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How one man framed 60 Indian Army men and fooled three Prime Ministers

By Syed Nazakat in New Delhi, Mumbai & Jammu

Pakistani women and money proved irresistible for Indian Army gunner Sarwan Dass, who looked every inch the quintessential family man. A soldier who served the country during the 1971 war. A humble man who grazed his cows in the fields while in his village during holidays. After the war, Sarwan started crossing the border in Jammu’s Samba sector to earn quick money through petty smuggling. Soon, he started spying on his motherland. He gradually became Pakistan Army’s Field Intelligence Unit officer Major Akbar Khan’s favourite mole in India.

But in 1975, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) trapped Sarwan using a double agent, who interacted with him, pretending to be a Pakistani spy. The military intelligence (MI) was shocked and humiliated that its intra-system rival, the IB, exposed the involvement of Indian soldiers in espionage.

The story took an ugly turn.

Sarwan’s arrest and eventual confession set in motion a series of events that led to the arrest of 60 Army personnel, including bright young officers of the 168 Infantry Brigade and its subordinate units in the Samba sector. At one point, as a senior officer puts it, it seemed Pakistan had managed to plant moles deep inside the Indian Army.

Three decades later, the Samba spy case is resurfacing—it is listed for hearing on May 31 at the Armed Forces Tribunal in Delhi. With that, many unanswered questions have resurfaced. Why were Sarwan and his accomplice, Gunner Aya Singh, punished only for desertion [absence without leave] and not spying? Why were they taken back into service and given just minor punishments, compared to those named in their confessions?  Was there a secret deal between MI officials and these two Pak spies? Did Pakistan actually corrupt so many bright officers from one single brigade? Or was there something horribly wrong with the whole investigation?

It was like a vicious cycle. The MI allegedly tortured Sarwan seeking names of others involved in espionage. Broken by torture, he spat out whatever names came to his mind. Then, those named by Sarwan were tortured one by one. They, too, gave random names. And, eventually, all those who were arrested were tortured and made to testify against each other. Thus, the whole Samba spy case was allegedly built up on torture, torture and torture.

Prime Minister Morarji Desai wanted a probe into the mysterious death of Havaldar Ram Swaroop, who was named in the case, in Army custody. But, the Army headquarters convinced Desai that Swaroop was a spy, and he was subjected to third degree torture for the “sake of national security”. Sarwan’s confessional statements formed a major part of the briefing to Desai. The case was closed and the postmortem reports disappeared.

The case again resurfaced during Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s tenures as Prime Minister. In February 1980, Indira asked then IB chief T.V. Rajeswar to look into the case and report to her. “I sent a detailed report, stating that the entire spy case was doubtful and unsubstantiated. A few days later, she ordered a review of the case by the ministry of defence,” he would later recall.

In August 1986, when he was Governor of Sikkim, Rajeswar wrote to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who also held the defence portfolio. Said Rajeswar: “I suggested that the Samba case should be looked into afresh….”

But, the MI used a well-cooked story, thanks to Sarwan, to convince the governments about its version.

THE WEEK decided to seek more details straight from the horse’s mouth. After weeks of hunting, we traced Sarwan, 67, in his remote Chakra village in Jammu. The only other self-confessed spy, Aya Singh, was shot dead near the border in 1986 while trying to sneak into India.  [Plz see if you can include the line – Therefore, Sarwan Dass, 67-year-old man, is by all standards a most important link in the Samba spy scandal.

 Sitting outside his home, Sarwan was surprised to see us. “Who brought you here?” he asked anxiously.

A journalist was visiting his home for the first time. Sarwan hardly interacts with villagers, said his neighbours. His only companion is his wife, Lajwanti, still struggling to understand why he brought so much misery and pain to himself and others. The couple have no children. In all these years, Sarwan appeared in public light just once, in Mumbai’s magistrate court in October 2001, where he baffled everyone. Sarwan confessed he had falsely implicated innocent Army personnel in the Samba spy case at the behest of senior MI officers, who allegedly were trying to better their service records by claiming to have busted a mythical Pakistani spy ring. The Mumbai magistrate ordered his confession be delivered before the Supreme Court where Sarwan is ready to testify that he falsely implicated others.

“I confess that I spied on my country,” he told THE WEEK. Sarwan said he leaked crucial information, including helipad location, location of infantry division, brigade units, names of commanders and commanding officers, locations of bunkers, and details about military exercises and training, to the Pakistanis. He also stole the Army’s Orbat—order of battle. And the guilt of ruining the lives of innocent soldiers haunts him now: “I am ashamed… because of my mistake, so many lives and families were destroyed.” 

After his arrest, Sarwan initially remained silent in the MI’s custody.  Even when Aya Singh named Captain S.R. Nagial of Jammu as one of the officers involved in spying, Sarwan refused to testify. Nagial’s court martial rejected Aya Singh’s statement, as it was full of inconsistencies, and acquitted him. Nagial, however, was trapped in another case—the loss of Orbat—and punished with seven years rigorous imprisonment and termination from service. “The officers who were responsible to keep the document safe themselves interrogated and implicated me,” said Nagial. “To me, it was the first indication that there was a deliberate attempt to frame people in the case.”

The interrogators urged Sarwan to tell them about meetings that had never taken place and people he had never met. “I remained in the custody of the Army from July 1975 to August 1978. After every interrogation, they used to say, ‘Unless you don’t give us names, you will not be going anywhere.’ I thought if I stayed silent, I would spend the rest of my life in the torture cell or they would kill me. I had heard how [Havaldar Ram] Swaroop was killed [in the Army’s custody]. So after two years, I started giving them names of officers and jawans,” he recalled. “I had never seen some of them, yet, I cooked up stories of how I introduced them to Major Khan and how much money they received from Pakistan.”

Sarwan accused four MI officers—Brigadier T.S. Grewal [then deputy director MI], Major S.C. Jolly, Captain Sudhir Talwar, Colonel V.P. Gupta. “They tortured and forced me to implicate other people,” he said.

In March 1977, Sarwan named gunners Banarasi Lal, Babu Ram and Sriram, Naib Subedar Daulat Ram and his battery commander Captain R.G. Ghalawat. The humiliation of being called a Pakistani agent and the torment of the 14-year rigorous imprisonment pushed Ghalawatinto severe depression. He later died of heart attack. One of the charges against Ghalawat was that he helped Sarwan escape from the Army’s custody. But Sarwan told THE WEEK he escaped by jumping off a train while being shifted from Babina to Jammu for interrogation, as the guards were asleep. “I was undergoing constant torture. I thought why not implicate him [Ghalawat]. He was my commanding officer at Babina, and had been very harsh on me,” says Sarwan. “He once punished Aya Singh and me for watching a late-night movie.”

Sarwan did not know his statements would have such grave consequences: “We [Aya Singh and he] never thought our fake confessions would lead to the arrest of so many Army personnel. It was so easy to involve people in the case. I could have implicated half the Army.” In April 1979, Sarwan dropped another bombshell. He named one of the brightest Indian intelligence officers, Capt. R.S. Rathaur of the 168 Infantry Brigade, who had won special appreciation from Northern Command headquarters for his work. Sarwan told his interrogators that he had collected classified files from Rathaur, and that he had taken the Captain to Major Khan in the ‘Kandral post in Pakistan’.  

Sitting in his office in Delhi, Rathaur pointed out on a map that the Kandral post was within Indian territory. “That was their first lie. How come Pakistani soldiers came and met us at our own post and nobody knew about it?” asked Rathaur. “I was forced to confess all nonsense. During interrogation, I was lacerated all over. They would tie weights to my testicles and drag me on the floor by one leg.” The days continue to haunt him. Even now, on some days, Rathaur cringes as he wakes up in the morning, thinking he is in the interrogation centre. “Sometimes, in the middle of road, I get lost, and I call and ask my wife for directions,” he said. 

During interrogation, Rathaur named 11 Army personnel, including Lt Col Kayastha, Major S.P. Sharma, Captain V.K. Dewan, Captain Sujjan Singh and Captain A.K. Rana.  Rana completed the vicious cycle started by Sarwan. He was arrested on the charge of leaking classified documents. But, the Army headquarters refused to disclose details about it. “If the documents are already with Pakistan, what is the harm in disclosing the details?” asked Rana.

Rana’s confessional statements, which he said was obtained under torture, involved 51 people including 27 officers, three JCOs, nine jawans—all, again, from the 168 Infantry Brigade. “It is an irony of fate that a few MI officers were able to cook stories so easily and create one of the world’s biggest imaginary spy scandals,” said Rana, who was jailed for 10 years. He was further shattered when his daughter died a couple of years after his arrest. Sarwan was arrested in 1975, but he named Rathaur and Rana only in 1978. In 2001, the Army told the Supreme Court that Sarwan and Aya Singh had withheld names of certain officers because they threatened Aya Singh that his wife would be killed. The Week has obtained a court document which was buried for almost thirty years in a largely unexamined and previously never produced in the court.

But, a judgment dated October 26, 1977, of Jammu’s chief judicial magistrate, punctures that claim. It said Aya Singh’s wife, Bacho Devi, committed suicide on April 10, 1977. Things got murkier with the death of Swaroop in 1978. “After that, there was no going back for the MI,” says Major R.K. Midha, who was Swaroop’s commanding officer. “When I refused to testify that Ram Swaroop was a drug addict and that he died because of drug overdose, I, too, was implicated in the case.”

Midha was removed from service and given seven-year rigorous imprisonment. He accused Brigadier (retd) K V Jolly and Brigadier (retd) Grewal, who was MI deputy director, for Swaroop’s death. THE WEEK spoke to Brigadier S C Jolly—his first interaction with the media since the case broke in 1975. “I had nothing personal against any of these officers. Some of them were my best friends. What I did was genuine investigation…. I am ready to testify against them in any court of law,” said Jolly, who was a major during the interrogation. “There were very senior officers, even major generals, who were in charge of the case.”

He, however, refused to divulge names and details: “Under the Army Act, I’m forbidden from speaking about certain issues.”

One of Jolly’s colleagues implicated in the case was Major (retd) N.R. Ajwani. “I was not his ‘best friend’. But we used to meet at the officer’s mess. He just cooked the stories against all of us,” said Ajwani adding that the only mission in his life now was to bring out the truth. In 1976, Ajwani was a deputy judge advocate-general posted in the Northern Command HQ. “I was implicated after I refused to accept that gunner Om Prakash’s testimony during his trial was voluntary. Also, I was the first judge to adversely comment on the testimonies of two MI officers [Jolly was one among them],” said Ajwani.

 Two months later, he landed in trouble. He was placed in military custody and shifted to Delhi. “That is how I became another Pakistani spy,” said Ajwani, his face creased with dejection. Ajwani does not blame Brigadier Jolly alone. He slams then Army chief General O.P. Malhotra: “Had he just used his common sense, he would have realised how ridiculous it was that Pakistan recruited so many personnel from just one brigade.”

Former IB deputy chief V.K. Kaul, who was the chief investigator of the Samba case, stated on record that the spy scandal was a hoax. “It was fake case. I don’t want to say anything more on it,” he told THE WEEK. Former Army vice-chief Lt General (retd) S.K. Sinha, who was MI director just before the scandal broke, did not rule out the possibility that some MI officers cooked up stories for promotions or to settle scores. Throughout, there has been sheer confusion about the case. Even successive governments kept silent. The cases got buried somewhere in the Army HQs. “I don’t know anything about the case. It never reached me,” said General V.P. Malik, who was Army chief for three years from September 1997. Punished by the Army and humiliated by the public court of opinion, those accused in the case have almost lost hope. But, the spirit of a soldier keeps them going. “I told them we have to fight this injustice as true soldiers, till our last breath,” says Ajwani. In 2001, he moved Supreme Court to speed up the Delhi court’s verdict on the Samba case. The court exonerated Rathaur and Rana, and quashed the Army orders dismissing other officers.

Ajwani, 73, keeps travelling from Mumbai to Delhi to attend court hearings. “In the last two years alone I have visited [Delhi] 144 times,” he said flipping through his diary. “Our fight is not for compensation. It is not about revenge. It is about proving that we were true Indian Army soldiers,” said Ajwani.After a moment of thoughtful silence, he added:

“My name is Major Ajwani and I am not a Pakistan agent.”

(April 4, 2010, THE WEEK) 

 Interview of Pakistan’s Spy – Serwan Das

“The [Indian] Army released me on a secret agreement”

 The official version of the Samba case was woven around gunner Sarwan Dass’s confession. He had joined the Indian Army on September 9, 1967. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, he began spying for Pakistan, and passed on crucial information to Islamabad. Following an IB tip-off, Sarwan was arrested in June 1975 by his artillery unit based in Madhya Pradesh. His fake confessions ruined the lives of many bright Indian soldiers. Sarwan now regrets his misdeeds. He opens up, for the first time, about the case. Excerpts:

 When did you first visit Pakistan?

In 1971. I desperately needed some money, so I decided to visit Pakistan for smuggling. But I got arrested in Sialkot and was sent to jail. Two Pakistani officers, Major Akbar Khan and Major Akhtar of Field Intelligence Unit promised to release me, provided I work for them. The offered good money, too. I agreed.

 Who was the first person you took to Pakistan?

I have taken only one person, Aya Singh. He was not happy with his Army job. He, too, wanted to make some quick bucks.

How did the Army come to know about your espionage activities?

It was 1975. Aya Singh and I had rejoined my unit in Babina in Jhansi after long absence from duty. Both of us were punished—two months rigorous imprisonment. After a couple of months, Khan sent a person to Babina to meet me. He was a civilian from Jammu. He showed me my picture with Major Khan. So, I thought he was our man. Later, I came to know that he was an IB double agent.Captain R.G. Ghalwat was charged with helping you to escape from the Army’s custody.That is a fake story. While being shifted from Babina to Jammu, I jumped off the train, as the guards were sleeping.

 Then why did you testify against him?

I was under intense pressure to give names of spies. I thought why not implicate him. He was my commanding officer at Babina and had been very harsh on me. Once he had punished Aya Singh and me, as he spotted us returning after a late-night movie. So, I thought it was my turn to teach him a lesson. Ghalwat was given 14 years rigorous imprisonment, and he succumbed to the humiliation of being called a Pakistani agent? I never thought he would be given such harsh punishment. I feel ashamed of myself.

 Who else was working with you for Pakistan?

Aya Singh and I were the only ones.

What about officers such as Captain R.S. Rathaur and Captain A.K. Rana whom you named in the case?

I confessed my crime and wanted to reform myself. I had no intention of fixing these officers. But I was given third-degree torture. Imagine, I was held in the torture chamber for three years. Finally, I started giving false names. The moment I started lying, MI officers started giving me liquor and permission to see my family, and they stopped torturing me. Also, I was angry at a couple of officers like Major Ajwani. He was the judge advocate in my case. In court, I told him I was not arrested by the Army and that I surrendered before the IB. But, he kept saying, “Your point is not relevant”. He was very arrogant. Then, in the court room, I thought whenever he gets trapped, he would understand what is lie and what is truth about Samba.

You are saying you were forced to implicate these men?

Yes

Who forced you?

Brigadier T.S. Grewal (then MI deputy director), Major S.C. Jolly (now Brigadier), Captain Sudhir Talwar and Colonel V.P. Gupta. They tortured and forced me to implicate other people. Every time they interrogated me, all they wanted was: more names. I resisted the torture for three years, but, when it became unbearable, I gave false names.

 How come the authorities trusted your testimony so much?

Aya Singh and I were surprised, too.

How come you were released while others were given harsh punishment?

I was released on a secret agreement. I was given seven years imprisonment. But Sudhir, Gupta and Jolly promised me the I would be released sooner. Sudhir even visited me a couple of times in jail. He wanted one more name, a big one. I again wrongly mentioned the name of a Muslim major general, posted in Kolkata. I don’t know what happened to him.

Then, you were discharged from the Army, right?

I was never tried for espionage, but for absence without leave. In August 1979, a court martial awarded me seven-year rigorous imprisonment and dismissal from the Army. In 1983, I was discharged from the services and transferred to pension establishment.

Why are you saying all this after so many years?

I feel really sad that, because of my mistake, so many families got destroyed. I want to repent by confessing all my misdeeds.

Army Of Victims

61 Army personnel, including a brigadier, three lieutenant colonels and several majors and captains, and 11 civilians were arrested following the confessions of Sarwan Dass and Aya Singh.

 The victims include:

Captain R.G. Ghalwat of Haryana

Spent 14 years in jail. Died of heart attack.

Havaldar Ram Swaroop of Haryana

Found dead after being picked up by military intelligence. His wife says he died during interrogation. Postmortem report never made public.

Gunner Baburam of Jammu

Dismissed, sentenced to 14 years RI. Contracted a fatal TB infection in jail.

Captain R.S. Rathaur of Delhi

Dismissed and served 14 years RI. Was tortured during interrogation. Suffers from memory loss. Wrote a book on his experience: The Price of Loyalty.

Captain A.K. Rana of Himachal Pradesh

Dismissed and served 14 years RI. His father died of shock immediately after his arrest and his daughter died a couple of years later.

Captain S.R. Nagial of Jammu

Dismissed. Served seven years RI. Fought his case in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and J&K courts.

Gunner Banarasi Das of Jammu

Dismissed and served 14 years RI. Currently works as a farmer. His case is now with the Armed Forces Tribunal.

Gunner Satpal Singh of Jammu

Served 10 years RI after dismissal, during which his wife worked as a maid.

Clerk Ram Lal of Jammu

Dismissed, served 12 years in jail. Many say he was implicated to save Sarwan’s brother, who had a similar name.

Driver Mulkh Raj of Jammu

Dismissed; served eight years in prison. His case has reached the tribunal.

Brigade Major S.P. Sharma of Jammu

Commanded two different companies in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, and was recommended for a VSM. Blindfolded and detained in a dark cell for months. 25 prosecution witnesses were produced, but none gave evidence against him. Yet, he was dismissed.

Gunner Milkhi Ram of Jammu

Dismissed and served 10 years RI.

Major R.K. Midha of Delhi

Arrested and dismissed after he refused to testify against Ram Swaroop. His case is pending before the Supreme Court.

Major Arun Sharma of Dehradun

The only evidence against him was Capt. Rana’s written confession. Dismissed.

Major N.R. Ajwani of Mumbai

Dismissed. Aged 73 now, he travels from Mumbai to Delhi to attend court hearings and has mobilised a campaign against the injustice meted out to him.

Capt. Kulwant Singh of Jammu

Dismissed despite the fact that no one testified against him. Case pending at the Supreme Court.

Timeline

1975—Sarwan Dass and Aya Singh arrested. They confess that they were working for Pakistan at Samba, 40km from Jammu on the border.

1978-1979—61 Army personnel and 11 civilians arrested. 

1978—Ram Swaroop picked up for questioning. Allegedly died at interrogation centre. Morarji Desai wants to investigate the death, Army HQ briefs him against it.

1983—Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv want to review the case, after former IB chief T.V. Rajeswar writes to them that the case will not stand scrutiny.

1989—R.S Rathaur and A.K. Rana released from jail after 10 years.

1990—Aya Singh shot dead while crossing the India-Pakistan border.

1995—Rathaur and Rana petition Delhi High Court to reopen the case.

 2000—Justices K. Ramamoorthy and Devinder Gupta of Delhi High Court call the Samba spy case a “gross miscarriage of justice” by the Army to its officers. They exonerate Rathaur and Rana, and quash the Army order dismissing seven other officers.

2006—Supreme Court sets aside the Delhi HC order of 2000, directs HC to re-examine case and directs Rana and Rathaur to approach the HC again.

Dec 25, 2007—Delhi HC quashes the petition to reopen the case.

Present—All cases pending before the Delhi High Court have been shifted to the Armed Forces Tribunal where they have been listed for hearing on May 31, 2010. Some, including that of Major Ajwani, are still pending before the Supreme Court.

(April 4, 2010, THE WEEK)

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