Crime & punishment: Army sets an example

Crime & punishment: Army sets an example

When Lt Gen Sahni, a three star general, is dismissed and awarded a prison sentence, one can conclude that the army does not baulk in punishing its defaulting personnel, irrespective of their seniority. It also calls for introspection by the society on larger issues.

Why is it that it is only in the Indian Army that justice is prompt; that there is no shielding of a person on account of his rank or stature; that meticulous care is taken in selecting the presiding officer and members of a court martial; that there is a higher authority that scrutinises the proceedings in great detail before the verdict of the court martial is finally confirmed; and why every chance is given to the accused to defend himself fully, including nominating an officer of the accused’s choice as a defending officer?

Why does this not happen elsewhere in the country? I well remember the Tehelka exposé of 2001, when I was the vice army chief. Here was a case where professionally capable and highly regarded personnel of the army, some of flag rank, were inveigled into accepting baits, in what can only be described as entrapment, so that the media could make a point. Yet, instead of quibbling over the illegalities of this entrapment, the army moved swiftly to punish the concerned individuals.


What did the government do about political persons and bureaucrats similarly entrapped? The then defence minister was forced to resign, but continued to head the coalition; no action was taken against his party leader caught red-handed on camera or against any of the bureaucrats. The latter were instead promoted, with one additional secretary becoming a secretary and later a governor, perhaps to give him immunity from any future prosecution!

The military has the reputation of punishing any and all crimes that are found out or reported. It may be a lowly misdemeanour like filching something or a grave crime like murder, assault, espionage and the like, but punishment follows swiftly and inevitably.

The reason is simple. The military would become ineffective and instead of being a disciplined force, it will turn into a rabble. Why does this not happen in our civil society? Why do the political leaders and the civil officials dither and look for escape routes, delays and ultimately forget to prosecute?

It is unfortunate that in the last six decades of independence, the system of governance has so evolved that there is no accountability and consequently no punishment. Bureaucrats and police personnel are routinely suspended and then reinstated. Is this punishment or a farce? For political leaders, a similar action is known as resignation, which actually implies a sabbatical, for very soon they are not just reinstated but even promoted! In the case of a minuscule few, a nominal punishment is awarded after decades, thereby losing its entire impact.

The end result is more crimes, criminals not getting salutary punishment and the fear of the law disappearing. It is the main reason for the extremely bad governance the common man rues everyday. In the long term it affects the vitality and security of the nation.

In terms of crime and punishment, our country can be divided into three categories. The first category consists of the well connected who are neither accountable nor punished for any crimes, either because of the position they occupy or because they are so filthy rich that money power white washes everything. The second category comprises the common citizen, who becomes a cog in the wheel in our overloaded judicial system and who can only hope to get his case finalised if he oils every Amar, Akbar and Anthony of our governance system.

The third category is the army, where no crime goes unpunished and where promptness and justice prevails.

A related point is that the media come down hammer and tongs whenever a few misguided army personnel commit offences, but always play down and seek justifications for powerful politicians, bureaucrats, police, judiciary, media barons and corporate honchos.

There is no doubt that expectations from the army are extremely high, but is that the whole story? Many in the army have often speculated that behind such banner headlines, there is a concerted effort to show the army in a poor light by those vested interests who are practitioners of the well known Indian crab syndrome — pull down the best to their own gutter level!

The expectations of the public from the army are high, but why are crimes by others condoned? It is nobody’s case that the few army personnel who commit crimes should not be punished, but the law, procedures and accountability must be the same for everyone.

(The writer is a former vice-chief of the army)