The farce of Police Gallantry Award nominations
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is one of India’s largest paramilitary forces, operating in all zones of conflict—in Jammu & Kashmir, in Naxal-affected states, and in the Northeast. Often, many CRPF soldiers are from such areas themselves. They take on a big risk by joining the force, given the threats their families sometimes have to face from insurgent groups. In the recent suicide attack on a CRPF camp in Kashmir Valley, one of the five slain soldiers belonged to a Naxal-affected part of Jharkhand. Likewise, many men who come from J&K serve with the CRPF in Naxal-affected regions.
Under an unwritten policy of such forces, those who brave adverse circumstances to sign up and serve their country are encouraged so that they feel proud of their decision. But on the ground, sadly, things are far from ideal. More often than not, those serving at the lower rungs are frustrated because of low salaries, pathetic working conditions and the apathy of senior officers.
What follows is a sordid tale from the Naxal belt of Bihar where a senior CRPF officer, a senior Indian Police Service officer and an inspector connived to get themselves nominated for the prestigious President’s Police Medal for Gallantry (PPMG), while sidelining two brave soldiers from J&K. There is clear evidence to suggest that the senior IPS officer and the inspector were not even present at the site of the operation for which their names were recommended for the medal. And the person blowing their lid is a young officer of the CRPF itself.
On the night of 1 January 2012, Charlie Company of the 205 Battalion of Cobra, the anti-Naxal wing of the CRPF, received specific information on the presence of a Naxal squad in a jungle under Chutia Police Station of Bihar’s Rohtas district. Immediately, two teams of the force under the command of Deputy Commandant TN Singh swung into action. At about 2 am, the Cobra team of over two dozen men proceeded in three vehicles towards Matiyaon, about 10 km from Chutia Police Station. They were accompanied by two policemen from the Nauhatta Police Station. It is an operational necessity in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) areas that paramilitary forces be accompanied by state police personnel on an operation. They used headlights while travelling through the villages. Later, as per standard operating procedure, they switched them off and moved slowly, guided by torchlight shone by a soldier sitting next to the first vehicle’s driver. Afterwards, they walked stealthily for about 3 km through the jungle. While one of the teams, Team 9, stayed behind, five members of Team 8, led by TN Singh, moved forward. Over a small bridge, identified as ‘Pulia No 119’, they spotted a Naxal sentry who too saw them and alerted his squad. Within seconds, the Cobra team came under fire. The five, Deputy Commandant TN Singh, his radio operator Shailendra, constables Birju, Imtiaz and Mohammed Ramzan, took position in two places. A fierce fight ensued in which handgrenades were lobbed as well. It lasted about 20 minutes. Three Naxals died, one of them under odd circumstances, while a young Naxal guerilla, Sushil Kumar Chaudhary, was arrested.
Of the four who fought alongside TN Singh, two are from J&K: Imtiaz and Mohammed Ramzan. Two days later, a deputy inspector general identified as Umesh Kumar visited the soldiers and said that the two boys from Kashmir should be recommended for Gallantry awards. But when the final list was made, their names were not included. The list had the names of TN Singh and Birju, apart from two others who were not even present at the encounter: Rohtas Superintendent of Police Manu Maharaj and Chutia Police Station in-charge Arun Kumar Akela.
The injustice went unopposed for about a year. The overlooked jawans did not raise an objection. They were resigned to their fate, telling themselves that this was how the system worked. They stayed on in the force, but their morale fell. On crucial operations, they lost their will to take any initiative. It affected the morale of other jawans as well.
It was on an operation of the same company in the dangerously Naxal-affected Latehar district of Jharkhand that an assistant commandant of the CRPF noticed that his boys were just not interested in doing their job; they seemed to be dragging their feet. The CRPF officer’s name is Praveen Kumar. He has a Master’s in International Relations from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and had joined the CRPF with a single mission: to make a difference in Naxal areas, to change the local population’s perception of India and its paramilitary forces. One day in Latehar, exasperated by his sluggish jawans, he asked them: “Itna chotu jaisa kyun ban gaye ho?” Why had they turned so useless? It was then that the men revealed to him why they were so put off.
Once they were back in Rohtas, Praveen assembled his men and had them talk openly about the night of 1 January—an exercise that he recorded on his video camera. In that exchange, a copy of which is with Open, several jawans spoke up and make it clear that SP Manu Maharaj and Inspector Arun Kumar Akela played no role in the encounter, and it was more than three hours later that they arrived at the site. They testify that Maharaj and Akela did fire a few shots in the air, but this was much after the hostilities had ceased. Then Akela filed an FIR on the spot, falsely claiming that both he and the SP took part in the encounter.
The FIR reads like a comedy. In the first few lines, Akela claims that the whole operation was led by Manu Maharaj. On page 3, Akela claims that when they were proceeding towards the Naxal squad, a guerilla in black clothes saw them and shouted: “Arre Cobra commander, SP aur Chutia ka bada babu Akela police ke saath aaya hai. Yahin mauka hai in sabon ko maar do” (Hey, the Cobra commander, SP and Chutia’s main officer Akela have come with the police. This is the right time to kill all of them). What Akela forgot in his enthusiasm was that at about 5 am in the dense fog of that January night, it would not have been possible for the Naxal sentry to identify each individual, let alone how silly it would have been of him to alert his comrades with such a loud and longwinded message.
On page 7 of the FIR, Akela reports that the SP fired one round of his pistol and two of his AK-47 rifle, while Akela fired five rounds. The Cobra team, meanwhile, fired a total of 154 rounds plus five handgrenades. Imtiaz fired 26 rounds of his AK-47 rifle, while Ramzan fired 16. They lobbed one handgrenade each. The FIR goes on to describe in detail how bullets flew all around the policemen. On page 7, Akela states that the SP’s driver also fired one round. This is a blunder. According to the standard operation procedure, vehicles and drivers must be kept away from the main spot of the armed offensive. If the SP was in a vehicle, then how was it possible at all to catch the Naxal squad by surprise?
That is not all. Praveen then went on to record another conversation with one of the policemen from the Nauhatta Police Station who had accompanied the Cobra forces. Constable Arun Kumar Jha confirms at least twice that SP Maharaj and Inspector Akela were not present at the encounter. Later, Praveen assembles all his men once again and asks them to describe the sequence of events on the night of 1 January 2012. He reads parts of the FIR aloud and waves it at them.
Praveen: Isme bol rahe hein ki SP ne AK-47 aur Pistol donon se fire kiya (This says that the SP fired both his AK-47 [rifle] and Pistol)
One Jawan: Teen ghanta baad (three hours later) Laughter…
Another Jawan: … jab firing khatam ho gaya (after the firing had stopped)
In the first video shot on the CRPF campus, one of the jawans addresses Praveen and says: “Sir, aap poochche thhe na kaisa chotu jaisa ban gaye ho. Yahaan ka system ne bana diya hai” (Sir, you had asked why we have become so useless. The system here has made us so).
The most damning evidence of the farce is a video shot at the encounter site. It is daylight by now. Deputy Commandant TN Singh, without realising that the camera is on video mode, speaks to the SP on his mobile phone, guiding him to the exact spot: “Akelaji aa gaye hein, Sir… Matiyaon ke opposite mein, pul ke neeche… Jeep saawdhani se seedhe chale aayiye” (Akela has arrived, Sir… it is opposite Matiyaon, underneath the bridge… drive the Jeep carefully, straight). In another clipping, at two spots, gunshots reverberate in the air while jawans stand at ease just a little away. The bodies of the slain Naxals are visible too. These are the shots the SP and inspector had fired later.
Open also spoke independently to the two jawans from J&K who fought along with their deputy commandant in the operation. Mohammed Ramzan testifies that both Maharaj and Akela reached the site at least three hours later—after TN Singh had informed them of it via his mobile phone. “I never imagined that they would include their names along those who conducted that operation. It was only later when I read their names in the FIR that I realised what they were up to,” Ramzan says. “Humko bahut feeling hua (I felt very bad),” he says, “We were initially told that our names would be sent for the Gallantry awards, but later nothing happened.”
The other jawan, Imtiaz, corroborates Ramzan’s version of events. “The SP was told over the phone. He came later and fired in the air pointing his rifle at the hills,” he says.
“I felt that since we are from Kashmir, we were not recommended for this award,” says Ramzan. He and Imtiaz are speaking freely for the first time since the incident. This is because they feel that a senior officer is finally ready to stand up for them. On his part, Praveen says that all he wants right now is justice for his boys. He has sent a formal complaint to various agencies, including the Director General of the CRPF, the Prime Minister’s Office and President of India, citing the evidence he has gathered to show how records were fudged for two police officers to get Gallantry awards. Writes Praveen in his formal complaint: ‘So who will and why put self life (sic) on the edge of death in such risky operations? These are a few lines which I heard from the subordinate officers and Jawans which poses the real picture of fading faith and trust in the nomination for gallantry medals and other rewards.’ Another question is Deputy Commandant TN Singh’s motive. What interest does a senior CRPF officer have in falsely stating that a state police officer led an operation that was actually under his own command? The answer lies in the faulty hierarchy of police forces in India. It is common for paramilitary officers to ingratiate themselves with IPS officers, even those with less experience on the job, because the latter ascend the hierarchy faster and are often deputed to the forces in positions of power.
The CRPF has not responded to a questionnaire sent to its Director General. But sources say that the two J&K jawans will now be recommended for the DG’s Commendation Disc, a decision they say has been taken recently. It is another matter that two other jawans of the same company got the same honour for the same operation months ago. Bihar’s Principal Secretary (Home) Amir Subhani, when contacted, says he does not act on the hearsay of journalists.
There has been a lot of pressure on Praveen Kumar since the fraud-peddling officers learnt that he is ‘up to something.’ “The SP has called me many times, asking me if my complaint has gone beyond Bihar,” he says. On record, both Maharaj and Akela stick to their version of events when contacted by Open. “Facts are being concocted,” says Manu Maharaj. But going by the evidence, it is he who has tried to do exactly that.
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