The Rediff Special
The Samba Case, the Indian army's darkest chapter
"They boasted of 36 methods of torture.
My body was lacerated all over. My ears were disfigured.
My left hand was paralysed following the insertion of needles
under my fingernails; they tore my whiskers, hair by hair, and
drove an iron rod up my arse. They would tie weights to my testicles
and drag me on the floor by one leg, with one man sitting astride
-- Captain R S Rathaur
one of the prime accused in the Samba spy case about his interrogation
by the Indian army.
"He (Havaldar Ram Swarup) was brought to the
interrogation centre on September 24, 1978. The usual third degree
methods were allegedly applied and he succumbed to his injuries
on October 1. His body was thrown on a road in New Delhi cantonment. The postmortem
revealed 44 injury marks including electric burns on the
-- Ved Prakash, a member
of the army general court martial that tried the Samba accused,
in his book The Samba Spying Scandal.
They all remember exactly what they were doing when
the telephone rang on the night of January 22, 1979. The signals
officer had just finished celebrating his daughter's birthday.
The G-3 officer had just met his wife and son after a year-and-a-half
and was making up for lost time. The commanding officer was just getting
into bed after his usual nightcap.
And then the telephone interrupted them
and they were asked to report to office immediately.
Surprised, but not unduly so, they put on their uniforms
Next morning, wives of scores of officers were handed
over their husbands' caps and belts. And by way of information,
a series of lies: "No ma'am, we don't know why your husband has been
arrested... we don't know when he will be back, ma'am."
For weeks no one knew what had happened. But when
the news did break, finally, it took the whole country by
storm. On the night intervening 22-23 January, 1979, the army
had arrested at least 62 -- some say close to a 100 -- of its own
men on charges of spying.
The scale was unprecedented and unimaginable. That
the army had found so many spies in its own ranks shook the country.
And in the furore that followed, the episode came to be called
the Samba spy scandal -- taking its name from the small town, 40
kilometres from Jammu, from where most of the men were arrested.
Many believed it was a wound that the Indian army
would take a long time to heal.
Eighteen years later, that wound has been reopened.
After the initial plaudits for the army for breaking
such a huge spy ring, doubts began to creep in.
Could so many men really have been working
as spies? Most of them were posted at the 168 infantry brigade
at Samba. If the charges were true, almost an entire brigade of
the army had been working for Pakistan for five years.
Was that plausible? Could an entire brigade have been corrupted?
Wives of arrested officers had held a dharna
before the then defence minister Chaudhary Charan Singh's house
in Delhi, complaining their husbands had been victimised
and were being tortured. But the army remained tight-lipped
on grounds of national security, and more and more people began to
find disturbing discrepancies in its actions.
Havaldar Ram Swarup's tortured body, thrown on the
Delhi streets, suddenly held new meaning. Was the army telling the truth?
This question may have never been answered. The army
wasn't saying anything, and for a long time, the judiciary had
refused to intervene. Though several officers and their wives
had appealed to the Delhi high court for a review, it
had held such actions of the army lay outside its purview.
Some men were sentenced to long years in prison
-- seven to 14 -- after an army general court martial found
them guilty of spying. Others were dismissed from
service under Section 18 of the Army Act which allows for dismissal
"at the pleasure of the sovereign."
Thus, despite numerous indicators that there
had been a miscarriage of justice, the army would have got away
without having to ever give an explanation. Had not Supreme
Court Justice Sunanda Bhandare held in 1994 that Section 18 of the Act
could be challenged if prime facie mala fide was established.
Here, fate intervened. According to one retired officer,
in the Indian army's reply to the plaint, an internal note had
inadvertently slipped in. The note, from one officer to another,
apparently said all attempts should be made to stop the trial
because if the case did go to court, the army had no real defence
Though the note was later withdrawn, the damage had
And so, on the 19th of this month, a series
of hearings has begun to review the Indian army's charges
of spying against many of its men and officers.
Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine
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