During his two-day visit to Kashmir – his first since the Centre declared a unilateral Ramadan ceasefire with militants – Army Chief General Bipin Rawat enquired in detail into how a decorated officer of Rashtriya Rifles 53 battalion, Major Leetul Gogoi, had landed in the mess that resulted in his detention by the police in Dalgate area of Srinagar on Wednesday.
After a complaint, Gogoi had been detained along with a Kashmiri soldier, who was used as his driver, in the company of a teenage girl from Hotel Grand Mamta. They were subjected to questioning before the two Army personnel were handed over to their unit on the intervention of a Srinagar-based Corps Commander.
A day earlier, a Court of Inquiry (COI) was ordered on his direction, General Rawat grilled General Officer Commanding Victor Force, Commander of Sector-10 and Commanding Officer of RR 53 Bn at headquarters of Chinar Corps. Knowledgeable sources revealed to The Quint that an extremely furious General Rawat asked how an officer, who had been decorated in May 2017 with Chief of Army Staff’s Commendation Card for his counterinsurgency services, had gone to stay for a night at a hotel in a congested civilian population area in Srinagar.
The Chief’s concern, according to sources, was that Major Gogoi, a familiar face in the Valley, could have been honey-trapped, kidnapped by militants to seek the release of dreaded terrorists, shot dead or lynched by a mob.
Gogoi had courted major controversy in April 2017 for tying a civilian to the hood of his jeep, ostensibly to protect his patrol and polling staff from the fury of stone-pelters. That act, unprecedented in the Army’s history, had left the Valley outraged.
According to these sources, all the three officers in the meeting denied having any knowledge of Gogoi’s escapades in Srinagar and claimed that none of them had given him permission to travel to the capital city without security, nor for staying at a hotel for a night.
It was made clear that Gogoi’s area of operation in RR 53 Bn was Beerwah area of Budgam district. The girl had been picked up from her village, which falls in the operational jurisdiction of RR 02 Bn. The girl, Maj Gogoi and other soldier had been picked up by the police from a hotel in Srinagar where the Army is not involved in any counterinsurgency operation.
Army Chief Assures Stringent Punishment for Wrongdoing
Finally, it was decided that COI, headed by a Major General, would hold a detailed investigation independent of the police probe being conducted by SP City (North), and the Army would take action on its findings. It was decided that Major Gogoi would be removed from his posting and would remain attached to a different office till completion of the inquiry.
Commandant of RR 53 Bn, Col AK Nair, would be transferred to a different state and given an insignificant under-command posting for “loopholes and lapses” in his command.
On a visit to Army Goodwill School in Pahalgam, General Rawat on Friday told reporters that the Army had always taken “very serious action” whenever an officer of any rank was found guilty of a wrongdoing.
General Rawat asserted while responding to a question:
If Major Gogoi is found guilty of anything wrong, I can assure you that as soon as possible, he will be awarded very stringent punishment. I will give him so harsh a punishment that it will remain as an example for the future.
Possible Punishments for Major Gogoi
The Army is understood to have learnt that Major Gogoi had booked a hotel room without necessary permission and knowledge of his superior officers, mentioned his full name and residence of Assam, declared himself a businessman and gave a teenage girl’s phone number as his contact number. He had booked the room for two guests for one night.
“It was his sheer good luck that he was removed from the hotel in a bulletproof vehicle of a nearby CRPF installation before the crowds could gather and lynch him to death,” said an officer.
Rules and standard operating procedures (SOPs) do not permit regular combat personnel of the Army to move or stay outside their units in any circumstances, though permission could be granted in very special cases.
Under Section 41 of the Army Act, 1950, Gogoi could be charged with “disobedience to a superior officer” if his superior officers had no information of his travelling and staying in Srinagar. On conviction by court martial, this attracts a sentence of 14 years or less. Even officers not on active duty can be sentenced to imprisonment of up to five years. Even if an officer is on leave, he is required to submit the address to which he is travelling to his seniors.
No Question of Gogoi Meeting a Female “Source”
Under Section 45 of Army Act, Gogoi’s unauthorised meeting with a civilian girl in a sensitive area can be determined as an “unbecoming act” attracting the punishment of imprisonment. Breach of trust in such cases warrants termination of service. Under Section 63, defaulter of misconduct and breach of military discipline is liable to imprisonment of upto 7 years by a court martial.
One of the Army’s Commanding Officers, who has served in Kashmir for 9 years, but is not authorised to speak to the press, told The Quint that it was none of Gogoi’s business to venture out in civvies and meet a teenage girl in a civilian population far away from his area of operation, in Srinagar.
“There’s no question of meeting with female sources. We interact with them through a different liaison, on phone or WhatsApp, as most of the terrorists have been trapped or neutralised through females. I don’t think that any senior officer can issue permission to such a meeting, that too in an area where the Army does not operate,” he said.
Even if such a meeting was extremely important, Gogoi could have spoken to the girl in his car, or met her at a crowded place where he would not have become a suspect. He could have met her at the airport, Boulevard, Mughal Gardens, Shankaracharya Hill. What was the need to call her to a hotel?Source to The Quint
He asserted that normally such “source meetings” were the responsibility of specialised intelligence officials, not combat officers.
Not an Open-and-Shut Case
Police have revealed to the media that the girl’s statement under 164-A had been recorded before a judicial magistrate. She is said to have narrated that she had gone to meet the officer of her own free will. Even though her Aadhaar card showed her to be 19 years old, the police are verifying her date of birth with her school records. A class 11 dropout, she is said to have joined a self-help group in the State Rural Livelihood Mission with the help of the soldier who drove her to Gogoi’s hotel.
Living in a ramshackle tin shack, the girl’s parents and three younger brothers are nervous about the media crews hounding their family. The girl has been shifted to a relative’s home for security reasons.
Her mother Naseema claims that the soldier Sameer Malla, along with Major Gogoi, barged into her shack twice in the last two months — both times late at night.
“I fainted out of fear when they appeared for the first time and began talking to my daughter,” she said.
“On Wednesday she (her daughter) said that she would go to the bank at Narbal. She didn’t return till late. In the afternoon, our Sarpanch received a phone call from the police who informed him that she was in their custody in Srinagar. It appears that Sameer has trapped her,” Naseema said.
“Under the reported circumstances, the Major’s malafide intentions are prima facie evident. The police can’t close the chapter just by proving her to be over 18 years of age. It’s not an issue of consent. It has to be seen if her supposed consent (to meet and stay with the Major) was under any duress, criminal solicitation, harassment, money or any other offer. It can be a case of exploitation of this family’s squalid conditions. It can be a case of trafficking and violation of Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act,” said a senior criminal lawyer who wished to remain anonymous.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz.)