Four Army officers of the rank of Colonel and Lt Colonel have filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that their right to privacy under the Constitution has been violated by military authorities who seized their mobile phones for an espionage investigation and then suspended three of them on grounds of morality.
According to the officers’ petition, two of the suspended officers are posted in the Military Intelligence (MI) Directorate in Delhi while the third is an Instructor at Defence Services Staff College in Wellington. The fourth officer is posted in Mumbai.
The four officers have claimed that their mobile phones and other personal digital assets were seized by Army authorities in March on the directions of Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI).
According to the petition, it was suspected that a Whatsapp group, called “Patiala Peg”, of which these officers were members, had been infiltrated by a Pakistan Intelligence Operative (PIO) triggering a probe to find if classified information had been shared.
While no espionage links of any of these officers were found in the subsequent investigation by the Army, three of them were suspended on May 8 for violating the Army’s cyber security policy, the petition said.
The suspension orders, reviewed by The Indian Express, state that the Board of Officers (BOO) which examined their digital assets, including mobile phones, found evidence which impinges on their conduct as officers and gentlemen. According to the orders, the BOO found some of the officers were part of a WhatsApp group used for “immoral, unethical (sexual misconduct) activities”.
The suspension orders also state that the officers were part of a WhatsApp Group that had foreign nationals as members who were not personally known to the officers.
One officer was found to be using Twitter in violation of existing policy and that he had deleted the chat and exited the group which required forensic examination of the phone. All three officers were suspended for an initial period of six months.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Col Amit Kumar (retd), counsel for the petitioners, said the basic issue in the petition is the failure to follow procedure under CrPC for seizure and forcing the officers to self-incriminate through the “illegal confiscation” of their phones.
He also said that the three officers were suspended allegedly without issuing them a show-cause notice. “It is a clear-cut case of infringement of privacy by forceful forensic examination of their personal information, which may be related to family and friends,” he said.
Responding to a request for comment, an Army official said: “Investigation into an incident of alleged cyber security violation by some serving members of the Indian Army is in progress. The Indian Army has zero tolerance towards cyber security infringements and the investigation is progressing as per laid down procedure.”
In their petition before the apex court, the four officers claimed that their phones were illegally confiscated by Army authorities — and that they had willingly handed their phones in good faith to help the espionage investigation “in the highest traditions” of the Army.
They said that while nothing incriminating was found against them in espionage-related activities, they have been “illegally suspended” using “unfairly obtained” private information from their phones.
The officers have stated in their petition that it is a common understanding among them that they are ready to hand over their personal digital assets without any conditions as long as they are assured of their right to privacy.
They have further said in the petition that there are no provisions for such seizure in the Army Act or Army Rules and that legal provisions under the CrPC for search and seizure are to be followed, but this was not done in their case.
The officers have contended that their fundamental right has not been protected by the Army’s actions and that as upcoming officers their career and names have been blemished by authorities with their illegal actions.
The four officers have sought the court’s adjudication on whether the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution can be taken away from Army officers without following rules and procedures, and whether the right to privacy is available to them.