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Indian Naval War Room Leak Case Sends Jitters

By Nilofar Suhrawardy

NEW DELHI – Investigations being conducted on theft from navy offices, earlier reported last year, hit headlines last week (June 23) as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided 19 locations in four cities. The raided places in New Delhi, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam and Bhubaneshwar included premises of eight serving navy and army officers, a retired naval officer, and three bureaucrats in the defense ministry. While CBI denied reports of having searched certain offices in army and navy headquarters, it acknowledged that a large network of officials is involved in this case. “We have got hold of incriminating documents indicating a larger conspiracy and a wide network of defense officials involved in leaking sensitive information,” a CBI official said. The premises of arms dealer Abhishek Verma, who is also believed to be involved in sale of French Scorpene submarines to the navy, were also raided last week.

Raids were conducted on the basis of certain leads provided by investigation indicating that defense officials were giving out sensitive information in exchange for “gratifications.” “So far the documents and other evidence found during the raids has indicated that top defense officials were bribed with cash, electronic gadgets and other gifts in return for information provided by them,” a CBI official said.

The navy had last year conducted a probe when it was alleged that nine people were involved in leaking classified information relating to its planned purchase of a wide array of sophisticated equipment from the war room or Directorate of Naval Operations. Three officers – Captain Kashyap Kumar along with Commanders Virender Rana and Vinod Kumar Jha – were dismissed from naval service in October 2005 when a probe revealed they had sold classified information for commercial benefits. Kumar, described as its “mastermind,” headed the Directorate of Naval Operations, at the time of its leak. The government handed over the case to CBI on February 18 following allegations that middlemen involved in the war-room leak case were also linked with the Scorpene deal. CBI filed a case on April 6 under the Official Secrets Act and the Indian Penal Code. Developments led to the arrests of five people in April, including Commanders Rana & Jha (who were earlier dismissed), retired Lt. Cdr. Kulbhushan Parashar, Mukesh Bajaj and Rajrani Jaiswal.

One of the accused, Lt. Cdr. Ravi Shankaran, a nephew of navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, according to CBI is an arms dealer and an alleged recipient of the sensitive information stolen from the war room. When allegations against Shankaran surfaced, Prakash offered to resign, but the government turned down his request. Shankaran is absconding with no information about his whereabouts. On CBI’s request, Interpol has also issued a red corner notice against Shankaran, who at a point was thought to be in London.

The officers who faced the scanner last week included Commodore S.S. Bhiman, Commanders S.M. Hanchihal, A.K. Pandey and A.K. Patnaik, defense ministry under-secretaries Sushil Bagachia, Prem Shankar Mehra and R.S. Dodani, as also a lieutenant colonel and a major, neither of whom was named.

With CBI under increasing pressure from several quarters to act on the naval war leak and its possible connection with the Scorpene case, in the coming days, more raids and revelations are likely to hit the headlines. At present, the issue has given opposition parties enough reason to target the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Questioning the time taken by CBI to conduct raids, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani said: “We have been continuously saying that the naval war room leak case and the Scorpene deal are interconnected but the government maintained that there was no foul play. If that was the case, why did the CBI conduct raids a few days ago at places including those of people whose names have also been linked to the scam?” Demanding an explanation from the prime minister, Advani also said: “Why this delayed action? Was it an effort to give time to the accused to destroy evidence? After the raids, the CBI had said that the war room leak case was part of a larger conspiracy. I demand that the prime minister explain what that larger conspiracy is.” He was speaking at a party function organized to observe 31st anniversary of Emergency as “Save Democracy Day.”

Along the same line, former defense minister and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leader George Fernandes said: “CBI’s action, belated though it is, has fully indicated the firm and consistent stand taken by NDA in this matter.” He has also demanded explanation from the government on several questions, including the navy’s claim that certain “foreigners” are involved in this leak. “Who are these foreigners? Why has the government not named them so far? Why hasn’t it taken any action against them so far?” Fernandes also wants to know: “Why was the government sleeping for nearly a year before initiating any action in the matter?” “Will the government at least now break its silence on the ‘larger conspiracy,’ of which the leak is said to be a part?”

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