| The army band at the Beating the Retreat held three days after Republic Day
New Delhi, Nov. 28: Three senior army officers in army headquarters and a diplomat are among suspects in a fake passport scam that investigators are beginning to see as a racket in human trafficking.
This is the second time this year that public figures are being linked to kabutarbaazi — the Hindi slang for human trafficking — since BJP MP Babubhai Katara was arrested in April at the Delhi international airport.
The current scam also broke in the same place after immigration officials and army investigators detained a soldier, Suresh Babu, earlier this month and, subsequently, found 40 white or official passports and Rs 1.20 lakh in cash in his house. Babu is suspected to have got official passports made in the name of superior officers, forged and sold them for Rs 50,000 each.
The soldier, an articulate young man fluent in English who had just about eight years’ experience, was posted in the army headquarters’ directorate general for discipline, ceremonials and welfare, the military wing that has been frequently sending brass bands abroad ostensibly to foster international cooperation. He was the main liaison person between the directorate and the foreign office.
Defence minister A.K. Antony has now decided to ask the CBI to probe.
The CBI is awaiting a formal letter from the ministry. But even before it formally takes charge, defence ministry officials are cringing at the scale of operations that an internal inquiry has pointed to.
The army’s inquiry has so far revealed that:
Visits by the army brass bands have recorded a dramatic rise in the last three years
Increasingly, senior and very senior army officers have been accompanying the bands that are mostly staffed by personnel below officer rank (PBOR)
The visits were mostly by the “ceremonies” section of the directorate but of late included officers from the “welfare” section; there is little logic in sending officers tasked with army welfare with brass bands abroad
Some diplomatic and official passports were issued with clearance from the ministry’s international cooperation wing
Although senior officers cannot be pinned down, there is evidence of “dereliction of duty” and “laxity of supervision”.
The glitter and the pomp that the army’s directorate general organises on Republic Day and during state programmes every year really masks a rot that has accompanied the “liberalisation” of the army’s international policies. The wing is headed by Lt General I.J. Koshy, who took over recently.
The army’s adjutant general, Lt General Thomas Mathew, is understood to have inquired into the allegations. He was himself accompanying a band that was going to France earlier this month.
There is also a “band scam” concerning the directorate in which one of its officers, a lieutenant colonel, is facing charges of entertaining foreign vendors at his residence on the pretext of buying bugles, trumpets, cornets, drums and bagpipes for the army’s 46-piece brass band.
He has been indicted in an internal inquiry by a brigadier of the Delhi Area Command that oversees all ceremonial events for the President and visiting dignitaries.
But the current investigation is likely to cast its net wider. Apart from questioning army officials and bureaucrats in the defence ministry, the official and diplomatic passport issuing authorities of the foreign ministry are likely to come under the scanner.
An army headquarters source said suspicions on the activities of the directorate general were aroused since the inquiry into the “band scam”.
Efforts were on to hush up the inquiry. The lieutenant colonel is currently posted in Chandimandir, headquarters of the army’s Western Command, but was earlier with army headquarters in New Delhi.
Questioned about the details of the inquiry and if money had changed hands illegally, senior army officers refused to tomtom the fact that an internal investigation was ordered in a crackdown on corruption.
Instead, they hastily did what the army brass band is famous for — “beat the retreat”.
The officer was involved in buying the equipment for not only the Delhi Area band that plays in official ceremonies in the capital but also for 24 other army bands.
The inquiry found that the lieutenant colonel was “hobnobbing with foreign vendors” after the army issued a global tender called a Request for Proposals (RFP) inviting bids to buy bagpipes, bass drums, tenor drums, side drums and bugles.
The brigadier recommended that the officer be lined up for “disciplinary action”, an army jargon for punishment stricter than a warning, which is an “administrative action”. But the well-connected officer has so far staved off the punishment.
It has now been suggested to army headquarters that he should be let off lightly.
But the band scam highlights much more than corruption. It underlines, of course, that there are hands in tills even in such small cells of the army as its band.
It also illustrates just how the army has liberalised its procurements, sometimes, say critics, at the cost of domestic industry. Not far from Delhi, in Meerut, Nadir Ali Company is a supplier of musical instruments to over 100 countries.
In 2005, the defence ministry came out with a procurement policy that asked the armed forces to invite global bids for all equipment the forces buy.
The RFP for the drums and bagpipes was issued in accordance with that policy. The tender was issued by army headquarters’ additional directorate general (ceremonials and welfare).
The policy also meant that the army would now have to interact more often with foreign vendors.