SITTING in the courtyard of his crumbling house in Chakra village on the outskirts of Jammu city, Sarwan Dass recalls the first time he crossed over to Pakistan. “I needed money, and those days, people in the village said anybody who crossed the border struck gold.” So, “one rainy night in 1972”, he walked through the fields — “there was no barbed wire fencing at the time” — in the Kathua sector and by next morning, was across the border. There, he took a bus to Sialkot, where policemen caught him sleeping at the bus-stand. Two days later, Dass had become a “Pakistani spy”. Within three years, he would become the face of the infamous Samba spy case, involving at least 60 Armymen at one time, and which now stands discredited. Most of the Army officials were implicated on the basis of Dass’s confessions, which he has admitted were forced.
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Dass says he lives with regret every day — as well as the irony of it all. Pointing out that he visited Pakistan no more than half a dozen times, the 70-year-old says most of the information he sold was vague. “How much would a soldier have known, especially when we do not even know all about our unit or the brigade?” he says. “Many a time, the havildar in Pakistan jotting down information provided by me would write things on his own so as to help me earn some extra money.”
The “few thousands” paid to Dass by Pakistan’s Field Intelligence Unit (FIU) ran out a long time ago. Virtually outcasts in their village and child-less, Dass and wife Lajwanti, 65, eke out a living from the meagre paddy and vegetables he grows on their two acres. The floor of their two-room house is kuchcha and its walls unplastered. The only people who visit are Dass’s mother, Shahni, now 100 years old, and Lajwanti’s nephews and nieces. “Whenever my brothers’ children come, they bring clothes for us. Sometimes, they also help us with money,” Lajwanti says.
Recruited in 1967 as a gunner in the Army’s 217 Medium Regiment, part of the 168 Infantry Brigade at Samba, Dass had been posted in Rajpura in Punjab during the 1971 war. It was during the posting that he got to know the border well, he says. At the Gora jail in Sialkot, where he was taken after policemen found documents identifying him as an Indian Army soldier, Dass claims, he was tortured before he agreed to work for the FIU.
After nearly two weeks, he crossed the border again and provided the Pakistanis information on Army units deployed on the Indian side. Soon, he introduced fellow Armyman Aya Singh, a resident of Samba, to FIU officials. “We would go across whenever we came home on leave,” Dass says. Their run lasted till 1975, when a Pakistani who worked as a double agent gave them away to Indian officials. While both were taken into custody, Dass managed to flee after jumping off a train when being brought to Jammu. He stayed in Pakistan for the next seven months.
Sitting next to him, Lajwanti says that when the news reached Chakra, she went to her parents’ house in Kool village in Arnia. Her brothers wanted her to get remarried, but she declined. Dass returned one day and urged her to come with him to Pakistan, but she refused and convinced him to surrender. “When I told her the punishment would be severe, she told me that we would stay and face what we had to,” Dass recalls. In February-March 1976, Dass surrendered to Intelligence Bureau officials, and was detained under MISA. On April 10, 1976 — he remembers the day clearly — the Army took him into custody. He was their prisoner for the next three years.
“During those years of torture, all that the MI (Military Intelligence) officials wanted from me was to implicate others in the case. Woh chahtey the khaali jhooth. Sach bolne par maar par rahi hai aur jhooth bol kar jab paise bhi mil rahe hain, sharab bhi mil rahi hai to phir jhooth bolo. Yeh sarkar bhi isi tarah ki hai. Phir maine jhooth bolna shuru kar diya aur ek ke baad ek naam lene laga. Is sare khel mein, maine afsar se afsar ko marvaya (They only wanted lies. If I spoke the truth, I was being beaten, and if I spoke lies, I was being offered money and liquor. So I decided to lie. This government too is like this. Then I started lying, taking names one after another. In this whole game, I downed one officer after another).”
Alleging that senior officers forced him to mention names for medals and promotions, Dass wonders how anyone could fall for those lies. “Could I have so much money that whosoever met me, I took them to Pakistan? Didn’t officers have any brains of their own?” Among those Dass named was his battery commander, Captain R G Ghalawat, Naib Subedar Daulat Ram, besides gunners Banarasi Lal, Babu Ram and Sriram. Ghalawat later died of a heart attack. “I named him for the harassment he meted out to me,” Dass says. Similarly, Aya Singh named Captains A K Rana and R S Rathaur. “It was all fixed. The general court martial concluded the trial in one day and gave me seven years’ sentence on charges of desertion and not espionage,” he says.
Then, he claims, Army officials kept their promise and brought him out of jail in six-seven months. Aya Singh, who was awarded a seven-year sentence on similar charges, was brought out of the jail ahead of him, Dass recalls. Dass was posted in Delhi for the next four years and kept naming officers and soldiers. He says he finally stopped when pressure was put on him to implicate a general. “By then, my conscience had started pricking me. I had named so many people that I neither remembered their names nor numbers.” Soon after, in 1983, Dass claims, he was told by an Army officer to seek discharge from service “or I would be eliminated”. “Then, citing my own request, they discharged me without any pensionary benefits.”
He rarely met Aya Singh after his discharge, Dass says. In 1986, Aya Singh was shot dead near the border. The newspapers said he was on his way to Pakistan, Dass recalls. In all, the two named over 60 people of the 217 Regiment, including a brigadier, three lieutenant colonels, a number of majors, captains, junior commissioned officers, and non-commissioned officers, and personnel of other ranks, besides 11 civilians. All except Sarwan Dass and Aya Singh were accused of crossing the border and working for the enemy.
In 2000, hearing an appeal by Captains Rathaur and Rana, the Delhi High Court exonerated the two, set aside the termination of service of seven others, and described the Samba spy case as “a gross miscarriage of justice”. However, the Supreme Court in 2006 directed the high court to re-examine the case of Rathaur and Rana. In the light of the Supreme Court direction that finality in law was of foremost importance, the high court quashed the cases of both petitioners in 2007. Seven years later, the apex court upheld the termination of the seven other officers.
Dass often wonders how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t crossed over to Pakistan that night. “I along with many others would have retired from the Army with grace and would have been living the life of an ex-soldier with full pension benefits… A few thousand of rupees not only ruined my life, but that of many others.” However, he adds, “I carry the burden of guilt but the people who compelled me to (name the officials) are equally guilty”.