A Spy is caught
May 1975. Based on inputs by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Sarwan Dass & Aya Singh, 2 gunners in the Indian Army, are arrested on espionage charges. While being taken to Jammu for interrogation, Sarwan Dass jumps from a moving train and crosses over to Pakistan. On 10th February, Sarwan Dass, surrenders to the Police at R.S.Pura police station in Jammu & is taken to the Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC) for interrogation. His custodial interrogation and confessions set off a series of events, which would culminate in independent India’s biggest ever military spy scandal; which would impact scores of lives. Forever.
Samba, a sleepy old town, about 40 kms from Jammu, shares international border with Pakistan, on its southern side. At the time of the incident, it hosted the Brigade Headquarter, which had 3 battalions. Memories of the 1971 war between India & Pakistan were still fresh & hostilities existed between the two nations. In this backdrop, the unearthing of a Pakistani mole in the Indian Army set alarm bells ringing in Intelligence Bureau (IB), Military Intelligence (MI) & the Army HQ.
The Net widens
Sarwan’s surrender and confession before the Army would implicate almost the entire officer cadre of 168 Infantry Brigade & Intelligence Units of HQ 39, Infantry Division which would lead to the arrest of more than 100 army men. Amongst them were, a Brigadier, 3 Lt. Colonel’s, number of Major’s, Captain’s, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) & other ranks. The sheer enormity of the operation sent a shock wave through the establishment; as to how Pakistan could have managed to penetrate so deeply into an entire brigade.
During interrogation at, JIC, Sarwan confirmed his & Aya Singh’s involvement in espionage & no one else’s. Things were to change soon. During subsequent interrogation by Captain Sudhir Talwar & Major SC Jolly of the MI, Sarwan named Gunners Banarasi Lal, Babu Ram and Sriram, Naib Subedar Daulat Ram, Major R.S. Ghalawat while Aya Singh named Captain S.R. Nagial. Soon, the MI took each one of them into custody and started the next round of interrogation. Custodial torture followed, and more names started rolling out. Amongst them was Captain Ranbir Singh Rathaur, a young bright army intelligence officer, who was the first officer to be arrested from Samba brigade at the Rajputana Rifles Centre in Delhi on 24th August 1978.
The Trial : Things are not what they seem
General Court Martial proceedings of all the accused started and it ended with recommending dismissal from the service and imprisonment ranging from 7 to 14 years. The plea of the accused persons that they were not guilty, and were being prosecuted merely on the words of self-confessed spies, fell on deaf years. Meanwhile, strange events continued to take place. These included the mysterious death of Hawaldar Ram Swaroop during custodial interrogation by the MI at its Delhi centre. A severely brutalized dead body of Ram Swaroop was discovered by the Delhi Police and taken for Post Mortem. The Post Mortem conducted by the Army Base Hospital revealed death caused by injuries. The second post mortem conducted by Delhi Police at Aruna Asif Ali government hospital confirmed death due to coma and severe pain resulting from multiple injuries, including burns, and that he was tortured before his death. The body was then brought back to the Base Hospital, where another post mortem was ordered. This cited death due to drug overdose. Both; the first post mortem report of the Army Base Hospital & the post mortem report of Aruna Asif Ali hospital, were suppressed and never brought out. 3 decades later, an RTI led to the discovery of the post mortem report conducted by Aruna Asif Ali government hospital.  Incidentally, Anguri Devi, the widow of Ram Swaroop, was not even allowed to see his body during his cremation. Amongst all this, Major R.K.Midha, Ram Swaroop’s Commanding Officer, is also arrested on espionage charges & removed from service.
In 1978, both Sarwan Dass & Aya Singh were Court-Martialled and awarded 7 years jail sentence. Not for spying for Pakistan, but for desertion! In an even stranger development, both of them are reinstated in the army in less than 9 months!
Stranger still were the events taking place during the GCM of Major Ghalawat in 1977 and Gunner Om Prakash in 1978. The Judge Advocate of these GCM, Major Nirmal Ajwani registered protest at the way the GCM were being conducted. He was abruptly relieved from his post in Northern Command, and sent to Southern Command in Pune. 23rd Jan 1979, Major Nirmal Ajwani was arrested outside the Officer’s mess at the Southern Command in Pune, on charges of spying for Pakistan and taken into custody. Senior journalist, Prabhu Chawla, in his article ‘Samba spy case: Nagging doubts’, for India Today on 30th April 1980, observed “Sources claim that the court martial against Ajwani was aborted because none of the witnesses' evidence tallied with the prosecution case against him. The sources also insist that none of the 30 witnesses produced on an average against each officer could substantiate effectively the prosecution case of spying.”
Meanwhile, by now, nearly 100 men had been picked up by the Army & the MI and had disappeared from public view. In custody, these men were subjected to inhuman torture and were scarred for life. Grief stricken families of these men approached the government of the day including the then PM; Morarji Desai seeking information about the whereabouts & the condition of these men. Morarji wanted a probe but the Army headquarters citing ‘National Security’, prevailed upon the PM that these men were indeed spies and needed custodial interrogation. Soon, most of these men were handed long prison sentences and sent to jail. All this, merely on the confession of 2 self-confessed spies.
What followed next was a series of cover ups, official apathy, and living hell for the families of these men. All requests for an impartial probe into the matter fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile senior officials in IB were not convinced about the genuineness of the case. These included T.V. Rajeswar, the IB Chief and V.K.Kaul, the then Deputy Director at IB, who actually investigated the case. Years passed by and these men continued to rot in the jail, while their families were condemned to live in poverty and as social pariahs. In 1983, both Sarwan Dass & Aya Singh were finally discharged from the Army. Aya Singh remained true to his old tricks and continued to cross the border several times. On at least 2 occasions, he was caught and in December 1990 while trying to cross the border again, was shot dead by the BSF.
Honour redeemed in the Courts. And lost.
In 1994, Sarwan Dass gave a sworn affidavit and attended a press conference at Press Club of India, in which he stated that he had falsely implicated the men under inducement & severe torture by the MI . This gave second wind to the convicted persons, who now sought various platforms to seek redressal under Army Act section 165. Deliverance for these men came on 21st December 2000, when the Delhi High Court in a scathing judgement, observed that ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ was done by the Army to its officers, implicated in the incident. The Court exonerated Captain Rathaur and Captain Rana, who had been court martialled by the Army, and quashed the Army orders dismissing seven other officers. The Court also observed that Captain Rathaur and Captain Rana, had been convicted in the court martial proceedings ‘without a shred of evidence’.
The joy of the people declared innocent by the Delhi High Court was short lived. Shortly, the Union of India went in an appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgement passed by the Delhi High Court. In 2006, the Supreme Court directed the Delhi High Court to relook into the case of Captain Rathaur and Captain Rana. In 2007, the High Court quashed the petitions of both of them.
On 30th July 2013, 2 judges of Supreme Court observed that; no material evidence was available against the accused persons, there was non-production of documents & misuse of power and sent the case to a larger bench of the court to decide whether the proceedings against the accused vitiated the powers of President under the pleasure doctrine under article 310 of the constitution.
Finally, in March 2014, a 3 judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice BS Chauhan, while upholding the Government’s decision to terminate the services of seven army personnel, in a statement said ‘The safety and security of the nation is above all. When the President in exercise of its constitutional power terminates the services of the army officers, whose tenure of services are at the pleasure of the President and such termination is based on materials on record, then this court in exercise of powers of judicial review should be slow in interfering with such pleasure of President exercising constitutional power’. .Thus the curtain drew down on the infamous Samba Spy case.
A footnote to this entire case is that during ‘interrogation’, Captain Rathaur had ‘confessed’ that on 11th January 1976, he and Captain Rana had crossed over to Pakistan and gone to Kandral Post. This statement was used by the Army to build its case against them. The fact however is that, Kandral is an Indian post, and on the night of 11th January 1976, both Captain Rathaur & Captain Rana were dining out / dining in, in the Officer’s mess at Samba with several other officers. Some of the key documents which were requested by the accused persons during their trial in the Delhi High Court to be produced before the court included:
- All the 3 post mortem reports of Hawaldar Ram Swaroop
- Interrogation report of Captain Rathaur & Captain Rana, done by V.K.Kaul, who had declared them innocent
- Reports sent by T.V.Rajeswar, to PMs Indira Gandhi in 1980 & to Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, stating that the entire case was false and recommending reopening of the cases against Captain Rathaur & Captain Rana
- Note sent by PM Indira Gandhi in 1980 to Ministry of Defence for reopening of the case
- Report of Lt. Gen Chiman Singh, GOC 16 Corps, under whom the entire case was investigated
Inspite of strict strictures passed by the Court to produce these documents, they were never produce by the authorities.
The Case in popular folklore
Dibang, writing in the 1st January 1995 issue of ‘The Sunday Times of India’, interviewed Lt.Gen Chiman Singh, who was GOC 16 Corps and based at Core Headquarters at Nagrota, when the investigations were being conducted. Singh said “When I met Capt Rathaur in custody, I had seen the sign of torture. This prompted me to go through the evidence against him. After this, I was convinced that he may not have done what he was alleged to have.”
According to Lt. Col Ved Prakash, a senior member of the GCM proceedings against Captain Rana, the entire exercise was a farce and worse than a kangaroo court. In his book ‘The Samba Spying Case’, published in 1996, he said “By this time the trial ended I was convinced that it was a serious miscarriage of justice. Capt Rana had been dispatched to the prisons for 14 years. Ever since then, I have been troubled by an uneasy conscience, flowing from an inability of a polity to deliver justice to its members.” The hero of Indo-Pak war of 1965, Lt.General Harbaksh Singh, who was present at the book release function, broke down and said “I am shocked and ashamed at the level of degeneration in the Indi an Army which we had raised... Here we have an example of officers being meted out third degree treatment by their own colleagues.” Meanwhile, VK Kaul, who was also present at the function, observed "Samba scandal was the most gigantic fraud to have been perpetrated on the nation in which many Army officers were wrongly convicted for a crime they had not committed
Captain Rathaur on page 100, of his book, ‘The Price of Loyalty’, first published in 1996 described the severe trauma he underwent while in custody “I will tell you, we have mastered as many as thirty six techniques of inflicting torture. What you are undergoing is not even the third completed. So you can well imagine what might happen to you, in case you force us to apply all thirty six”. “My whole body was lacerated with injuries, my ears were disfigured and my left hand had paralyzed due to the insertion of needles under the finger nails.”
Coomi Kapoor, in her article ‘Officers Mess’, on 9th March 2011 in Indian Express wrote “The motive seems to have been three MI officers attempt to ingratiate themselves with their seniors and cover up their lapse in not alerting the authorities of minor spying activities of a gunner named Sarwan Das.” 
TV Rajeswar, the former IB Chief, under whom the investigations took place in his article ‘Honour in Uniform’, on 18th March 2011 in Indian Express noted “After examining the files carefully, I discussed the case at length with the head of the joint team,V.K. Kaul, and it was clear to me that there was something very seriously wrong in the case. I sent a detailed report to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stating that the entire spy case was doubtful, unsubstantiated and unreliable.” 
In 2013, the former Army Chief, General VK Singh on page 230 of his autobiography ‘Courage & Conviction’, wrote “In 1994, the second gunner, Sarwan Dass, in a sworn affidavit admitted that he and his companion Aya Singh had falsely implicated the men. It was probably a case of ‘too little too late’, by then; a classic instance of misplaced justice where countless careers and families were destroyed, their lives and their honor irrevocably scarred.”
TV Rajeswar, on page 158 in his book ‘India The Crucial Years’ published in 2015, wrote “The IB insisted on interrogating all the suspects, but not all of them were made available. Eventually, a joint team consisting of representatives if IB, R&AW & J&K police, and headed by Deputy Director of IB, went into the case thoroughly & recorded the evidence.” “The team did a thorough job of investigating the case and came to the unanimous conclusion that the case built up by the army authorities totally suspect and there was very little substantial evidence to support the accusations.”
Winston Churchill famously said ‘All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.’ For the men convicted under the incident, there is still a quest for justice & honor. It has been 4 decades since the case first broke and several protagonists involved in it have already passed onto the other world. Let’s hope that justice is finally delivered to others while they are still alive