Wednesday, March 31, 2010
The spy ring that never was
Today, an armed forces tribunal will begin hearing a 31 year old case, known as the Samba spy scandal. Tomorrow might have been a more appropriate day to start, because the case reads like a horrific April Fool's joke. The man pictured above, Sarwann Dass, a gunner in an artillery unit, was tempted into spying for Pakistan in the early 1970s. He and another low ranking spy, Aya Singh, were arrested in 1978, and quickly confessed before officers of the civilian Intelligence Bureau. After this, they were handed over to Military Intelligence. Somebody in MI decided they were part of a more widespread conspiracy, and tortured the two men to discover who their superiors in the Indian forces were.
Soon enough, Sarwann Dass provided a couple of names, and then more. Those he implicated were arrested and themselves tortured, and accused other fellow officers and jawans. Nobody knows how many serving men were arrested from their base in Samba in Jammu between August 1978 and February 1979, but the figure is certainly over 50 and perhaps as high as one hundred.
A few of these men, while admitting their guilt under duress, said things that could be factually disproved. For example, one told the interrogators he was with his Pakistani handler when he was, in fact, attending an official function. They hoped these discrepancies would help absolve them when their case came up for hearing. It was a false hope. The court martial paid little heed to hard evidence and went entirely by the often impossible stories that had been made up by the defendants in order to get the pain and humiliation to cease.
The two real spies got away with a few months in jail, earning their full salary all the time. Some of the innocent were sentenced to between seven and 14 years in prison. Others faced summary discharge from service.
As the media gradually got to the bottom of the issue, families of those imprisoned lobbied for their release and members of the civilian intelligence apparatus questioned the army's conclusions, pressure mounted on the legal system to try the case in a more even-handed manner. In 1994, Sarwann Dass admitted in an affidavit that he had made up everything he said about the spy ring. In 2000, the Delhi High Court overturned the verdict of the general court martial. And now, over three decades later, the army is readying to make paltry amends.
The one thing that stands out for me in this episode is the effect of torture. The Samba case provides the most effective argument against the use of harsh violence in investigations. Yes, such methods might help you land a few criminals or even a terrorist or two. Yes, beating up suspects may occasionally lead you to incriminating evidence, which then can form the basis of a legal case. More often than not, though, torture transports investigators to the land of red herrings, wild goose chases and witch hunts. All detainees break, sooner or later, even hardened army men, and begin saying whatever they imagine will please the investigators
When anybody suggests it is worth torturing enemies of the state in the interest of national security, remember Havaldar Ram Swarup, who died in custody with thirty-nine injuries on his body; Captain R S Rathaur, who had needles placed under his fingers, a metal rod inserted in his rectum, his hairs pulled out one by one, who was dragged around his cell with a rope tied to his testicles; remember Major Ajwani, who refused to admit the confession of a manifestly broken jawan, and was himself arrested as a spy and sacked.
The officers from Military Intelligence who were in charge of the investigation, Brigadier Grewal, Lt. Colonel Madan, Major Jolly and Captain Sudhir Talwar -- the latter two personally overseeing and participating in the brutality -- were promoted and retired with all their privileges intact. I hope the army tribunal admits the truth and censures them in some form while they are still alive.