'The bureaucracy in J&K feel completely disowned by the Centre.'
'The majority of officers under the scanner have not committed any irregularities and the Centre knows that.'
Rashme Sehgal reports.
Around 400 Indian Administrative Service and Kashmir Administrative Service officers and their junior staff are presently under the scanner in the gun license racket by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The period being investigated by the CBI is spread between 2012-2016.
In these four years, the CBI claims more than 278,000 arms licenses were issued to non-entitled persons.
District magistrates in J&K are entitled to issue gun licenses to the public after due scrutiny.
The majority of applicants are security personnel stationed in J&K. They are permitted to keep a personal weapon and the rules have been traditionally relaxed for them.
They can obtain arms licences from any district in which they are posted on the recommendation of a letter from the commanding officer of their unit and can skip the verification process which ordinary citizens are required to undergo.
It is this loophole that was exploited time to time by masterminds in other states who on the basis of illegal arms licenses have accessed weapons and sold them to unscrupulous elements.
Such a loophole has been exploited several times prior to 2012 and vigilance enquiries into the sale of arms licenses have been conducted in the past by the J&K government.
The first whiff of this scandal was brought to light by the Rajasthan police when some people lodged complaints against anti-social elements who had sold them weapons which they later realised had been acquired through dubious means.
The Rajasthan police handed the case over to its anti-terrorism squad since preliminary investigation pointed a finger at a well oiled machine providing fake license in the name of serving and retired army jawans to fictitious residents of various districts like Kupwara and Baramulla in J&K.
The Rajasthan ATS, which began investigating the case in 2017, soon realised the network extended to over 22 districts in J&K.
According to ATS officials, 132,321 of the 143,013 gun licences in Jammu region's Doda, Ramban and Udhampur districts were issued to those residing outside the state.
A sample survey of licences issued from Kupwara, a frontier district in north Kashmir, showed that no registers were maintained by the district authorities and many of the arms licences were issued to outsiders on the basis of forged documents.
The needle of suspicion pointed to a district magistrate who originally hailed from Rajasthan and had served in Kupwara.
The said official's brother, the CBI alleged, had acted as the front man for these fake licenses and the money from the sale of these weapons could be traced to his account.
The money, the CBI claimed, was used to buy properties in the name of their parents.
The Rajasthan ATS wanted to take the DM into custody, but the J&K state government put its foot down.
In 2018, the state government decided to conduct its own vigilance enquiry.
The Rajasthan state government insisted it would continue with their parallel enquiry.
Then J&K governor N N Vohra asked the Centre to intervene and the case was handed over to the CBI with the bureau's Chandigarh branch conducting the enquiry.
CBI officials believe that the racket, which began more than a decade ago, could have ended up selling more than 400,000 illegal arms licenses and weapons across the country.
Letters were written in this connection to the Indian Army, Indian Air Force,Indian Navy, Coast Guard, seven para-military forces including the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, Railway Protection Force to alert these organisations on the situation.
The CBI conducted a series of raids across J&K, the last one being conducted as recently as on October 23, 2021.
The CBI arrested two former DMs who served in Kupwara for their alleged involvement in this scam.
There have been several significant fallouts from this investigation.
One of the casualties turned out to be the abrupt removal of Baseer Ahmad Khan as advisor to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha.
Khan was due to retire on June 30, 2019. However, his services were extended by one year and he continued as the divisional commissioner till March 2020 when he was appointed as an advisor to then lieutenant governor Girish Chandra Murmu.
As the only adviser who was a native of the Kashmir Valley, Khan was given multiple portfolios to handle.
On October 5 2021, he was served a notice by the Union home ministry informing him that he had been relieved from the post of advisor. Less than a week later, on October 11 2021, his home was raided by the CBI.
"His abrupt removal and the raids being conducted on his house sent shock waves in the Valley," says one senior J&K bureaucrat. "After all, Basheer Khan was the second most important dignitary in the state after the LG. The conclusion was that the government at the Centre used him following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 and then discarded him one year later."
Other officers whose homes were raided was Jal Shakti Commissioner-Secretary M Raju, who served as deputy commissioner in Kargil during the period being investigated by the CBI.
Raju reportedly had no prior intimation about his involvement in the arms licenses case and when the CBI team arrived to search his residence he was under the impression that the search related to the Jal Shakti department in which he is presently serving.
"We go entirely by the recommendation of senior officers," says another senior IAS officer whose residence was searched, speaking on condition that his name would be mentioned for this report. "The majority of security personnel who apply for weapons want to complete their 20 year tenure and then take up a job with security agencies."
"Having a weapon helps them get a job," he added. "We in the civil administration have no independent agency to verify the antecedents of every such applicant."
Another Srinagar-based senior government official asked why this case had received so much publicity.
"The bureaucracy in J&K feel completely disowned by the Centre. The majority of officers under the scanner have not committed any irregularities and the Centre knows that," one officer said.
"When Article 370 was revoked, they had promised development and more development. Since they have failed completely on that front and with little investment coming to the state, they want to give the bureaucracy a bad name. This has been done to tarnish our reputation."
"If they were serious about a fair investigation," he added, "they would have looked at cases prior to 2012. There have always been exceptions, but the figures being bandied about appear to be highly exaggerated."
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com