Almost a quarter century ago, the Samba Spy Case rocked the military establishment of this country. The testimony of two convicted spies put 42 soldiers, of all ranks, in the dock, led to the death of at least one man in custody, the removal of most of the accused from service, and the sentencing of six officers to varying terms of Rigorous Imprisonment (RI). Last year, the Delhi High Court acquitted all the accused in the Samba Spy Case of all charges. The Government of India, acting for the Indian Army, has appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Avtar Singh meets Capt RS Rathaur, one of the men who went to jail, without, as the Delhi High Court put it, a shred of evidence against him.

 

17th August, 1978. Captain R.S. Rathaur, attached to 11 Garhwal Rifles in Kamptee, Pune, is asked to proceed to New Delhi. The reason given is that he needs a new identity card. Though he finds this a slim reason to proceed immediately to New Delhi, he doesn’t question the order. A career intelligence officer, he reasons that he is required for a new assignment.

When he reaches Delhi, a Deputy Director in Military Intelligence, a Lt. Colonel Grewal, fobs him off a couple of times, saying his card isn’t ready. Finally, on the 24th of August, he is asked to proceed to the Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre. A Major Uppal gives him a ride, because he says his wife is in the hospital there, and he’s going there anyway. Once they reach the centre, armed men surround Capt Rathaur, he is handcuffed, and in a macabre touch, a hood is placed over his head. “Am I under arrest?” he shouts. “If I am, then why?”

No reason is given. Indian law stipulates that a man be told the reason for his arrest at the time of his arrest. Capt Rathaur will not be told why he has been arrested till the torture begins.

 

LIKE THIEVES IN THE NIGHT

Today, Capt Rathaur is the model of the military uncle we all have in our family or social circles. He stands straight, has a natty military moustache: even his vocal delivery is clipped. His voice, though modulated, seems very capable of administering a rebuke to any subordinate caught bending, either on the parade ground, or in the pursuance of his duties. His avuncularity brings to mind a thousand scenes of mess hall nights that even us civilians recognize, from the cinema and from first person accounts of people who may or may not have been there.

The model is deceptive.

He stands straight by virtue of his own forbearance. The military intelligence (MI) officers who questioned him did their best to break his body as well as his spirit. His ankle was broken in custody; he was beaten all over his body with shoes and sticks. He tells me of another accused man, Balkar Singh, who lost his fingernails to the pliers of his inquisitors.

His voice struggled to make itself heard for the eleven years he spent in custody. In the MI dungeons and in Tihar, amongst men who were inside for rape and murder and pillage; a voice raised in command is not necessarily an asset. Frequently, it broke under the strain. “I cried,” he remembers. Many times.

The rank itself was in question. Before going to jail, Capt Rathaur was cashiered. That means he was stripped of his rank, and deprived of his pension. “It was humiliating,” is all he will say. His wife, an army officer’s wife, was reduced to living in penury. The rank was returned to him, along with his pension benefits, when he was released from jail, in 1989. Perhaps to keep him quiet, perhaps as a grudging admission of culpability by the military authorities (Rajiv Gandhi, then the Prime Minister, had ordered a review of the case in 1986). He doesn’t know. He still wonders why.

In his office in the middle of Delhi, with his daughters and the employees of his security and courier company around him, in the midst of a life he has salvaged from the wreckage of the last 23 years, I sit there and wonder at his tenacity. I have read the books, scanned the articles. I can recite what has happened to him like some inverted litany of misfortune. Yet he sits there and laughs, and recalls facts for me without flinching, and clearly relishes the business of being alive, right now.

In the days preceding our meetings, I have spoken with many people about him. People who don’t know him, and people who do. To the people who didn’t know him, I posed a question. What would matter most to a man who’s been put in jail for more than 10 years, for a crime the Delhi High Court says he didn’t commit? Put another way, what would he resent most? What would he most want changed?

“Freedom has a value,” said most. You want those years back, when you were peering between bars. True enough.

“The time you lose with your family,” said others. He had a wife, two young daughters, one still only a baby when he was arrested. He didn’t see his family growing up. Fair enough.

And yet, there was something else. Something I knew was there.

“They took my honour,” he says.

It’s really that simple.

“Like thieves in the night, they robbed me of my honour and my pride.”

A military professional. An officer and a gentleman. A man accused of spying and convicted of treason. Tortured, cashiered, jailed, forgotten.

Every man needs a pillar or two to build his life around. You ask an artist, he has his artistic integrity. You ask a father, he has his family and the conviction that his family is his own. You ask a priest, he has his faith.

The Army man has his honour, his duty to the country (no matter what you think of that concept), his patriotism. What happens when those things are questioned, or even taken away?

What would you base your life around?

 

WHERE’S MY HUSBAND?

Swaran Rathaur is only a voice on a telephone to me. In the time I spent in Delhi, I didn’t get to meet her, but in the things I’ve read, I’ve learnt about the part the Captain’s wife played. And what a hand it has been.

Her husband left home on the 17th of August, 1978, leaving her with two young daughters. She knew something wasn’t right by the end of the month. It wasn’t until 21st October, 1978, that the Director MI, Maj. Gen Kaul, wrote a response to her frantic letters, saying that her husband was in perfect health, but it was not advisable for her to meet him. A further three months would elapse, with her running from pillar to post, spending money she didn’t have, before she saw her husband, supposedly revelling in his ‘perfect health’.

In desperation, she had contacted her brother in Dehradun, who had, along with her, taken to pestering the Army authorities. Finally, on the 22nd of January, 1979, she, along with her brother and her mother-in-law, made the long journey up to Nagrota, in Jammu and Kashmir, the headquarters of 16th Corps. The Samba Brigade, which Capt Rathaur had been serving in at the time of his alleged treason four years previously, is part of this corps.

He shambled into the room where he met his family, a broken man. His leg was obviously broken, his face bore the marks of beatings; he cried when he saw them. He spoke to them of being tortured by men he had served with: he named Major SC Jolly, Major Solanki and Captain Sudhir Talwar, all attached to the MI directorate. He told them that his brother officers had told the rankers in the dungeon to beat him with their shoes and chappals, that he was called ‘a son of a pig’ and a ‘son of a bitch spy’ by men who had served under him. He was kept standing for days.

“I was hallucinating,” he told me. “I would see myself lying dead on the floor. At other times, I would imagine myself as the Director MI, ordering my own release. My feet swelled up like balloons. All I wanted was to lie down, to be allowed to sleep.”

He told his wife he had tried to kill himself, rather than bear any more of the pain (his Corp Commander of the time, Lt General Chiman Singh, would later confirm the fact that he thought the men had been tortured while in MI custody. That would be one more reason for Lt General Chiman Singh to dispute the cashiering and convictions of the accused). Capt Rathaur had already spent five months in solitary confinement. Aside from brief periods of parole on compassionate grounds, he wouldn’t come home till May 1989.

Without his pay, without any promise of him ever receiving a pension, and without the army to give her a home or her children a schooling, Mrs. Rathaur made do. She moved to New Delhi, to a modest home in Paharganj which she shared with her sister-in-law’s family, worked to put her children through school, and kept the promise of freedom and an acquittal alive. Through the days of being branded a spy’s wife, and the taunts her daughters’ were subjected to, Mrs. Swaran Rathaur kept her life and her family together. As the Captain puts it, she was a rock. Shorn of his honour, he needed a rock outside of himself to stay alive.

Question Of Honour: The Samba Spy Case, MW Archives
Being interviewed in Tihar jail by Sunita Mudgal, a journalist he quotes having been a source of inspiration

THE PECULIAR SITUATION  OF KANDRAL

Various commentators have made the point that the case against the Samba ‘Spies’ was based upon the testimony of two soldiers, gunners Aya Singh and Sarwan Das, who were both in jail serving sentences for spying themselves. A prominent Delhi journalist of the time called BM Sinha, in his book The Samba Spy Case (Vikas Publishing House), pointed out that these men had already been in the custody of MI for upwards of two years when, reeling from a sudden onslaught of “patriotic feeling” (as the transcript of the General Court Martial, or GCM, puts it), they implicated Major Gahlawat, and Captains Rana, Rathaur, and the rest. This happened in 1978, remember. The Samba Spy Ring was at its height, according to the two gunners, in 1974-75.

A peculiar disease, patriotism, obviously. It can lie latent under the guise of treason for a long time.

One of the more damning indictments of the GCM itself comes from the pen of Lt. Colonel Ved Prakash, who was one of the presiding officers of the trial. He went to the extent of writing a book, The Samba Spying Scandal (Spies, They Were Not) (Trishul Publications), in which he called the trial a farce, and called into question the entire apparatus and administering of military justice. He points out that Aya Singh’s testimony, corroborated only by Sarwan Das’s equally questionable evidence, was the lynchpin of the convictions and cashiering of all the ‘offending’ parties.

Aya Singh claimed that he was in the pay of the Pakistani services intelligence apparatus. He would co-opt one officer at a time, take him across the border to meet his Pakistani counterpart, who, by a combination of money and threats of exposure, would force the Indian officer to do his bidding. That officer would in turn tempt another across the border, using whatever means he had, and the whole merry process would be repeated. Aya Singh and Sarwan Das would name Majors Khan and Akhtar Mahmood of the Field Intelligence Unit (FIU) as their controllers in this cunning game, and would state that the two of them had personally turned Maj. Gahlawat, and Capts. Rana, Rathaur and Nagial.

Aya Singh would claim that he, a gunner, had invited Capts. Nagial and Rathaur for a marriage party, in the summer of 1974 (there is documentary proof with the Army that Capt Rathaur was on leave, in his village in Himachal Pradesh at the time). Then, ostensibly to leave behind a knife with a friend—because it is ‘inauspicious’ to take a knife to a wedding—he took them across the border to the Pakistani post of Gandial, where the nefarious ends of Pakistani intelligence were served by the turning of Rathaur by the infamous duo of Khan and Mahmood. Nagial, Aya Singh said, had already been turned, and was assisting Singh in his efforts (Nagial had already been named by Aya Singh as a spy before the Samba Scandal, and had been acquitted in a GCM).

Sarwan Das would later ‘independently’ corroborate this, saying Kandral was where Rathaur took Rana, in January 1975, and where the two of them would take the officers they wanted to recruit, to meet Khan and Mahmood.

While in the tender custody of MI, Capt Rathaur would state unequivocally, in signed statements, that he met his Pakistani controller in Kandral, and would systematically betray his country there.

All of this ignores the simple fact that Kandral is in India. It is not in Pakistan, and has never been.

Somewhere along the line in the MI cells, Capt Rathaur started to lie to his interrogators, in the hope that his lies, if corroborated in court by other liars, would serve to undermine the case against him. To put it another way, he was aware that his confessions would be used against him, so he did his best to make his confessions as outrageous as possible. As Lt. General Chiman Singh would later say, it is inconceivable that large numbers of Indian Army personnel were crossing the international border, as if to ‘play football’, or ‘go to the cinema’. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist or Perry Mason to spot the flaws in the case.

Things went exactly as Capt. Rathaur had foreseen. His testimony, extracted under torture, was systematically corroborated by the similarly obtained testimony of his fellow inmates (being in jail, he had no idea who they were, or how many were implicated), and by Aya Singh and Sarwan Das. All that the GCM had to do to realize it was all a giant sham, was to look at any  4-inch scale map of the Samba region, and see that Kandral was not a Pakistani post, and that Khan and Mahmood could not have been waiting there, with their blandishments and threats and suitcases bulging with Indian rupees. From Gandial, where Aya Singh says he took him, Capt. Rathaur in all his subsequent testimony changed the name to Kandral, and Kandral would be the “Pakistani” Border Out Post that all the others would say they had been taken to.

Capt Rathaur told me that he found out, subsequent to his trial, that there were dissenting voices in the Army itself as the trial progressed. Lt. General Gill, General Officer Commanding, Western Command, protested. Lt. General Chiman Singh, GOC 16th Corps, Nagrota, dissented. Maj. General (later Lt. General) SL Malhotra, commanding 26th Infantry Division, Jammu, raised his voice. Finally, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) KV Nair, Indian Army, himself protested.

The Indian Army still put Capt Rathaur away.

For two sentences of RI, to be served consecutively.

 

WHAT OFFICERS, WHAT  GENTLEMEN?

“He was kangaroo-courted,” says a man I met later. This affable man is a character, though he declined to be named in this article, as the matter itself is still sub-judice (the government, acting for the Indian Army, has appealed the decision of the Delhi High Court to the Supreme Court).

He is a civilian, an ex-policeman, who was intimately involved in the trial at the time. Aside from the Army personnel, there were civilians also supposedly involved, and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Jammu and Kashmir Police set up a joint team of enquiry, under an IB Deputy Director, to probe the spy ring. In addition, the IB has jurisdiction over espionage cases, and theoretically, the investigation into Capt. Rathaur’s guilt should have been conducted by the IB. What actually happened was that the IB was systematically denied access to the prisoners, and when they were allowed to meet them, there would always be an MI officer or two in close attendance. This access was only granted in late 1979, after the Army had already sentenced some of the officers to imprisonment, and that too after repeated letters from the Director IB to the Director MI.

The man I met is categorical in his denunciation. “The investigation was a sham. It was conducted contrary to all established procedure.” He makes the point that none of the civilians who were accused were found to be guilty of any wrongdoing by the joint team, which should have alerted the Army. T V Rajeswar became the Director IB in February 1980 (he would later serve as Governor of West Bengal and Sikkim), around the time the Army, in response to the joint team’s proposals to drop the remaining cases, had gone ahead and processed the cases against the remaining officers, leading to their cashiering and in some cases, imprisonment. Mrs. Gandhi referred a petition to him, emanating from the dependents of the accused, and he again advised her (she would sanction a review by the Ministry of Defence) that the Army had no case. The Army would short-circuit the review, however, by claiming it would be bad for ‘morale and military discipline’. Sending men to jail for treason, it must be assumed, is an excellent tonic for the Army’s spirits.

Rajeswar stated on record (in the Indian Express, Sunday, December 4, 1994) that in his opinion (and the IB’s) the Army had no or very little case against the men they prosecuted.

To the man I met, it is more personal. The enquiry was an insult to his intelligence, as he puts it. He tells me of crushed and beaten officers and rankers: of obviously coached witnesses, their stories changing in concert, every day. “I have nothing but contempt for the Army,” he told me. “These men pretend to be the defenders of the country, to be more moral than the rest of us: to be officers and gentlemen. They couldn’t defend their brother officers, how will they defend this bloody country?”

Good question.

 

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

So why, if the case was so weak, did the Army persist in the prosecution?

Some people have suggested that the Samba Spy Case was concocted by a few officers to deflect attention away from their own wrongdoings. These activities could have included espionage for Pakistan: it could have been something as innocuous as smuggling, which every border area is prone to, or the black-marketing of Army stores. Captain Rathaur has implicated certain officers (retired now) of MI who had known what was going on, had interrogated and tortured him, and had progressed rapidly in the Army hierarchy afterwards.

Others have suggested that it was a giant fabrication by Aya Singh and Sarwan Das to have their own sentences commuted. This theory ascribes a great deal of ingenuity to them, and a frightening credulity to the Army officers involved, but it has the merit, not common in conspiracy theories, of having worked. They were in fact charged only with being Away Without Official Leave, and set free, even though they were already incarcerated for spying (Aya Singh would be arrested for spying again, in 1985, proving that lightning can strike frequently in the same spot. At least in the Army).

But the most prevalent theory, voiced by my civilian friend above, and by everyone else I spoke with, including Capt Rathaur, is that the Army, once it knew the facts, simply didn’t want to own up that it was wrong.

“I blame the officers,” Capt Rathaur told me. “My CO, who never asked about me, the MI directorate, the generals at the time: all the way to the Chief himself (General OP Malhotra), who must have known that the Army had no case against us. If the Supreme Court rules against us, I may take them to civil court. I want them to stand there in the dock, and I’ll ask them, why didn’t you speak up? Why did you take my honour?”

The safeguarding of morale is an abstract thing. You can dismantle the entire intelligence network of a sector (which the Samba prosecution achieved, spectacularly. Majors Khan and Mahmood must have been pleased.) and say the good of the nation was served. But you can’t admit that you’ve backed the wrong guys in a criminal prosecution that leaves a man dead, and 41 other lives in your own Army curtailed.

Do you want revenge, I asked the Captain. Do you hate the Army?

No, he said. He doesn’t hate the Army. The Army was his mother. And he doesn’t want revenge. But he would like an apology. He wants the Chief of the time to come to him and say, Rathaur, the Army was wrong.

He can’t have his life back. Captain Ranbir Singh Rathaur knows that.

But it would be nice if the Army were to admit, after all these years, that he was never a spy.

This article was first published in the June 2001 issue