Faked valour

Print edition : June 04, 2004

Soldiers on the Siachen glacier are caught inflating enemy kills to win honours and promotions.

IT is called tadka: the spicy fried onion, tomato, and spice seasoning poured on to a bowl of dal. When some officers of the Indian Army talk about tadka, however, they are not discussing cuisine. A little tadka is all it takes to win medals, register extraordinary military success, and eventually win a promotion without ever venturing much further than the nearest bunker.

On the Siachen glacier in December 2001 after India and Pakistan started massing troops on their border.-HO/DPR-MOD/AFP

No one is now in much doubt about just what went on after the 5th battalion of the 5 Gurkha Rifles Regiment began its six-month tenure on the Siachen glacier last summer. Between July and November last year, Major Surinder Singh has confessed, he and other soldiers fabricated signals and video evidence to inflate the numbers of Pakistani soldiers killed on the glacier. In evidence given to a military Court of Inquiry, Surinder Singh admitted that he ordered troops under his command to pose as dead Pakistani soldiers for the benefit of the unit's video cameras, and fired missiles at non-existent enemy positions. The available evidence suggests that up to a third of the 52 or so Pakistani troops claimed killed on Siachen last year may have in fact been Indian troops: a fact concealed from the Army's Commander-in-Chief, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, when he visited the glacier earlier this summer.

Investigation into the scandal commenced when the 102 Brigade's commander, Brigadier H.P.S Bedi, became suspicious of the abnormal levels of kills on the Siachen glacier. Intelligence officers reporting to Brigadier Bedi also noted that Pakistani forces did not seem to be responding to supposed Indian attacks on their soldiers, or even to be responding on claimed missile attacks on their bunkers. Brigadier Bedi subsequently confronted Major Surinder Singh's superior, Colonel K.D. Singh on the issue. Colonel Singh promptly responded by attempting to pin the blame on his subordinates. Efforts were made to remove Surinder Singh from the regiment, and post him to the Assam Rifles. Efforts were also made to remove two soldiers who were key witnesses to the manufacturing of an attack on a non-existent Pakistani bunker. Surinder Singh responded by authoring protests to several senior officers, including the Chief of the Army Staff, General Nirmal Chandra Vij.

Precisely what happened next is unclear. Brigadier Bedi, for one, seemed unimpressed by Colonel Singh's claims that he had no knowledge of what was going on under his command. In one letter, he charged his subordinate with "concealing grave irregularities in operational matters". Brigadier Bedi also charged K.D. Singh with misleading top officers, including Director-General of Military Intelligence Richard Khare, on the actual level of kills in the Siachen glacier. Evidence emerged that Colonel K.D. Singh, had even recommended Major Surinder Singh for a Vir Chakra for an injury supposedly sustained in an attack on a Pakistani bunker. In fact, Surinder Singh had been hit by a rock fragment dislodged by the blow-back from a rocket-launcher firing at the non-existent post. Video footage of the incident shows the weapon being fired and records troops claiming a hit seconds later - but not the destroyed bunker itself.

Brigadier Bedi's decision not to hush up the affair laid the foundations for what followed. A Court of Inquiry was set up under Brigadier H.S. Nagra, the Deputy General-Officer Commanding of the Leh-based 3 Infantry Division, which has overall responsibility for the Siachen glacier. The Court of Inquiry, a fact-finding body whose determinations do not have evidentiary value, recommended the initiation of a Summary of Evidence against Major Surinder Singh, a procedure that precedes a court martial. Surinder Singh will face separate investigation for leaking documents to the media. Administrative action, which can include summary termination from service, was recommended against K.D. Singh. Investigators will also look into a welter of rule violations by the colonel, who admitted to have collected Rs.450,000 from his unit's troops, which was handed over as an interest-earning deposit to the Regiment's Bania, or in-house shopkeeper and financier. Major Mohit Lama, the adjutant responsible for administrative affairs in the 5 Gurkha Rifles, also faces administrative action on charges of leaking classified material to Surinder Singh.

Lawyers say the completion of the summary of evidence will take at least three months, after which the office of the Judge-Advocate General will decide whether it has enough evidence to initiate a court martial against Surinder Singh for his self-confessed crimes. Major Surinder Singh, at the end of the summary of evidence, moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, complaining that he had fears of not receiving a fair trial. Lawyers for the Army, responding to his petition, promised the High Court that the summary of evidence would be conducted outside the jurisdiction of the Army's Northern Command and would be open to the public. Colonel K.D. Singh, for his part, has been removed from his command. Sources within the investigation, however, told Frontline that there was little hard evidence against him other than Major Surinder Singh's deposition. Separately, the Army has reopened files related to medals granted to soldiers for suspect operations, although it is unclear just how many such cases there actually are.

WHO actually engineered the Siachen scandal might turn out to be a secondary issue. What is most disturbing about the affair is that it points to pressures within the organisation to exaggerate kills, and the lack of a functioning system of audit to prevent such chicanery. Videotape evidence on the fake kills makes clear the fraud was crudely executed and should have been picked up early. One fragment of footage, a highly placed source told Frontline, recorded agitated signals traffic detailing an ongoing engagement - but not the actual sound of gunfire. Another fragment shows troops killing supposed enemy soldiers at a range of over 1,000 metres with successive shots, a feat that would do any sniper proud. Interestingly, the supposed Pakistani troops shown in several of the footage fragments are not roped up, a standard procedure for soldiers or mountaineers traversing dense snow or crevasse-ridden glacial terrain.

Someone in the chain of command ought to have been auditing the evidence much more carefully than they were. It most certainly should not have taken the 3 Division Headquarters almost six months to realise there was a problem on Siachen. The sad truth is that officers chose to bury their heads in the snow rather than face the dirt before them. Most officers serving in responsible positions in the division would have known that some forces operating in Jammu and Kashmir had inflated their operational successes by fabricating evidence of non-existent kills, much as their counterparts in Siachen have now been caught doing. Tadka had long been a popular game for Army units which have under-performed, officers whose careers are on the line because of their lack of success - and for those simply greedy for the cash rewards counter-terrorist successes bring with them. Officers had, from time to time, sought to put an end to the practice, but generally backed off from drastic action when faced with the prospect of regimental humiliation.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, centre, when he visited the base camp in the Siachen sector in Ladakh in April along with Chief of the Army Staff General N.C. Vij, left.-

Consider, for example, the operation of the tadka game in the sensitive border district of Poonch. In 1998, when the situation began to deteriorate sharply in the region, 114 terrorists were shot dead by Indian forces. In 1999, the figure rose to 155. The next year, in part the result of a large influx of terrorists brought about by the dislocation of troops during the Kargil war, the killings went up again, to 247. All this was roughly in line with State-level trends. Then, in 2001, something distinctly odd happened, 520 terrorists were claimed to have been killed by Indian forces, over double the number recorded the previous year. By contrast, overall killings of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir grew only by a modest 17 per cent. Just as curiously, killings of terrorists fell precipitously in 2002, to 352, and to just 262 last year. In these years, however, the decline across Jammu and Kashmir was much lower - just 17.5 per cent between 2001 and 2002, and 16 per cent between 2002 and 2003.

So just what had happened in Poonch? Privately, top military and police officials accept that the figures on terrorist kills had been grossly overstated through the summer of 2001 until the spring of 2002. The fraud was at once ingenious and simple. As Indian forces began to operate in remote areas on the Pir Panjal range, field commanders began to argue that they could not bring down bodies to the nearest police station for burial. Instead, they took photographs of those killed and attached these to first information reports (FIR) lodged with the police, a mandatory formality. Never, however, were the negatives of the photographs handed over. As time went by, and printouts of scanned images were accepted for the records, the tadka scam became even easier to perpetuate. In essence, the same photograph, stored on a hard disk, could be printed out and repeatedly used as evidence of kills in different places. Since there was no audit mechanism in place to check the authenticity of the image produced when an FIR was lodged, the tadka scam went unchecked. It was only early in 2003 that a serious effort was made to curb the practice - one reason why kills in Poonch last year were so much fewer than in the past.

A final end to the tadka saga in Poonch came last year when Frontline blew the lid on its most flagrant example. Army claims of having killed between 60 and 182 terrorists in the remote Hil Kaka area and having unearthed underground bunkers and war-like stores, Frontline's investigation showed, were pure fiction. In fact, only 27 terrorists had been killed and weapons recoveries were minimal. In key senses, the expose itself was enabled by the fact that procedures for lodging FIRs had been tightened up, and flagrantly dishonest claims were no longer being entertained. Elsewhere, however, tadka flourished, perhaps because no one has ever been punished for it. No heads rolled after the expose on the Hil Kaka fraud, and no one was held accountable for the 2000-2001 tadka killings in Poonch. Indeed, Major-General Hardev Lidder, the officer responsible for the Hil Kaka fraud, is due shortly to command a corps.

General Vij deserves not a little credit for breaking Omerta, the code of silence that governs the Mafia but ought have no place in a professional army. Not a few within the Army are unhappy at Vij's course of action, but the fact is that officers and men who are dishonest with their peers and their own chain of command cannot be trusted to be true to the country. Yet, much more will have to be done to restore faith among the ranks of the vast mass of honest officers who have watched colleagues skilled in flattery and manipulation walk away with treasured medals and promotions. Scholarly military histories of the Kargil War, notably General Y.M. Bammi's Kargil: The Impregnable Conquered and General Ashok Kalyan Verma's Blood on the Snow, have shown that some soldiers masquerading as war heroes ought not be wearing their uniforms. Two key scandals from the war - the ritual sacrifice of Brigadier Surinder Singh for his superiors' failure to act on intelligence warnings, and the sacking of Major Manish Bhatnagar for blowing the whistle on the Siachen brigade's failure to report the first intrusions - took place in the 3 Division's area of responsibility.

Instead of taking action at the time, the Army stuffed its corpses in the cupboard. Now, years on, the stench has become too strong to suppress. Perhaps the time has come for an honest investigation, a full post-mortem, and then a decent burial.

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