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The other side

We don’t know the full story about Sukna land scam and I certainly don’t claim I do. But the more I discover the more I feel that our initial judgement was unfair. One day, I hope, the truth will emerge, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2010 23:50 IST

Things are never quite what they seem. For example, the press has decided Lt Gen Avadhesh Prakash, the former military secretary, is a ‘tainted’ officer. Since I don’t know the full truth he may well be. But when you consider what I do know that’s hardly the most suitable adjective. Instead, you might conclude he’s more sinned against than sinning.

After three months of silence, Prakash has revealed his story in a Devil’s Advocate interview to be broadcast tonight on CNN-IBN. Consider what he says and then ask if there are grounds for changing your view.

First, the court of inquiry that established the facts against him. Army regulation 518 requires that if the character or reputation of an officer is at stake, the presiding officer, wherever possible, should be senior whilst the other members must be at least equivalent in rank. In Prakash’s case the presiding officer was also a Lieutenant General but junior in service. The others, however, were Major Generals and unquestionably junior in rank. So 518 was clearly breached.

Equally importantly, army rule 180 mandates that evidence that can damage an officer’s reputation must be recorded in his presence. In Prakash’s case the court of inquiry ignored this stipulation. He claims several witnesses lied. In his absence they felt free to do so.

On appeal, the Armed Forces Tribunal has re-opened the inquiry but only six witnesses will be re-examined and, most significantly, the presiding officer and members will remain unchanged. Will the inquiry alter its original finding or stand by it? A most moot point, but critical for Prakash.

Second, Prakash feels he’s been unfairly treated by the army chief. I don’t know the other side’s version but here’s Prakash’s. To begin with, Prakash says the chief did not apply his mind to the reply he sent to the show cause notice. The chief responded to it in three working days whereas, earlier, he took nearly three weeks to respond to the inquiry’s report. Next, Prakash claims the chief was not telling the truth when he told me, two weeks ago, that he ordered disciplinary action on the basis of Prakash’s response. The letter of January 29, which notified such action, begins: “(The) show cause notice issued to you… is hereby cancelled.” If the notice was cancelled then the reply to it cannot have been considered.

Most importantly, Prakash claims the chief’s decision to switch from administrative to disciplinary action is a violation of military policy in operation since 1993. A letter from the additional directorate general (Discipline and Vigilance) to all army command headquarters, dated 11 May 1993 no. 32908/AG/DV-1, states: “It is clarified that once the competent authority after having applied his mind to the full facts of the case decides to initiate administrative action and such action has commenced … at this stage to revert to disciplinary action is not only unjustified but also legally unsustainable.”

None of this diminishes the impropriety of Prakash’s own behaviour. As he accepts in the interview, it does look bad in hindsight although he insists that at the time it was innocent. There are legitimate questions raised by his contacts with the Sukhna developers and his answers may not be fully satisfactory. But do they call for a court martial or a censure? And does any of this excuse the shoddiness of the inquiry or what followed?

We don’t know the full story and I certainly don’t claim I do. But the more I discover the more I feel that our initial judgement was unfair. One day, I hope, the truth will emerge.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 27, 2010 23:40 IST