The release on bail of Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit, a key accused in the Malegaon bombing of 2008, has sparked a debate on his fate and his continuing service in the Army.

Speculation is rife that Purohit would be suspended, but sources in the Army indicated that was unlikely. Purohit is likely to be attached to an Army unit close to the court where his trial will take place. According to the Defence Service Regulations for the Army, 1987, any military personnel arrested by civil authorities or facing trial in a civil court can be suspended from service depending on the nature of the offence. The discretion to suspend the personnel has been left to Army Headquarters, which is unlikely to do so.

Paragraph 349 of the army regulations states:

“An officer may be suspended from duty by his OC [Officer Commanding] or any other superior authority, not only when he himself submits his case for investigation, but also in any case in which his character or conduct as an officer and a gentleman is impugned. An officer arrested by the civil authorities on a criminal charge may be suspended from duty from the date of his arrest, depending upon the nature of the offence and the extent of his involvement.”

In Purohit’s case, the offence is grave. He is charged under several anti-terrorism and organised crime laws. The police have named him as the main conspirator behind the Malegaon bombing, accusing him of illegally procuring from the Army 60 kg of RDX explosive to carry out the attack. He was arrested in 2009.

According to retired Colonel NK Kohli, who served in the military’s Judge Advocate General branch until 2009, the regulations of 1987 provide the Army several options to deal with Purohit’s case. “He can be suspended, pending trial, or attached to an army unit that is near the trial court,” Kohli said. “He will continue to enjoy all the rights accorded to him under the Constitution and will be deemed innocent unless pronounced guilty in a court of law.”

Just doing my job’

Purohit has denied the charges against him and claimed that his involvement with Abhinav Bharat, the Hindutva group accused of carrying out the attack, was part of a military intelligence operation.

In an interview to the Outlook magazine in July 2012, Purohit had claimed that all his actions had the approval of his superiors in the Army. “I infiltrated Abhinav Bharat,” he said. “I have done my job properly, have kept my bosses in the loop and everything is on paper in the army records. Those who need to know, know the truth.”

It is not clear, though, how the Army was involved in an internal security operation beyond its jurisdiction of a “disturbed area” such as Jammu and Kashmir. Military intelligence does not have the mandate to infiltrate civilian groups in non-conflict zones and there is no record of any sanction in this case either. The NIA recorded that Purohit acted on his own without clearance from his bosses. Phone calls intercepted by the police, along with call detail records, have already established that Purohit was in regular contact with the leadership of Abhinav Bharat.

Purohit joined the Army as a Short Service Commission officer when he was 22 years old and was commissioned into the 15th battalion of the Maratha Light Infantry Regiment in 1994. A few years later, he shifted to Military Intelligence, citing ill health. Once regularised as a Permanent Commission officer, Purohit would have received another promotion, but for his arrest by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad. Having missed out on full colonelship through selection, he would have been eligible for promotion this year, having served for 23 years. This is unlikely to happen now as his trial is pending, a senior military officer said. He can serve until he is 53, the age of retirement for colonels who miss promotion, provided he is judged innocent by the trial court.