Armed forces

Colonel Arrested for Smuggling Gold: Extortion by Armed Forces isn’t New in the North East

The greed for awards, ranks and personal gratification is at the heart of this story.

Representational image. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Credit: PTI

It is not always that a piece of news about the Indian Army being shamed by one of their own trends on social media. Within hours of posting the picture of Colonel Jasjit Singh, commandant of the Aizawl-based 39th battalion of the Assam Rifles being held by policemen in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl on charges of highway robbery (consignment of gold), I received a notification that the hashtag #AssamRiflesCommandant was trending on Twitter. Surprisingly the participants of this discussion were either serving or former army persons. Almost everybody was scathing in criticising the organisation and the morass that it has descended into. They did not spare the chief of army staff  either who allegedly helped him prosper. (Though the Assam Rifles is India’s oldest paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home Affairs, its officers are drawn from the army and it operates under the Indian Army.)

The story is from a night of December 14 ,2015. Colonel Singh allegedly ordered his men to loot a vehicle travelling with smuggled gold. The driver of the vehicle C Lalnunfela, an Aizawl resident filed an FIR at the Kulikawn Police Station claiming 52 bars of gold valued at 14.5 crore rupees was taken at gunpoint claiming, “joint checking”. The gold was hidden in the gearbox. Clearly this was not a case of random highway checking.

His former colleagues tell me that the accused colonel often did his private mobile checking and confiscated cash plus gold from civilian vehicles. What is also making the rounds is that he had five poor Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) but he managed to get them expunged and picked up his rank. Some of his colleagues claim that the then chief of army staff who he was close with helped him with the promotion.

For residents in states of the ‘northeast’, this piece of news would hardly be surprising. It is common knowledge that the armed forces and specially the Assam Rifles have been involved in various illegal activities from narcotics, trafficking, gun running, precious stones, timber etc. Gold is a recent addition to the list of items.

The discussion thread on the accused has been categorical that there is a rot in the armed forces and it’s time for a cleanup act.

Many years ago I recall reporting on another colonel who would extort from tea estates in south of Assam posing as a Naga militia NSCN(IM) commander. His last call was made to Binakandi Tea Estate near Silchar before he was caught and sentenced.

In 2013 the PRO Defence in Imphal Colonel Ajay Chaudhury and a few others were arrested with drugs worth 15 crore rupees

In 1998-99 there was a case of Colonel Burari again from Assam Rifles who was sentenced for smuggling drugs. He was caught with 4 truckloads of ganja and timber.

There are several such cases that have been reported but many more that have obviously gone unreported or unaccounted.

It is not just lucre for easy money. While researching for my book Blood On My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins 2015), I stumbled upon chilling details of why the armed forces along with the police indulge in extortion. They do it for headcounts and subsequent promotions and awards. For some it becomes a means to amass wealth.

The two most important documents in the army are the MI (military intelligence) fund records and the ACR (Annual Confidential Report). The MI fund sarcastically called ‘My Fund’ is unaudited and therefore can be misused. It is not hard to guess the connection between the two.

It is a dirty war in places like Assam and Manipur where funds are raised to kill human beings.

The cost for a ‘clean pick’ is 50,000 rupees to 5 lakh rupees; the cost of a pistol – a good pistol which looks like a ‘foreignmake’ – is anywhere up to 50,000 rupees: actually ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 rupees. An AK-47, from local to genuine, is anywhere from 70,000 rupees to three lakh rupees. So where does the money come from? From MI fund some 30,000 rupees can be drawn. Add a little more from Sadbahavana fund. One would still need more. The balance is met through smuggling.

The army is an organisation that is graded. Everything is quantified here. Performance is quantified as well. One is there to catch militants, so you have to catch militants. This is their business. The environment is such that to survive, one feels compelled to do this otherwise careers and awards of many people are at stake.

How are funds generated? If you are in Manipur, you have to deal with drug money. You assist the gangs in human trafficking. If you are in Assam, it’s timber smuggling or ‘gate chalan’; basically illegal tax collection barricades. It works in coordination with other agencies, like the police and the forest department.

But the story gets murkier. There are gangs who supply the people they kill. There is a seamless network of all these gangs supplying ‘live kills’ as well as arms. The modus operandi: the kingpins are in Guwahati, though the network is spread across the region.

The army is all about rank. It is not competence or integrity but it is the ACR and the Staff College. Till lieutenant colonel, one goes up smoothly. Then the bloodbath starts.

Some 50% get be slashed immediately. Here is where the Staff College comes into play. After a full colonel, one-third will be removed before someone becomes a brigadier and another one-third to major general and then a third to lieutenant general. It is the ACR which determines this slash and burn. The ACR is prepared by three persons: the initiating officer, the reviewing officer and the senior reviewing officer. But for all practical purposes, it comes down to what the initiating officer says or the commanding officer of the unit says.

So one man, just one man decides the life of an army officer. Kills better the chances for awards and promotions. If the unit gets citations the Commandant moves up and the single most important criterion for citations are kills.

The greed for awards, ranks and personal gratification is at the heart of this story. The sheer volume and horror of it all is numbing. It is far easier to rationalise that the victims were in some way culpable, and deserving – at least in some sense – of their fate. Because the reality of a democratic State whose agents arbitrarily kidnap, extort, torture and even kill for personal benefit or gratification, is simply too horrific.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist and author. His most recent book is Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins 2015)

  • Sam

    Well written article. The state of affairs in Indian Army has been aptly brought out.