By Yambem Laba
(This article first appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata)
When Brigadier LI Singh was given the sensitive and prestigious post of Deputy Director General-A of the Indian Army’s Discipline and Vigilance Directorate, he thought he’d made his mark, for all those who had held the post earlier were Lieutenant-Generals or had retired at that rank, his elder brother having achieved that position too.
Commissioned into the 13 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry as a subaltern at the age of 20 in 1983, he saw action in India’s many undeclared wars with Pakistan in the high-altitude Siachen areas in 1985-86 and 1990-92.
He had also served on a UN Peacekeeping assignment in Somalia in 1994. He was soon made Commanding Officer of his own 13 JAK LI and led from the front during Operation Parakaram after the Kargril war from November 2002 to October 2004 and was succesful in reoccupying six posts and Point 5608 overlooking strategic Shingo Valley in Pakistan which could not be taken earlier by the Indian Army during the Kargil operations.
He and his soldiers were also able to destroy two huge fuel dumps on the Pakistani side making the Karakoram range akin to a volcanic eruption. For his action he was awarded the Yudh Seva Medal by then President of India, the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
His citation read, “The officer through ingenuity, aggressiveness and well conceived plans executed operations with personal leadership resulting in occupation of six tactically dominating features besides inflicting heavy casualties on enemy personnel and materials.”
Singh’s unit suffered four deaths and seven injuries but it accounted for 52 Pakistani dead and 20 injuries, apart from destroying 115 Pakistani bunkers and setting ablaze three kerosene oil dumps and five SRP shelters. The citation further read, “A sterling performance. His Battalion affected total domination of the Line of Control in the Bimbat Area of Drass in Operation Parakram.”
The then Chief of Army Staff wrote him a DO letter congratulating him and all his soldiers. In 2007, Colonel LI Singh was moved to the North-eastern region where India has been fighting another proxy war against insurgents and was appointed Colonel General Staff of HQ 21 Mountain Division, which was then launching Operation Rhino-II against the Ulfa and Bodo militants, not to forget the then simmering uprising by the Karbis in the Karbi Anglong area.
He was then moved as Additional DIG of HQ 5 Sector, Assam Rifles, which was then conducting Operation Hifazat. Besides being bold, brave and aggressive, a strategic planner and a tactical expert, he had also graduated from the Defense Staff College at Wellington.
So there was no holding him back as far as promotions went and, in December 2010, he was soon made Brigadier in Command, 164 Mountain Brigadier the Eastern Command and given charge of guarding India’s border areas from the Chinese through the Chumbi Valley-Siliguri corridor.
He had also played a key role in many professional studies,including manifestation of threat by China’s People’s Liberation Army and the cold war strategy against India.
Then when the devastating earthquake struck Sikkim in 2011 throwing everything haywire, under Singh’s leadership the Army swung into action and within 48 hours opened the Rongli-Zuluk axis, the only lifeline leading to southeast Sikkim. All his deeds as a Brigade Commander earned him “Outstanding” in all three confidential reports by two initiating officers.
His sterling performance, both as a most able field commander and an administrator, plus his impeccable integrity, soon caught the eye of Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh, who then handpicked him for the most sensitive post of Deputy Director General-A in the Discipline and Vigilance Directorate, the eyes and ears of what happens within the Indian Army, at Army Headquarters in Delhi in March 2012.
He had then thought he had finally made his career as a professional soldier for this would see him retiring as a lieutenant-general. Little did he realise that his ordeal was soon to begin. Way back on 10 March 2010, three Manipuris, namely Phijam Naobi, RK Roshan and Thounajam Prem were abducted from the Char Mile area of Dimapur in Nagaland. The Dimapur police launched an extensive search but drew a blank.
Then, a week later, the Dimapur police were informed by their Assam counterparts that three bullet-ridden bodies had been found in the Lakhijan area under Bokajan police station.
The bodies bore multiple torture marks, like nails driven into their heads and burn marks inflicted by blowtorches. On physical verification, these turned out to be of the three Manipuris.
The FIR registered in the case categorically mentioned that the abduction was carried out by military personnel and the finger of suspicion soon fell on the Army’s 3 Corps cloak-and-dagger wing, the Intelligence and Surveillance Unit based at Rangapahar in Dimapur which was known to have been involved in such crimes earlier.
The Dimapur police then approached the Army authorities who, in turn, issued a flat denial, claiming immunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
The Army’s Investigation Unit was then headed by Colonel Govindan Shreekumar, but his second-in-command, Major T Ravi Kiran, turned whistleblower and on 12 March wrote to the GOC Eastern Command, with copies marked to the GOC 3-Corps and the Chief of Army Staff, stating that the three Manipuris were abducted on 10 March and brought to their unit and after being tortured were shot behind the unit’s mess.
When no action was forthcoming, he shot off another reminder to his superiors on 25 January 2015. After all this, Army headquarters finally reacted and directed the authorities at Fort William to take action.
LieutenantGeneral Dalbir Singh Suhag had by then taken over as General Officer Commanding, 3 Corps. General Suhag’s enquiry, however, concealed more than it revealed. Headed by Brigadier A Bhuia, who had no legal sanctity, it was a complete eyewash and Colonel Govindan Shreekumar, lady officer Captain Rubeena Kaur Kher and Major Nector Baum — charged with hatching the plot to kill the Manipuris and who were reportedly involved in nefarious activities like sharing extortion money, abetting the flow of narcotics and selling stolen vehicles — continued to be General Suhag’s “blueeyed” lot.Then came the “botched” Jorhat Operation”.
Two competing Army contractors were fighting for their turf in areas under 3 Corps and one of them had the ingenuity of ulitilising the services of the same Intelligence Survey Unit under Colonel Govindan. So in the early hours of 20 December 2011 an armed party comprising 15 soldiers in battle fatigues, led by Captain Rubeena Kaur, raided the house of Surajit Gogoi while he was away on work in Guwahati. They manhandled his wife Renu and tied her up along with their three children.
Then, under Captain Kaur’s orders, the keys to their almirahs were snatched and a licensed pistol along with 15 cartridges, jewellery worth Rs.6.5 lakh and cash amounting to Rs.1.5 lakh were looted. They also took away an assortment of items that included a laptop and four mobile phones. Gogoi filed an FIR with the Jorhat police but had no clue about the actual identity of the soldiers or the unit involved. A week later, the police got a crucial break when a call made to someone in Haryana was traced to one of the stolen mobiles.
The Haryana police investigated the matter and found that the call had been made by Havildar Sandeep Thapa of 3 Corps’ Intelligence and Surveillance Unit and was one of the participants in that infamous raid.
Police later established from mobile records that Colonel Govindan Shreekumar was in constant touch with Captain Kaur before and after the raid. The Army top brass ordered a Court of Inquiry and General Suhagplayed the same tune as in the case of the killing of the three Manipuri boys.General Dalbir Singh Suhag, being aware of the Intelligence and Surveillance Unit’s nefarious activities since it reported directly to him, knew only too well that he would be the first person to be implicated and so his immediate superior, Lieutenant-General Bikram Singh, then GOC, Eastern Command, ordered a Brigadier-rank officer to look into the allegations involving a lieutenant-general. What followed was another Army cover-up.
Getting no relief from the Army, Surajit Gogoi then approached Gauhati High Court and in an Army counter-affidavit filed by Major Deepak Vaishnav, he admitted to Gogoi’s charges but again sought protection under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which empowers the Army to conduct raids and seize articles, including licenced weapons, jewellery and cash. Generals Bikram Singh and Dalbir Singh Suhag had staged yet another successful cover-up.
Sitting far away in Delhi, then Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh was unhappy with the turn of events that portrayed the Army as a gang of murderers and looters, so he ordered the Discipline and Vigilance Directorate to put a Discipline and Vigilance promotion ban on General Suhag and issue him a show cause notice for “abdicating responsibility”. The task for carrying out this order fell on bright young Manipuri Brigadier LI Singh, then functioning as Deputy Director General of the DVD.
Try as General Suhag did to evade the show cause notice by taking leave, it finally caught up with him on 24 May 2012. That was also the time a tug of war was on in the Army hierarchy as to who would succeed General VK Singh once he retired. In case General VK Singh won his case for correcting his date of birth, it would be Lieutenant-Generals KT Parnaik and Ashok Singh; in case he didn’t, next in line would be Lieutenant-Generals Bikram Singh and Dalbir Singh Suhag. Unfortunately, General VK Singh lost and was replaced by General Bikram Singh as Chief of Army Staff. Two weeks after assuming charge of one of the biggest armies in the world, General Bikram Singh ordered the lifting of the Discipline and Vigilance ban on General Suhag, who was soon posted as Army Commander at Fort William, bringing the entire eastern sector under his direct command. That was when the witch-hunting in the famed Indian Army began for the show cause notice issued to him whilst he was serving as GOC, 3 Corps.
Brigadier LI Singh was the Army’s soft target and was soon shunted out of the DVD and a Court of Inquiry instituted against him on the basis of a verbal complaint lodged against him for “actions” carried out by him whilst he was commanding the 164 Mountain Division in Sikkim. Amongst the charges levied was that he took away two carpets and also two crystal flower vases from Flagstaff House at the Watershed Brigade, as the 164 Mountain Brigade was otherwise known. An even more serious charge was that he had taken Rs 1 lakh and Rs 1.5 lakh from two canteen contractors servicing the Brigade. During the Court of Inquiry conducted by a major-general, Brigadier LI Singh asked the canteen contractors if they knew him or had met him before and they replied, “No, Sir”. When further asked who they had handed the money to, they named two officers, namely Colonel HS Baidwan, Commanding Officer of 6 Rajputana Rifles, and Colonel Ravi Shankar, Commanding Officer of 4/1 Gorkha Rifles, who had then told them they had been ordered by the Brigade Commander to ask them for the money on loan. Another who deposed was Colonel RK Jha, who succeeded LI Singh as Brigadier of the Watershed Brigade. Brigadier LI Singh was then subsequently charged with conduct unbecoming of an officer, posted out and a DV ban on promotion imposed on him.
Colonels HS Baidwan, Ravi Shankar and RK Jha were subsequently rewarded for “cooperation rendered beyond the call of duty” to General Suhag’s “Operation Sweet Revenge”. One has been promoted and sent as military attaché to the Indian High Commission in London, while the remaining two were sent for important career courses.
Around the same time, the Army top brass went in for what they thought would be the perfect mopping up operation, leaking to the media the findings of the Army’s “Kangaroo Court”. A photograph that Brigadier LI Singh had submitted along with his annual confidential report was released and his full name, Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh, was also released, whereas in Army circles he had been known as LI Singh ever since he was a subaltern. The media swallowed the bait and even began questioning how such a “corrupt” officer could have been posted in the Discipline and Vigilance Directorate in the first case. General Suhag must have smiled when he smelt his final kill.
Left with no option, Brigadier LI Singh approached the Armed Forces Tribunal but it refused to entertain his complaint. He then approached Delhi High Court, pleading that natural justice had been denied him and stating that the Court of Inquiry instituted against him violated Army Rules 180 and 184 by overruling about 180 pertinent questions against 18 different witnesses that had disposed against him during cross examination and that many documents were produced after all the witnesses had left and he had been denied access to documents, was not permitted to peruse important documents and disallowed from recalling witnesses for cross examination.
In the subsequent hearing in Delhi High Court, the Army became the laughing stock when the judges pointed out that there had been far too many discrepancies in their reply, like different dates and non-adherence to Army Rules 180 and 184. On 29 May 2013, the court passed an order — No.6452/2013 in Writ Petition (C) 2653/2013 — directing the Army to withdraw his attachment and revert Brigadier LI Singh to his old position in the Discipline and Vigilance Directorate in Delhi.
Unfortunately, shortly afterwards the Supreme Court ruled that high courts could not have jurisdiction over proceedings of the Armed Forces Tribunal, so the Delhi High Court ruling was rendered null and void.
Brigadier LI Singh then filed a review petition and the AFT issued an order recalling the one it had earlier passed on 21 March 2013 denying him an opportunity to be heard and admitted and readmitted his case, at the same time denying the Army’s appeal for a special leave petition to move the Supreme Court against the AFT decision to readmit the case on grounds that no substantial question of general public importance was involved. It is learnt that General Suhag Singh is trying to move the Supreme Court praying for directives to the AFT to permit a special leave petition against Brigadier LI Singh.
What deserves mention is the case filed on 26 April 2014 in Manipur High Court by Phijam Manikumar, elder brother of one of the three Manipuri boys who were abducted, tortured and murdered in March 2010. It was pointed out that although General Dalbir Singh Suhag was then not commander of the Rangapahar-based 3 Corps, it was on record that the matter had been brought to his notice when he took over as 3 Corps Commander and Colonel Govindan Shreekumar was directly under and answerable to him alone.
The court was moved to issue directives for the immediate arrest of General Suhag, Colonel Shreekumar and his other accomplices on a charge of murder. For the record, General Suhag was Vice-Chief of Army Staff when the case was filed.
It might be recalled that when The Statesman broke this news, the Election Commission took note and declared that no Chief of Army Staff could be appointed till the 2014 election to the Lok Sabha was over. The case fell through in Manipur High Court on grounds of jurisdiction, the murders having taken place in Nagaland. A new writ petition is now pending in Gauhati High Court awaiting the counter affidavit to be filed by Colonel Shreekumar and the others.
With General VK Singh out of range (he is now a Central minister), the “purging” of his loyalists is a by-product of happenings when the UPA government was in power at the Centre.
Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh hails from Manipur and is an alumnus of Sainik School, Imphal, and its first graduate to rise to the rank of brigadier. In an insurgency-infested state, he belongs to a family that chose to serve the Army. His elder brother, LN Singh, is a serving lieutenant-general.
General Bikram Singh was awarded with a gubernatorial post following his retirement and General Dalbir Singh Suhag is perhaps also eyeing a similar posting post-retirement, but the LI Singh episode continues to threaten to expose the skeletons in his closet.
Meanwhile, Brigadier LI Singh is left to patiently wait for the Army’s reply to his petition before the AFT in his capacity as Additional Officer in the Infantry Directorate at Army Headquarters in Delhi.
Two issues require consideration. One is for the AFT to complete the final hearing so that either Brigadier LI Singh or the Indian Army can approach the Supreme Court for a final deposition. The second, and more pragmatic, need is for the present NDA government to undo the “botched legacy” of the previous UPA government and direct the Army to drop the fictitious charges against Brigadier LI Singh and reinstate him to his former position and for him, in turn, to withdraw his case before the AFT, so that all will be well that ends well.
We’ve heard of “Ketchup Colonels” and “Booze Brigadiers” and General Suhag could qualify as being called a “Vendetta General”, but given the NDA government’s talk about transparency, perhaps this virtue ought to begin or end with the Indian Army. Will Union defence minister Manohar Parrikar remain a silent spectator to the murky dealings within the Army or restore justice?
The writer is the Statesman’s Imphal-based special correspondent.