Sukhna scam

An order and a snub

Print edition : February 20, 2015

General (Retd) V.K. Singh, now Minister of State for External Affairs. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

IN a severe rebuff to former Chief of Army Staff General (retd) V.K. Singh, now a Union Minister, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has ignored his advice for an appeal against the Armed Forces Tribunal order acquitting Lt-Gen. (retd) P.K. Rath of all charges in the Sukhna land scam. Gen. Singh, as Army Chief, had ordered a court martial in the scam. Two generals were charged with wrongdoing: Lt-Gen (retd) Avdesh Prakash, the then Military Secretary, who was dismissed from service after an Army court of inquiry found him guilty, and Lt-Gen. (retd) P.K. Rath, who was given a severe reprimand resulting in loss of seniority and pension benefits. This was the first time in the history of the Indian Army that a serving general (Rath) had been court-martialled.

The Sukhna land scam became a high-profile case in 2009-10 when corruption in high places had become the order of the day. Since the scam involved top-ranking military officers, it acquired a lot of media attention. The case was about a 71-acre piece of civilian land (one acre is 0.4 hectare), also called the Chumta tea estate, adjacent to the military cantonment in Sukhna in Darjeeling, West Bengal. The charge was that senior Army officers, ignoring serious security concerns, transferred the land to a private developer on the pretext of helping the building of an educational institution. The matter came to light in mid-2008 when V.K. Singh, as the Eastern Army Commander, initiated a court of inquiry. The Army court found Avdesh Prakash guilty in the case and ordered his dismissal from service: he was found guilty of influencing Rath, the then 33 Corps Commander, under whose jurisdiction the matter came, to get the Sukhna military station officers to issue a “no objection certificate” to the private developer.

The Army had expressed its intention earlier to transfer the said land to the West Bengal government. Apparently, Avdesh Prakash, during one of his official visits to Sukhna, introduced the private developer, Dilip Agrawal, to Rath. Shortly afterwards, in March 2009, the Army changed its stand and an NOC was issued to the private developer. Later that year, the matter was brought to the notice of Singh, who was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Army’s Eastern Command at that time. He ordered the court of inquiry and later recommended a court martial against the Army officers involved in the scam.

In 2011, the court martial found Rath guilty of issuing a “no-objection certificate” to the private builder and not keeping the GOC-in-C Eastern Command informed. This was judged to be an act/omission prejudicial to “good order and military discipline”. The court martial, however, did not find him guilty of any “criminal intent to defraud” as the charge sheet against him had stated.

The court martial order, which came on January 1, 2011, awarded the following punishment to Rath —loss of seniority of rank of 18 months, forfeiture of 15 years’ past service for the purpose of pension, and a severe reprimand.

Appealing against the order, Rath took the matter to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which pronounced its landmark judgment on September 5, 2014. The AFT, comprising Justice Sunil Hali and Air Marshal J.N. Burma, quashed all the charges against Rath, saying there was no evidence to suggest any “misconduct” or “violation of any rule or law which could be described as acts/ omissions prejudicial to good order and military discipline”. The order clearly stated: “In view of the above the petitioner is acquitted of all charges. He is entitled to restoration of all benefits with 12% interest” (page 75).

The order further stated that “the petitioner has suffered undue harassment and loss of reputation by the acts of the respondents which if not compensated would be a travesty of justice. Therefore as a notional compensation for the harassment and loss of honour and name caused to the petitioner, a cost of Rs.1,00,000 is to be paid by respondents [the Army] to the petitioner within 12 weeks from the issue of these orders” (page 76).

What is even more interesting is that in allowing Rath’s petition, the tribunal indicted V.K. Singh, the then Army chief, as well. It upheld the petitioner’s contention that Gen. Singh’s was “mala fide action” intended to settle personal scores and that in his various roles during the court martial proceedings, he had acted as “the initiator, investigator, prosecutor, judge and confirming authority all rolled into one against all canons of natural justice” (page 30). The tribunal also upheld the petitioner’s contention that V.K. Singh’s mala fide action had resulted from his personal grudge against Avdesh Prakash, whom he held responsible for his age controversy as a result of which he had been deprived of one more year of service. It was alleged that he fabricated a case using his position as Army chief to settle scores with him, implicating a few others in the process. The tribunal also noted that officers junior to Rath were pressured into giving evidence against him and were subsequently rewarded: one colonel-rank officer was promoted to brigadier rank (the rank was personally pinned on him by Gen. Singh, an unprecedented honour in the Army for an officer who had been awarded “severe displeasure”) while another officer of major general rank, who also turned against Rath, was promoted to lieutenant general rank and posted as Deputy Chief of the Army Staff.

Meddling in the probe

The tribunal also underlined the fact that there was evidence to show that V.K. Singh not only exerted his influence on deciding who the Judge Advocate (JA) would be for the court martial but put pressure on them later to review the order after they found Rath not guilty of “intent to defraud”. Immediately after the AFT verdict came, V.K. Singh was quoted as saying that the tribunal had made a personal attack instead of focussing on the issues, which were very clear and related to prevention of corruption. He urged the government to appeal against the order.

But the government paid no heed to his demands and no appeal was filed. Instead the Army was directed to comply with the order. On September 30, 2014, the Army issued an order for the implementation of the AFT judgment. The order, issued by the Adjudant General’s branch, categorically stated the following: The petitioner is acquitted of all charges; he is entitled to restoration of all benefits with 12 per cent interest; and cost of Rs.1 lakh be paid to the petitioner as a notional compensation for the harassment and loss of honour and name caused to him. ( Frontline has a copy of this order.)

As the order came, Rath was overcome with emotion. He had suffered tremendously not only professionally but personally. When contacted by Frontline, all he could say was: “I have been vindicated. I was saying from the beginning that I have done no wrong.” He refused to be drawn into any further conversation on this issue, saying “I will talk at the right time.”

V.K. Singh, however, has been left seething. Not known for being politically correct all the time, he lashed out at the government in which he himself is a Minister.

“All I can say is that this is a silly order. How can the MoD [Ministry of Defence] not appeal against such a silly order? What message are you giving to the country now? You came to power on the anti-corruption plank and here is a case which is an open-and-shut case of corruption, which was prevented in the initial stage itself. Then the person goes to the tribunal, which passes a judgment which is essentially legally flawed. How can the government not go in appeal against this order, I don’t understand. On the one hand they go in appeal against each and every order which the tribunal passes, even those concerning poor widows and disabled soldiers, and here in such a blatant case of corruption, they have chosen to implement it. I am shocked. Just because the goal post has shifted, the facts don’t change,” he told Frontline over phone.

He further added that orders like this would only embolden the corrupt elements in society. “This will send a very wrong signal down the line,” he said.

When asked by Frontline whether he was saying all this on record, he snapped, “Is there anything wrong in what I am saying?”

A senior Army officer, when quizzed by Frontline on the status of the case, especially in view of the fact that the AFT order had indicted the former Army chief, laughed and said, “We in the Army have always honoured all court orders. Where is the question of not implementing the honourable tribunal’s order?”

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