the officer’s promotion until the time that the allegations against him were cleared.
Meanwhile, VK Singh himself lost a legal battle centred on his age that would have allowed him an extension. This was an old fight with his predecessor, Gen JJ Singh, who apparently favoured a succession line of his choice. Shreekumar was the Officer on Special Duty to JJ Singh and it is believed he had to be protected for a reason that is familiar only to army insiders. Bikram Singh, also close to JJ Singh, was the Army Chief-designate, but he would have lost out if VK Singh had got an extension.
The intrigue doesn’t end here. It goes as far as the political bosses in Delhi.
VK Singh’s aides question: why would someone like a Corp Commander protect killers of civilians? And if the contents of the letter by the major were not genuine, why did the Commander not take action against him?
But there are more disturbing questions here. Killings are routine in counter-insurgency areas. But why did the incidents get highlighted? Was the politics of succession behind the expose of murder and corruption? Or simply another network of crime that got too many heads involved?
Indian intelligence agencies are familiar with the story of good operation men often transgressing. Many units of the army in conflict zones allegedly get cosy with the armed groups they are meant to fight. They liaise with all the insurgent groups. They allegedly take supari (blood money), getting rid of their rivals. Furthermore, some have reportedly been involved in narcotics and gunrunning too.
In February 2013, the Army Public Relations Officer, a Lieutenant Colonel in Imphal, was caught smuggling drugs in his vehicle. A massive consignment of ammunition was once intercepted at the Guwahati railway station, and it was sourced from the 3 Corp. All the boxes were marked “Ordnance Factory, Pune”. The list is endless.
At any rate, there is a culture of impunity pervading the forces in India, and that will continue until justice is upheld. There are many examples of police, paramilitary and armed personnel being accused in controversial and sometimes blatantly unlawful killings, but rarely have the perpetrators been convicted of their crimes, leave alone served a jail sentence.
Many times, such encounters are staged to win medals and awards, amongst other benefits. In the army, the system of unit citations is based on points, which are earned by eliminating militants, apprehending militants or having militants surrender in designated counter-insurgency areas.
Besides the genuine hard work required for a combat formation in a conflict zone, a formation also needs acknowledgment, so they scout for favourable heads for kills as well as candidates for surrender. Illegal arms dealers in such areas flourish since the security forces often purchase weapons that are shown in apprehensions, in fake encounters or in surrenders.
The collusion in the bloody enterprises of the conflict zones is not restricted to shady dealings between the army and the police. The state has also been found to be in collusion with the armed underground groups who abduct, extort and murder at will, even during ceasefire agreements when they are negotiating peace deals with the government.
In the shifting alliances, schemes and intrigue surrounding encounters – involving army personnel, the police, militants and outright criminals – badges, uniforms and rank may be the only differentiating factors between the players.
State-sponsored killing is inescapably criminal – it involves criminals, it sometimes encourages servants of the state to become criminals, and it coerces others into a criminal conspiracy of silence. The battle of the generals has at least helped to see the rot within.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist and author. His most recent book is Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins, 2015).