A court martial and a woman

Print edition : June 03, 2005

Questions are being raised about the fairness of the proceedings of the Indian Air Force's first court martial of a woman officer.

PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

Anjalli Gupta's mother Uma Gupta speaks to the media on the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (Indian Air Force) campus in Bangalore on April 27. Anjalli Gupta herself is not allowed to talk to the media.-

ANJALLI GUPTA, a wispy, bespectacled 29-year-old Flying Officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF), sits in a chair marked `accused' in the hall where the General Court Martial (GCM) instituted against her is being held. The venue is the Aircraft and System Testing Establishment (ASTE), Bangalore, where she was posted as an Education Officer. The court reconvened on May 9, 2005, after an adjournment of several days. Anjalli Gupta was unwell and had to be hospitalised. As an accused, she is denied the right to wear her cap, a way of publicly disgracing an officer of the IAF. The all-male, five-member jury, which consists of a Presiding Officer of the rank of Group Captain and four officers of the rank of Wing Commander, sits in grim and disapproving silence on a dais in front of her. Anjalli Gupta is more than an hour late.

She has been under "close arrest" since April 12, the day the proceedings started. The Prosecutor, Wing Commander R.K. Dubey, informs the Judge Advocate, Squadron Leader V.S. Suhag, that Anjalli Gupta deliberately delayed coming to the court by refusing to get up from bed, and later by locking herself in the bathroom. He proceeds to describe the state of her bowels to the jury. She was pronounced fit by the doctors at the Command Hospital, the Prosecutor says, producing a copy of her medical report as proof.

As the Judge Advocate pulls her up for delaying the proceedings, Anjalli Gupta states that she was delayed because she had a stomachache and asserts that she is still unwell. She was not medically examined as claimed by the doctors, she says. Her statement is met with expressions of disbelief on the part of the jury. As the proceedings start, she bends over and starts retching. The Judge Advocate adjourns the court for 10 minutes. Anjalli Gupta rushes out of the courtroom and throws up into the bushes outside.

The first court martial of a woman officer in the IAF's history will be watched carefully by its 600 women officers. It will most certainly set precedents on how the Air Force Act, 1950, is interpreted and applied in respect of women, who were permitted entry into the IAF only from 1991. (This does not include the medical corps, which has been open to women for many years.) It is for these reasons, and because of the allegations of sexual harassment that Anjalli Gupta has made against three of her superior officers, that the case has received a great deal of media publicity.

Anjalli Gupta was commissioned into the IAF in July 2001. She was first posted as Education Officer to the Air Force Station, Belgaum, and in November 2003 was transferred to the ASTE, Bangalore, where in addition to her education portfolio she was given responsibilities in the administration of various funds. An order convening the court martial proceedings signed by the Commandant of the ASTE and approved by the Air Officer Commanding in Chief (ACO in C) Air Marshal S. Bhojwani, was issued on March 31, 2005.

Anjalli Gupta will be tried for seven alleged offences. The first is that she claimed Rs.1,080 in June 2004 as road mileage allowance for five days by falsely certifying that she used her own car. Second, she falsely declared she was in the city on a day when she had actually left for Delhi. Third, she falsely signed and submitted a proforma that stated that she had travelled by the Rajdhani Express to New Delhi on May 19, 2004, whereas she had actually used a service aircraft to make the trip. The fourth charge is that she "behaved in a derogatory manner which is unbecoming of an officer" by snatching the breakfast of a senior officer from a mess boy and throwing it, on May 11, 2004. The fifth charge states that she failed to appear for morning Physical Training (PT) on a particular day. The sixth and seventh charges relate to her failure to attend morning briefings on five days.

Parallel to the court martial proceedings are the proceedings of a five-member Court of Inquiry set up by the IAF to inquire into her allegations of sexual harassment against three of her superior officers. The IAF had to face criticism for not putting a single woman officer on the GCM jury. However, the court of inquiry on the sexual harassment charges, headed by Air Vice Marshall V.R. Iyer, has two women Air Force officers on it. However, as per Supreme Court guidelines, such committees should have one representative from outside the organisation on it. This has not been followed in Anjalli Gupta's case.

In early February, Anjalli Gupta filed a police complaint in the Vimanapura police station alleging sexual harassment by her superiors, Squadron Leader R.S. Choudhury, Wing Commander V.C. Cyriac and the Commandant of the ASTE, Air Commodore Anil Chopra. The inspector responded to her complaint with the advice that she should "submit petitions to superior officers and get it solved". She then filed a petition before the Karnataka High Court on April 11, 2004, with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Inspector-General of Police, Bangalore, as respondents. On April 13, she petitioned the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of Air Staff alleging sexual harassment by the three officers mentioned above. It was in response to this petition and a letter from the Karnataka State Commission for Women calling for an inquiry into the allegations that the IAF set up an internal court of inquiry.

Meanwhile, on April 15, the High Court issued notices to the inspector at the police station where she had filed her complaint. It was only after this that the police took up the investigation, issued notices to the accused officers, and recorded their statements.

Though the court martial proceedings are open to the public, reportage on the Anjalli Gupta case has been rather one-sided because Anjalli Gupta herself is barred from meeting the press, or indeed anyone on her side other than her mother and her counsel. She is under what is called "close arrest", which confines her to her quarters, with two female escorts in constant attendance.

In cases such as Anjalli Gupta's, "close arrest" in practice amounts to a serious curtailment of personal freedom of an individual accused of relatively minor offences like insubordination, petty corruption and "behaviour unbecoming of an officer". In a civil court, these would constitute bailable offences. But Anjalli Gupta is under a court martial, and the Air Force Act does not distinguish between offences of different degrees, nor between offences committed in peacetime and those committed during war.

Tight security at the entrance to the ASTE, where the court martial proceedings against Anjalli Gupta are under way.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

By contrast, there is no such restriction on those who initiated the court martial proceedings against her. Air Force representatives have been able to hold press conferences where her conduct has been freely criticised, whereas her right to respond to the various allegations made to the media has been withheld. Thus, it is not only "on-record" versions of her alleged transgressions that have found their way into the media; "off-the-record" and unsourced allegations about her conduct and character have also found their way into the public domain.

In her present situation, Anjalli Gupta is unable to defend herself against all this. Her plea to the GCM to lift the "close arrest" for a few days to allow her to travel to Delhi to seek legal counsel was refused. The court has, however, allowed her five days to arrange for a Defending Officer of her choice, which she will have to do while under "close arrest".

As Anjalli Gupta is unavailable for comment, her responses to the charges against her and her version of what transpired can only be gathered from a second writ petition which her lawyer filed in the Karnataka High Court on May 4. In it, she contends that she has been framed because she refused to be a party to corrupt practices and nepotism. She has alleged that in November 2003, her refusal to endorse the name of an undeserving candidate as the first name in the merit list for the post of Principal of the Air Force School, and her refusal to recruit certain favoured candidates to the posts of cooks and waiters, angered her superiors, the same persons whom she has named in her sexual harassment charges. She alleges that this was the beginning of a series of acts by the three officers to harass and browbeat her into submission, and that all her attempts to be heard or to put forward her grievances through letters were thwarted and her requests for personal interviews with senior officers to explain her situation were rejected.

Her writ petition states that prior to the court martial, during the Summary of Evidence stage, her requests for certain witnesses to be called were refused and she was asked to justify her choice of witnesses. She alleges numerous procedural irregularities in the constitution of the GCM, including the fact that the jury consists of members who are all under the command of the convening officer. "The likelihood of getting justice are remote," she has stated. She has said that the GCM's rejection of her requests to be allowed to go to Delhi, where she has her family and contacts, to get legal advice and help are "violative of the principles of natural justice". "The nature of the charge does not involve any risk to the national interest or is in any [way] scandalous," she has stated.

Regardless of the final outcome of the court martial that will determine Anjalli Gupta's guilt or innocence, the Air Force is already perceived as being less than fair for its failure to establish a reasonable and just procedure of justice in her case. "Close arrest" of the accused in court martial proceedings is necessary so that the person a) can be brought to the investigation; b) does not influence witnesses; and c) is provided security. It is also a well-recognised way of breaking a person down psychologically by forced isolation.

The Air Force AOC in C was quoted in the media as having said that Anjalli Gupta was under "close arrest" because it was feared that she might commit suicide. Her lawyer, D.R. Ravishankar, told Frontline: "If she is mentally unstable as they allege, then she should not be appearing before a GCM. She is not allowed to meet anyone, she is in a place where she does not know anybody, she is quite helpless."

Gupta comes from a lower middle class family in Delhi and is the first in her family to join the armed services. Her schoolteacher mother Uma Gupta is staying with some friends in Bangalore to be near her daughter. The pressures arising from "close arrest" have been enormous, as Anjalli Gupta has been forced to fall upon her own resources to plan her legal strategy, which is not easy for someone who does not have a network of friends and acquaintances in the city.

In court, Anjalli Gupta's Defending Officer said that there may be very few officers in the Air Force who could escape court martial if the grounds on which Anjalli Gupta is being court-martialled were to be strictly applied. "That is perhaps true," a former IAF officer who did not wish to be identified told Frontline. "The difference is that Anjalli Gupta tried to take on the establishment, even though she knew exactly what she was getting into when she joined. She became a thorn in their flesh and they decided to get back at her by digging up dirt on her. Why did she have to try to reform the system? It will not tolerate trouble-makers."

Anjalli Gupta's case perhaps signals the need for a reassement of the relevance of some of the provisions of the Air Force Act, particularly in peacetime, and in relation to the requirements and rights of women in the Air Force.

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