Sex and the armed forces of India
8 comments | by N C Bipindra
It was the onset of autumn in 2007 and for Major General A K Lal, the weather in Leh was just perfect for a good yoga session.
At Karu, a white desert terrain at 11,600 feet altitude, where Lal commanded the powerful 3 Infantry Division that faced challenges from both Pakistan and China, he was almost the monarch of all he surveyed, to borrow from William Cooper’s Solitude of Alexander Selkirk. But that monarch fell from grace almost as soon as he completed the yoga session, for asking his junior woman officer to assist him with his fitness regime.
For acts that he committed during that yoga session, which according to the lady officer were sexual in nature, he was court-martialed the same year after a court of inquiry found him culpable of acts unbecoming of an officer. The charges from the woman officer led to bitter acrimony, with Lal’s family—his wife and daughter—jumping into the fray with counter-charges at a press conference held in Chandigarh, where it was alleged that the complainant’s behaviour too was not officer-like. They claimed that there were negative internal reports about her conduct in the army, prior to her making the sexual harassment allegation.
Lal’s court martial, though, held him guilty of the offence of sexually harassing the woman officer after a year-long proceeding and ordered his dismissal from army service.
With that ended an illustrious career that was so promising that Lal, who was a National Defence College graduate, would have definitely gone on to be promoted as a Lieutenant General at least, getting to command a Corps. But that was not to be and the charge of molesting a woman officer was his undoing.
The latest such sex crime allegations to hit the Indian armed forces are the claims by the wife of a Navy marine commando, a 26-year-old lieutenant, that her husband had an extra-marital affair with the wife of his senior officer.
An IIT graduate who is currently preparing for the civil services examination, the woman also alleged that her husband forced her to have sex with his fellow officers. The officer is at present posted at the INS Venduruthy naval base in Kochi.
In the first week of April this year, the woman filed a police case in Kochi against her husband and his fellow officers and their spouses, apart from lodging a complaint with the Naval headquarters on her allegations in early March.
The 25-year-old woman’s allegations, which included wife-swapping, has come as a bolt from the deep blue sea for the Indian Navy, which organises the Navy Queen beauty pageants for its officers’ better-halves within the Kochi naval base during the Navy Ball, a coveted social event in the coastal city.
The Navy, on its part, denied the allegations of the woman, claiming she and her husband had a marital discord and the other senior officers and their spouses had only intervened to help reconcile, with the existing societal support system in the naval base.
After Defence Minister A K Antony’s intervention in the matter and with the woman meeting him to raise the issue, the Navy wrote to him after an internal inquiry, noting that her allegations had no merit.
However, a fortnight ago, the Navy began an in-depth probe into her allegations and asked her to depose before a board that is inquiring the matter. But the woman, citing her civil services exam, has refused to appear before the probe panel, sources said.
The media glare on the woman’s allegations, which the Navy feels is wild, has hugely embarrassed the armed forces.
“Yes, such cases being reported by the media do embarrass the armed forces. The reaction, however, seems to be disproportionate to the number of cases that happen in the armed forces,” says Brigadier (retired) S K Chatterji.
“The claims of wife-swapping being too prevalent in the armed forces are all bunkum. I have served all my life in the military and I can say with authority that one odd sexual harassment case could be reported.
“For all practical purposes, the career of the officer or officers, who indulged in such acts, is over. For going against the service’s laws and culture, they will be punished and that too severely, as has been witnessed in the case of even some senior officers,” Chatterji points out. He blames such depravity on human failings and appeals that institutions should not be blamed for the commissions and omissions of individuals.
“There may be one odd case where an individual or two may have indulged in such acts in a military station, just as it could happen in a civilian residential complex where several families live. But to say it is part of military culture is far-fetched. One odd incident of sexual harassment can take place in any organisation anywhere in the world,” he adds.
The law and punishment are the same whether sex crime is committed by an officer or a soldier. The only difference is the manner in which such cases are handled. While a soldier is summarily court-martialed by his commanding officer, a commissioned officer faces a general court martial that is convened to try him. If not, there is always the provision of an administrative action that can be invoked under the existing laws (See Box) to punish a soldier or an officer. Yet, at no point is a sexual crime hushed up, say officers. The reason for that is the military is too conscious of its discipline and the morale of its troopers.
“If such cases are ignored, it could lead to serious disciplinary issues, apart from causing internal acrimony. That will only mean a command and control breakdown, which could mean a certain defeat in war. The forces need to focus on fighting the enemy than among themselves,” a serving lieutenant general notes.
“I would say that such cases (of sex crimes) are not uncommon (in the armed forces). But the number of cases is not that alarming,” opines former Indian Army’s Judge Advocate General Major General (retired) Neelendra Kumar.
With a four-decade service in the Indian Army, most of it as a military law practitioner, Kumar notes that discipline is generally very high and there is zero tolerance to sex crimes in the forces. Major General Lal’s instance is a case in point.
But this case of alleged sexual misconduct, which is still under a police probe and is yet to be established, is just one among the 30-odd cases of sexual misconduct of officers from the Army, Navy and the Air Force that have been reported since 2004.
Agreeing with Kumar that such cases were not uncommon, another Judge Advocate General branch officer Colonel (retired) S K Aggarwal says he was aware of at least three cases of sex crimes against Army officers that are at present being tried by courts martial in the country.
When General Shankar Roy Choudhury was the Army chief from November 1994 to September 1997, at least seven senior officers in the rank of Brigadier and above were sacked or their sacking orders confirmed for the offence of “stealing the affection of a brother officer’s wife” or adultery or extra-marital affair in the civil society’s terminology.
One of them was Brigadier M S Oberoi, who approached the Karnataka High Court, aggrieved by the Indian Army’s decision to compulsorily retire him in 1991 after a probe held him guilty of having an affair with a lieutenant colonel’s wife.
Though the high court accepted Oberoi’s petition challenging his compulsory retirement in 1994, the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court and the punishment meted out to him was upheld.
Indian Army officers say, at present, they have a case on hand in which an Army infantry unit’s commanding officer, posted in Jammu and Kashmir, has been accused of having an affair with the wife of his second-in-command.There was also another case in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, where an officer got involved with another serving officer’s wife and has now ditched his own wife, who is an army doctor. The estranged couple has a child.
In yet another case in the 13 Sikh Light Infantry unit, a Colonel has been charged with sexually harassing another officer’s wife. The accused officer is now attached to a unit in Ferozepur for the last two-and-a-half years, but no progress has been made in that case. According to officers, who did not wish to be named as they are not authorised to speak to the media, there were a number of Lieutenant General-rank officers and their equivalents in the Navy and the Air Force, who have had extra-marital affairs with their fellow officer’s wives. “Yet, all of these incidents took place over a period of a couple of decades. The instances are definitely few and far between. Such cases are rare,” says a serving Major General, who did not wish to be identified.
“Given the size of the armed forces and the isolation that they face from society and families as a general rule, the incidents do happen. But whenever such cases come to the notice, suitable and prompt action is taken against the offenders,” says Kumar.
The izzat (respect and pride) of the battalion one services weighs heavily on one’s mind all the time and that’s deterrence enough for an officer to desist from getting involved in such unsavoury indulgence. “But, any perversion can take place in any human mind any time,” Kumar says.
In March 2011, in a rare instance when the defence minister got to reply to questions from Members of Parliament on sexual offences in the armed forces, he noted that between 2008 and 2010, seven officers were punished after probes into eight cases of sexual harassment of women officers. Antony also professed “zero tolerance” to any case of sexual harassment and exploitation of women officers.
“All commands have been directed by the Army headquarters that cases of sexual harassment will be viewed very seriously. “All naval personnel are sensitised regularly on this issue at various fora and various sensitisation capsules and workshops on the subject have been introduced in the Air Force,” adds Kumar. He further informs that the Army issued comprehensive instructions on the definition of physical harassment and the procedure for taking action against defaulters.
In August 2010, a military court struck off six years of military service of a serving Colonel who molested a woman officer during their posting in Jammu and Kashmir in 2008.
The general court martial, which had assembled in Udhampur, the seat of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, directed that Colonel Anurodh Mishra would forfeit six years of his service when considering him for further promotion.
That meant the Colonel will suffer the ignominy of being junior in rank and service to all officers who joined later than him in the six years preceding his commission in the Army.
The five-member court martial, headed by Brigadier Arvind Datta, reprimanded him after hearing arguments from the complainant, Major Megha Gupta, and the defendant, an officer with the Electronics and Mechanical Engineering (EME) Corps.
According to the charges read out against Mishra, he had called the woman officer to his residence on the pretext of official briefings and misbehaved with her, when the two were posted with the 39 Mountain Division in the border state.
Earlier, a court of inquiry had held that Mishra was prima facie guilty of molesting the woman officer. However, he approached the Armed Forces Tribunal contending that a false case was made out against him due to personal enmity at the instance of his senior Lieutenant Colonel. The tribunal, however, refused to interfere in the court martial proceedings.
Earlier this month, a Lieutenant Commander was dismissed from the Indian Navy on the orders of Antony after a probe found him guilty of having an affair with his senior’s wife.
Without identifying the officer, defence ministry officials said the dismissal was recommended by the Navy headquarters after a probe that held him guilty of “stealing the affection of a fellow officer’s wife”, an offence under the naval service laws and rules. They, however, did not share further details about the officer or the case.
In another low for the armed forces, a commander of the Indian Navy, who was serving on India’s lone aircraft carrier INS Viraat, was dismissed from service, again earlier this month, after he was found guilty of sending lewd text messages to several women.
According to the Navy, the naval officer was dismissed by a General Court Martial (GCM) in Mumbai. The name of the officer in the rank of Commander (equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel in the Army) was recommended for dismissal by a court martial in January. He was later dismissed from service, says Indian Navy spokesperson Commander P V S Satish.
He adds that the officer was dismissed on the charges of “conduct unbecoming of an officer”, as he was using multiple numbers to send lewd text messages to several women, both inside and outside the force.
In 2011, Antony had ordered the dismissal of a Navy Commodore, an officer equivalent to the Army’s Brigadier, on charges of sexual misconduct for having an illicit relation with a local woman while on a posting to Russia to oversee the repair and refit of a major warship India had bought from the Russian Navy.
Commodore Sukhjinder Singh was ousted from service after a probe found him guilty. His affair with the Russian woman came out in the open after a photograph of the two in a private moment became public and got published in newspapers.
It was suspected then that the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier’s price, which was fixed originally at $974 million in 2004, was hiked to $2.34 billion in 2010 after Sukhjinder got compromised due to his illicit relationship.
In June 2003, the wife of a Colonel complained to the then Army chief General V K Singh’s wife Bharti Singh, president of Army Wives Welfare Association, that Army engineer-in-chief Lieutenant General A K Nanda had sexually misbehaved with her when she was accompanying her husband on an official tour of Israel.
Nanda was also there in Tel Aviv along with his wife then and the complaining woman was none other than Nanda’s Technical Secretary C P S Pasricha’s wife.
She had alleged that Nanda visited her hotel room when her husband was away on the pretext of gathering an official file and took advantage of her being alone to molest her.
The complaint was made after the entire team of officers completed its official tour of Israel, and later holidayed in Cyprus.
A court of inquiry that went into the allegations punished Nanda with just an administrative reprimand for violating service decorum. The Army, however, did not specify which service decorum Nanda violated.
The court of inquiry, though, also pulled up Pasricha for misleading it and administered reproof to him too.
Indian armed forces, which has the third largest contingent in United Nations peacekeeping missions, has performed creditably in its role on foreign land. Its service, however, got blemished after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged from Congo, where the Indian Army has been deployed since 2005 and is now the largest troop-contributing force.
In December 2008, complaints emerged that Indian peacekeepers were sexually exploiting local Congolese women and reports in this regard were received by the United Nation’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
After a four-year probe by both the OIOS and the Indian Army headquarters in New Delhi, it turned out that at least one of the complaints could be true, thereby bringing disrepute to Indian peacekeepers.
A court of inquiry concluded by the Indian Army in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, found enough ground for disciplinary action against a soldier from an Indian Army regiment, whose DNA matched with that of a child born to a Congolese woman. Three other army personnel, including a major, were charged with control and command failure. They were punished with administrative action.
When complaints emerged in 2008, an entire battalion of the Indian Army’s Sikh regiment came under the OIOS scanner, following the startling revelations about sexual misconduct by men from that unit by four Congolese women.
The complaints gained credence after children with distinct Indian features were born to these women. One of them had claimed that she used to meet up with the Indian Army man at a Goma hotel in North Kivu.
She also claimed that she was from a poor family and the Indian Army man would give her gifts and money.
In another UN-related case in 2008 again involving troops from the Congo mission, three Indian Army officers were arrested by the South African police in Pretoria after a women resident of Plettenberg Bay complained that they had raped her.
The officers were on a holiday in South Africa from their duties at the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo headquarters in Kinshasa when the alleged crime took place. The officers were picked up by the police from a bed-and-breakfast facility in Mossel Bay in March 2008.
In what came as a major embarrassment for the Indian Army, a Lieutenant Colonel, who had gone to Dhaka in Bangladesh to attend a training course in one of their military academies, fell prey to a honey-trap cleanly laid out by a woman spy from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani equivalent of India’s external snooping agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
The officer, from an infantry unit, faced a court of inquiry, which ascertained if he passed on any sensitive information on the Indian Army’s deployments and plans when he was under the spell of the Pakistani beauty.
The officer had been in Bangladesh in 2011 summer for just about a couple of months when he allegedly developed an intimate relationship with the woman, who was acting at the behest of Pakistan. He had met her at a social gathering in Dhaka.
However, after he got compromised, the woman spy from ISI began arm-twisting him into giving away Indian military secrets.
Unable to bear the pressure from ISI, which had reportedly videotaped him with the woman, the officer opened up about his unenviable position to the Indian High Commission authorities in Dhaka.
Soon after, India’s R&AW came into the picture, and the officer was immediately packed off to India sometime between September and October that year. On his return to India, Indian Army counter-intelligence experts interrogated him. After the debriefing, a court of inquiry went into his role in the episode and he was later punished.
PASSION FAUX PAS
The real life story of a Major, who was a doctor with the medical corps, is a typical Indian masala movie thriller.
The anti-climax has all ingredients to make it a super hit—a love triangle, estrangement, a fake suicide and an eloping.
The doctor, who was posted at a military hospital in Dinjan cantonment in Assam’s Tinsukia district in 2007, played out his part to perfection, only his efforts went for a toss at the end of the year-long drama.
The officer, to fulfil his lust for a brother officer’s wife, planned and executed his own fake suicide. He left his car on the banks of Brahmaputra River and a suicide note in it, to make it appear as though he jumped into the water to end his unhappy life.
However, his body was never found despite the Indian Army getting divers to fish out the mortal remains. It also never surfaced.
Around the same time, the wife of a Colonel with an artillery unit posted in the same area, too went missing from her home in the cantonment.
Incidentally, the Major’s wife, who too is a doctor in the Army medical corps in the rank of a captain, was on a UN mission and was posted abroad at the time he got involved with the artillery unit Colonel’s wife.
The Military Intelligence (MI) unit’s antenna went up as two persons —a man and a woman—went missing from the same Army establishment almost at the same time. They began picking up the thread to put the pieces of the puzzle in place.
The probe by the MI led to the finding that the Major had faked his suicide to elope with the Colonel’s wife.
The Major was finally traced to a city in south India and was arrested. He was court-martialed on charges of “desertion” and “stealing the affection of a brother officer’s wife” and cashiered from service in 2008.
Probably the first-ever case of dismissal of a woman officer was that of Squadron Leader Anjali Gupta of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 2004-05.
Gupta had accused three colleagues—Squadron Leader R S Choudhary, Wing Commander V C Cyriac and Air Vice-Marshal Anil Chopra—of sexual harassment.
However, a court of inquiry, headed by then Director General Medical Services Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay, dismissed the charges against the officers. Gupta was charged with insubordination, indiscipline and financial irregularities. She was court-martialed in Bangalore and ordered to be cashiered from service in 2005. Gupta committed suicide in September 2011.
In July 2008, Captain Poonam Kaur, who was then posted with the 5682 Army Service Corps battalion in Kalka, was dismissed from service after she levelled allegations of mental and sexual harassment against three senior officers—Colonel R K Sharma, Lieutenant Colonel Ajay Chawla and Major Suraj Bhan.
A court of inquiry found no basis for her complaint. Kaur was court-martialed in Patiala on 21 charges. She was found guilty of levelling false allegations against her seniors, disobeying orders of her Commanding Officer, providing false information to get accommodation meant for the married and discussing her service matters with the media.
What the military law says
For all crimes that are sexual in nature, the Army Act, 1950 has provisions that are stringent. Similar laws apply in the case of the Navy and the Air Force too.
Section 45 (Unbecoming conduct): Any officer, junior commissioned officer or warrant officer who behaves in a manner unbecoming his position and the character expected of him shall, on conviction by court martial, be liable to be cashiered, be dismissed or to suffer such less punishment as is in the Act mentioned.