The arrest of several army personnel in Bihar for possession of alcohol threatens to snowball into a major controversy with senior officials reportedly taking up the matter at the ‘highest level’ for the ‘illegality’ involved.
A senior army officer said the recent arrest of a captain as well as other personnel from trains under the state government’s prohibition policy was a serious matter, as soldiers “cannot be tried by civil courts, except for offences related to murder, culpable homicide not amounting to murder and rape”.
“For trial of other offences, the jurisdiction of the army has also been fixed vide government SO 488, dated February 9, 1978. Many army officers are also not fully aware of it,” the officer told Hindustan Times.
He said in cases related to offences other than the three specified above, court martial was the appropriate way to deal with them and the magistrate concerned should immediately hand over the accused to the army for trial.
“It is then the responsibility of the commanding officer or the competent authority in the military, navy, air force or coast guard to carry out trial,” he added.
Citing the provision under ‘Protection of Members of the Armed Forces from Arrest’, another senior officer said with the armed forces having their own set of rules, no arrest could be carried out by civil police without the consent of the central government.
“Notwithstanding anything contained in sections 41 to 44 (both inclusive) of the Army Act, no member of the armed forces of the union shall be arrested for anything done or purported to be done by him in the discharge of his official duties, except after obtaining the consent of the central government,” the officer said.
He said army personnel carry liquor with due permits from the army and travelling on trains with liquor is not illegal under the RPF Act.
“Besides, the Patna high court has held that possession of liquor is not illegal under the existing Excise Act in Bihar. As such, all these arrests for possession are illegal and will remain so till the new, more stringent law comes into force. It hasn’t been notified till date,” said another army officer.
Though the Bihar Excise Act does not intrude into the cantonment areas, a letter by the excise commissioner to top army officials in Bihar and Jharkhand, inspector generals of paramilitary forces and NCC directorate made it explicitly clear that anyone found drinking or possessing liquor outside would face action.
This resulted in several army men being arrested while in transit. More than 20,000 jawans of the Bihar Regiment are posted in far-flung areas of different sectors, including Jammu and Kashmir, northeast region.
“In such a case, when they get sudden order to move or get leave, they enter Bihar with liquor, oblivious of the fact that it could land them in jail,” said another top army official.
The rumblings in the army comes on the heels of the Bihar police men’s association threatening mass leave if its demand for revocation of suspension of 11 SHOs for alleged dereliction of duty in implementation of liquor ban is not considered by the government before August 28. The 11 SHOs were suspended on August 5.
The Bihar government imposed a total ban on alcohol across the state on April 5.