In the early part of 1970, two gunners from the Indian Army, Sarvan Dass and Aya Singh, were spying for Pakistan. When they were arrested in 1978, the duo confessed before the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and was handed over to the Military Intelligence (MI). Once under the military, they were put to third-degree torture for their crime. To escape the torture, the two men named around 50 officials from within the Army. And then all hell broke loose.
On the night of January 22, 1979 when the 168 Infantry Brigade officials were summoned by telephone, they found it odd, but appeared at the office in uniform. The next morning, wives of those officers were handed over their husbands’ caps and belts, with the vague news that their spouses had been arrested. The reason was not communicated.
Finally, when the reason broke, it stunned the entire nation for the sheer scale of the scandal. The entire officer cadre of the unit was implicated.
Between August 24, 1978, and January 23, 1979, over 50 people from the 168 Infantry Brigade and its subordinate units at Samba, near Jammu, were arrested on espionage charges, for helping the enemy. At the behest of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (MI), a Brigadier, three Lieutenant Colonels and quite many Majors, Captains, Junior Commissioned Officers ( JCOs), Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and personnel of other ranks, including 11 civilians were arrested.
In this espionage, that came to be known as the Samba case, the suspects were accused of spying between 1973 and 78. It had started right after the Simla Accord, the Indo-Pak War of 1971. Spying from either nation was going in full swing, and the scandal just fell in place, no questions asked.
From the arrested lot, a few of them admitted their ‘crime’, to escape torture with the hope that an inconsistent story would help absolve them when their case came up for hearing. Nonetheless, they were subjected to extreme torture before the court martial.
The news shook the nation; it was the biggest espionage case in Independent India, and the sheer number of people implicated in the case flummoxed people. The stink started rising when the dead body of accused Havaldar Ram Swaroop was found near the Army cantonment area on October 1, 1978. Swaroop was brought to the interrogation centre on September 24, 1978 and when he succumbed to his torture injuries, his lifeless body was thrown onto the street. Post-mortem reports revealed 44 injury marks, including electric burns on his body.
A few months later, the two spies Sarvan Dass and Aya Singh were released from jail, earning their full salary. They were reinstated in their jobs, while the accused officers were sentenced to between seven and 14 years in prison. Some of them were dismissed from service.
The biggest blot in the Indian military justice, the Samba scandal cut short the careers of many army personnel for the mere falsehood of a bunch of liars. Among them was Major NR Ajwani, then an officer with the Judge Advocate Generals Department in Udhampur. Ironically, he was branded a spy when he pointed at discrepancy in one of the accused spies.
In September 1978, while conducting the court martial of gunner Om Prakash in an espionage case, Major Ajwani told the MI officers that he was rejecting the written confession of the gunner for it felt extracted under pressure. The MI responded by first transferring the Judge Advocate to Pune, and eventually having him arrested on false charges of spying for Pakistan.
Despite numerous indicators that there had been a miscarriage of justice, the army remained unperturbed. In 1994, Sarwan Dass swore an affidavit and appeared at a press conference to admit that he had concocted the spy ring to escape torture.
In 2000, the Delhi High Court gave a clean chit to the nine officers implicated in the Samba scandal. But in 2014, the Supreme Court quashed the High Court order and upheld the termination of the officers.