NEW DELHI — Close to a year after a woman from Mumbai complained that an army officer, Lieutenant Colonel M. Nagaraj, had molested her inside a Rashtriya Rifles garrison in Kashmir, the Indian Army has informed her that the inquiry could “neither prove nor disprove allegation of molestation.”
At around 1:00 am on the intervening night of 2-3 January 2018, the complainant alleges, Col. Nagaraj brushed against her breasts and groped her thrice at a New Year’s Party at the Officers’ Mess of the garrison in Manasbal.
The Indian Army informed the complainant of its decision after she sent two emails in November, asking where the Court of Inquiry’s (COI) probe stood, and requesting the COI panel of officers to continue with her cross-examination, which had been pending since June, via a written questionnaire.
An Indian Army spokesperson has not responded to HuffPost India’s emailed queries on the COI proceedings and conclusion.
Rather than communicate with her directly, the 34-year-old woman told HuffPost India, Brigadier V.T. Mathew, Director General Vigilance and Commission, phoned her husband Deepak Singh on 20 November and informed him of the army’s decision. He also sent him WhatsApp messages on 8 December, reiterating the content of the phone conversation.
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“An army officer has been accused of molesting a woman. The other officers have been accused of hiding information. And the authorities have not given a fair and equal opportunity to the victim,” the complainant told HuffPost India in an interview. “This is very wrong. Does this not matter to the Chief of Army staff?”
“This is a critical matter. It shows how the Indian Army takes charges of molestation. They are not serious about it,” she said.
This is very wrong. Does this not matter to the Chief of Army staff?
The complainant has emailed senior army officials, asking them how the inquiry was concluded without her being involved in the proceedings.
On 11 December, she wrote, “On what basis the COI concluded and molestation charges were not proved, when the mere/basic requisite for cross questioning- the questionnaire was not provided?”
The complainant, despite repeated requests to the army, has still not received the statement of the accused, statement of witnesses, or any transcripts or video recordings of the proceedings.
In her earlier email to senior-ranking officers, including the presiding officer of the COI, Brigadier Pravin Kumar, the complainant wrote about how a COI session at the army headquarters in Colaba, Mumbai, which had lasted over 15 hours, ended.
“At 1.30 am in the night, the conducting officer Lt. Col Yadav, on 9th June/10th June hearing, asked us to sign a false document stating that we received the copy of the statement of the witnesses. He reminded us that we are in an army base and just a couple, with 5-6 army men around. Mr. Pravin Kumar, you held up a woman till 1.30 am, are you aware what liability you could attract?” she wrote.
As of 2 January, the complainant has not been reimbursed for the money, approximately Rs 85,000, which she and her husband spent on flight tickets and a hotel booking in Kashmir, when she was summoned back to the army garrison for the first COI hearing.
“Your promises of conveyance reimbursement, was just a distant dream,” she wrote in her email in November. “Request you to please upraise us and send us the much-awaited questionnaire to be cross questioned via the same.”
This is a critical matter. It shows how the Indian Army takes charges of molestation. They are not serious about it.
The year of COI
In October, HuffPost India reported on how the army had failed to address an allegation of molestation levelled by the Mumbai-based woman against an army officer stationed in Manasbal, Kashmir.
While filing a complaint with the local police in Jammu and Kashmir, the complainant also sought action against him from the army.
The woman, a freelance content writer, was summoned to multiple COI hearings in which she was questioned about how much liquor she had consumed and whether she was smoking on the day she was allegedly molested, and which side of her butt was groped by Lt. Col. Nagaraj.
The army officers who conducted the first COI in Kashmir, the complainant discovered, were ill-prepared, unaware of the details of her case, and unsure of the army rules for conducting such an inquiry.
In one session, conducted via a video-conference between Mumbai and Kashmir, the camera panned to Lt. Col. Nagaraj, which forced the complainant to face the accused, who then proceeded to question her. In the session that lasted 15 hours, the complainant, who was dealing with a difficult pregnancy and prescribed bedrest by her doctor, did not have easy access to a restroom.
In June, after five lengthy and stressful COI sessions, the complainant felt that she was risking her pregnancy in the process. The complainant, on Brigadier Mathew’s advice, requested a written questionnaire.
The army then asked the complainant to get her gynaecologist’s prescription – advising bedrest – signed by a government officer and submit it to the COI. The complainant refused, fearing that her gynaecologist’s personal details would be compromised. In the early stage of the inquiry, the army had handed over her statement, which had her home address, to the accused.
The complainant asked for an army representative to examine the medical prescription at her home and requested a written questionnaire.
After six months of silence, the army has informed the complainant that her allegation of molestation could not be proved. The army has not explained how or why such a conclusion was reached. Instead, in this matter, the army has told her to stick with the police and the courts.
“I took a stand for such a long time, during a critical pregnancy, and the army is saying this lady’s charges are false. They are saying that I made up a story. No, I did not,” she said in the interview.
They are saying that I made up a story. No, I did not.
The complainant has pointed out it was not her concern if the army wanted to take “disciplinary action” against Lt. Col. Nagaraj. Her sole concern was her allegation of molestation against him.
“I don’t want him to get punished this way or that way. I want him to get punished for what he has done. The army cannot deny my charges. You have taken me to task. You have not taken him to task,” the complainant said in the interview.
“You have dissolved the Court of Inquiry without telling me. There is no one who is replying to my emails. Everyone has disappeared in thin air,” she said. “This is filth. It’s a rotten pond. It stinks. It is dirty.”
You have taken me to task. You have not taken him to task.
On 8 December, ten days after they had spoken on the phone, Matthew sent WhatsApp messages to her husband, essentially reiterating the phone conversation with her husband.
In an email to Brigadier Mathew, sent on 11 December, the complainant wrote, “You are communicating on a different digital platform with my husband, when my communication is with you directly.”
“On what basis the COI concluded and molestation charges were not proved, when the mere/basic requisite for cross questioning-the questionnaire was not provided?” she wrote.
“My statement is well worded and clearly states the scene, timing of the crime event and the army personnel present, who are now hedged. I will not shy away by feeling guilty or shame, for something that has been done wrong to me. I still go through the trauma but I will fight,” she wrote.
As of 2 January the army has not responded to the complainant’s email.
Reproduced below is the army’s response to HuffPost India’s questions regarding the COI, sent in October.
‘Belling the cat’
A retired army colonel, who has conducted multiple COIs, described the army’s response as abysmal.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the colonel said, “If you look at it from a neutral point of view, the army wants to deliver justice, it is easier to do it on procedural lapses rather than the main charge,” he said.
The colonel, however, added the manner of conducting the inquiry and the army’s treatment of the complainant was “unacceptable.”
“No one is behaving properly. No one is trying to bell the cat. Is the case being hushed up? Why have the details of the proceedings not been shared with the complainant? Is the army cooperating with the police investigation?” the colonel said.
“If the complainant was not behaving properly in court then why were contempt proceedings not initiated?” he asked.
Is the case being hushed up? Why have the details of the proceedings not been shared with the complainant?
Previously, with reference to the COIs, the colonel told HuffPost India that it was highly irregular for a COI to extend over multiple sessions and for the complainant to be denied transcripts and video recordings or the proceedings.
“Once you have given the statement, when you have been cross-examined, and thereafter you are making a plea that you cannot appear for the COI, the court should have taken due cognisance of the fact and excused you from appearing in the inquiry,” he said at the time.
The colonel added, “Prolonging it for such a long time, inconveniencing the people involved, gives out ulterior motive of delaying and denying justice.”
The complainant says that she does not intend on giving up.
“I don’t want to give up at all, even with this four-day-old baby girl of mine, but I will never give up. These guys just cannot be allowed to get away with mistreating a woman. I want him to get punished for the charges of molestation,” she said.
Lt. Col. M. Nagaraj is still posted in Kashmir.