//Seven soldiers convicted of cowardice

Seven soldiers convicted of cowardice

Vijay Mohan, Tribune News Service, Chandigarh, February 19

Seven Army personnel have been convicted for cowardice for lapses which killed a Brigadier and nearly annihilated the Northern Command top brass during a terrorist attack at an Army camp near Akhnoor in July 2003, it is learnt.

Besides, administrative action has been initiated against the then commanding officer and another officer of the battalion concerned for failure of effective command and control, sources revealed.

This is, perhaps, the first instance of its kind, where troops have been court-martialled for showing cowardice in operations other than a declared war.

The jawans were tried by separate courts martial and were awarded varying sentences of rigorous imprisonment and cashiering from service. The last of the trials concluded in Jammu and Kashmir last month. Eight personnel, including three junior commissioned officers had faced charges under Section 34-C of the Army Act. One of the soldiers was acquitted.

Cowardice is among the most serious charges that can be levied against military personnel and, under provisions of the Army Act, is punishable by death. Section 34 of the Act deals with offences in relation to the enemy which are punishable by death. Part-C is a charge that a person, in the presence of the enemy, shamefully casts away his arms, ammunition, tools or equipment or misbehaves in such a manner as to show cowardice.

It may be recalled that Brig V.K. Govil, an EME officer, was killed when three terrorists stormed an Army camp in Tanda on July 22, 2003. GOC-in-C, Northern Command, Lieut-Gen Hari Prasad, GOC of the Nagrota Corps, Lieut-Gen T.P.S. Brar and five officers, including two Major-Generals, were injured. Seven jawans had also lost their lives. Two terrorists were killed initially, but a third remained hidden within the camp and lobbed grenades when the top brass visited the site a few hours later. The incident had occurred at the location of an Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) battalion.

All eight personnel who faced trial were members of the battalion’s quarter guard or the quick reaction team (QRT). A court of inquiry conducted into the incident by the commander of an infantry brigade had recommended disciplinary action against those concerned.

Army personnel deployed in counter-insurgency areas having been tried on charges of cowardice had been unheard of earlier. No such cases are known to have been initiated even during major campaigns like Operation Vijay in Kargil, where two officers were convicted for disobedience of lawful command, or Operation Pawan in Jaffna, where troops had witnessed some of the bloodiest battles.

Sources revealed that evidence produced during the trial suggested that several members of the quarter guard and QRT had abandoned their positions when the militants stormed the camp and opened fire. Some had locked themselves in rooms, fled through rear windows or even used brass planters lying around to cover themselves. The hooter to raise the alarm, too, did not work.

Sources said that it was also brought out during the trials that during the fracas, a young officer of the same unit had shown courage and presence of mind. He snatched a rifle from a floundering soldier and returned fire at the militants. Only one EME trooper had taken up position befittingly and opened fire. He, however, died unsung at his post. Further, two troopers on guard duty at an adjoining cavalry unit reacted to the situation and engaged the militants.