As many as 107 Army personnel from a unit being commanded by a Colonel booked by CBI at the end of July for a fake encounter in Manipur are among the signatories of a petition in the Supreme Court, which is challenging the alleged dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
These Army personnel, including four officers, 24 Junior Commissioned Officers and 79 Other Ranks, are part of the 26 Mechanised Infantry Battalion of which Colonel Vijay Singh Balhara is the Commanding Officer. Balhara and seven other personnel have been named in the FIR for the killing of 12-year-old Mohammad Azam Khan in Imphal on March 4, 2009 in an alleged fake encounter. Balhara was a Major at the time.
The FIR against Col Balhara was registered following directions given by the Supreme Court on July 14 this year, based on the findings of the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission, which had inquired into the matter and submitted its report to the court.
On August 13, 356 Army personnel moved the Supreme Court, stating that the “garb of protection of human rights should not be taken as a shield to protect the persons involved in the terrorist act”. On Friday, another 383 Army personnel asked to be impleaded in the petition, taking the number of personnel who have moved the court to 739.
The petition in the SC has specifically mentioned the case of Col Balhara and the FIR registered against him. It states, “The officers and men are aggrieved by the manner updates are being taken by this court as the same is resulting in indirect influence to the investigating agencies. This is imperative to mention that the cases are very old and intention of the family member of the declared militant as a partisan witness may result in wrong conclusion of the investigating agencies. Thus, the direction and pressure resulted in the CBI filing an FIR in the name of an officer (Colonel Vijay Balhara) after the directions of the court on July 30, 2018.”
Other than personnel of the unit being commanded by the officer accused of the Manipur killing, the petitioners also include officers and Other Ranks from 58 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) whose personnel were booked for the killing of a cattle trader and injuring of another in the Ramban district of Jammu & Kashmir on August 5.
“A Special Investigation Team (SIT) is inquiring into the circumstances of the incident,” Deputy Commissioner Ramban, Showkat Aijaz Bhatt, said. Thirty-two personnel of 58 RR, including a Colonel, two Majors and a Captain, are petitioners in the case which has been filed by one Colonel Amit Kumar, an officer of Judge Advocate General branch of the Army posted in Nagrota in J&K. Thirty-three personnel from Kumar’s parent regiment, Sikh Light Infantry, are also signatories to the petition.
Lt Gen H S Panag (retd), former Northern Army Commander, told The Sunday Express that one would have to stretch one’s imagination to believe that the Army leadership had no knowledge about the personnel filing the petition.
“It cannot be a coincidence that the Commanding Officer of the unit gets named in an FIR and the soldiers serving in his unit get motivated to file a petition. As it is, a mechanised unit does not have a major role in counter-insurgency except for the fact that personnel serving in it go on deputation to Rashtriya Rifles or Assam Rifles,” he said. The “collective action” by over a 100 soldiers of the same unit who were “motivated” to file the petition was ominous, Lt Gen Panag said.
When contacted, official sources at Army HQs said the Army had nothing to do with the petitions filed by soldiers in their individual capacity. “They have their unfettered rights under Article 32 of the Constitution to legal remedy and they have taken recourse to that,” a senior officer said. Asked if “command influence” could be the reason for the soldiers of Col Balhara’s battalion filing the petition, the officer said, “It can also be the case that the men of the unit signed the petition out of a sense of camaraderie with their CO.”
While Col Amit Kumar, the petitioner, refused to comment on the issue saying he was not authorised to speak to the media, his advocate, Aishwarya Bhati, said there was nothing wrong in anybody from any unit filing the petition. “Though I do not know the men are from which unit individually, but even if a large number are from Col Balhara’s unit it does not matter,” she said.