A soldier’s 4 years jail for 4 worthless documentsPosted: October 1, 2010
Rewind to the summer of 2006.
Commander (retired) Mukesh Saini has just taken premature retirement from the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) as Information Security Specialist. The same month, in April, he joins Microsoft (India) as Chief (Information) Security Advisor. In 2004, he had learnt that he would not get further promotions in the navy, which is why he started looking for job opportunities elsewhere.
The NSCS, created in 1999, acts as an interface between the National Security Council, the Strategic Policy Group, and the National Security Advisory Board and coordinates the functioning of intelligence agencies. The NSCS also monitors the functioning of the Defence Intelligence Agency and TECHINT, the agency for the collection of technical intelligence and special counter-terrorism centre in the Intelligence Bureau.
On June 11, Saini gets a call from his perplexed wife. She tells him that a police party is searching their house in Delhi Cantonment area. Saini, who is on a two-week visit to the United States, takes the next flight and rushes back home. But he doesn’t manage to get that far. He is intercepted and detained right at the airport upon his arrival and kept in police custody for two days. He is finally arrested on the night of June 30 and charged with passing on classified information to Rosanna Minchew, a third political secretary at the US Embassy in India. Shib Shankar Paul, NSCS systems officer and Ujjal Dasgupta, director, computers at Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), are also arrested in the same case.
Saini is, however, determined to prove that he is innocent. Over the next 47 months that he spends in Delhi’s Tihar jail, he files nearly 160 applications under the Right to Information Act. A compilation of the replies he receives from various authorities exposes gaping holes in the police’s theory. From the sections under which he was arrested to the way the police conducted the probe, everything shows the authorities acted in haste and without sufficient evidence.
On the basis of the information obtained through the RTI applications, Saini fights his own case since July 2008 and finally manages to get bail in May 2010 more than four years after he was arrested.
Cut to the present and you will find Saini armed with damning evidence against the authorities.
The case against him rests on the allegation that he passed four classified documents to Minchew while working as a coordniator to the government in the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum. Minchew was the local nodal officer representing the US in this forum. One of the four documents, a draft report of the Indian nuclear doctrine was, however, made public by the government in October 1999. Hence, it could not be called a classified document.
The second document was Saini’s own paper on the impact of Kra Canal (a planned canal that links China Sea to Andaman Sea). This paper never got the status of a classified document. That means, two of the four documents that Saini is said to have illegally passed to a foreign national were not classified documents.
That still leaves two documents, which were allegedly stored in the hard disk found in Saini’s house. These contained the minutes of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum meeting held in January 2003 and a proposal prepared by Saini for the formation of information sharing network amongst agencies. Saini has been able to establish through RTI queries that the police broke open the seal of the hard disk before submitting it to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), Chandigarh, thereby weakening the claim of the police.
During the probe, Sajjan Singh, a sub-inspector with the Delhi Police’s special cell wrote three letters to the NSCS. The first letter, dated June 16, 2006, was addressed to the NSCS chairman. Singh asked the NSCS if they could book Saini under the Official Secrets Act for possessing the draft report on Indian nuclear doctrine and the paper on Kra Canal. The NSCS replied that neither of the two documents was classified.
Singh, however, wrote once again to the NSCS on June 30. This date is important. This time, he sought the NSCS’ opinion on the documents obtained from the hard disk found at Saini’s home. This time, Vinod Kumar Mall, an IB officer on deputation at NSCS gave a handwritten undated reply that the documents were classified.
There is a catch, though. RTI queries show that there is no entry in the NSCS records regarding receipt of Singh’s letter dated June 30. Moreover, Singh is said to have received the reply to this letter personally on the same day. The NSCS, however, says it has no file notings regarding the decision to implicate Saini on the basis of the special cell’s request.
The question, therefore, arises: If the NSCS does not have any official record of receiving letters from the special cell and it did not opine that Saini should be implicated on the allegation made by the special cell in these letters, then what was the basis of his arrest?
Turn to Rosanna Minchew, to whom Saini allegedly passed on the four documents. The information that Saini received from the CFSL, Chandigarh, shows that the hard disk was last accessed on June 15, 2005, while the Indian Embassy in Washington told Saini that Minchew was given the visa on Aug 3, 2005. However, the said documents were last accessed in 2004, so they could not have been passed on to Minchew from this hard disk.
There’s more to implicate the authorities. The NSCS never gave Delhi Police its approval to prosecute Saini. It, however, approached the civilian vigilance department of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in October, 2007, to procure a sanction and got it in April, 2008—almost two years after submitting the chargesheet in court. The same department of MoD later informed Saini that it was not aware of his duties in the NSCS.
The case is on and the charges against Saini and the other two co-accused are yet to be framed.
Paul and Dasgupta obtained bail in August. The police had claimed that Paul had spoken to his wife and accepted that he did pass classified information to Minchew. But the call details provided by the service provider could not corroborate this claim.
The court raised doubts over the manner in which the police allegedly broke open the seal of the pen drive which was allegedly carrying the classified information.
In Dasgupta’s case, the court considered his age (he was over 64 when he got bail) and that the other two co-accused had secured bail. His impeccable record as a computer expert and the fact that he was re- employed by the R&AW on the basis of his expertise was also taken into account.
Why would the authorities frame somebody like Saini, though, you may well ask. The answer to this natural question will eventually lead you to the task that the NSCS is entrusted with, that is to collate quality intelligence information from the various intelligence agencies.
Saini says that every time he interacted with the intelligence officers, he could sense that they were not forthcoming on information sharing. “By passing on quality information to someone like me who had a naval background, they were losing their turf,” he says. They got a chance to strike when V K Nambiar quit as the NSCS secretary in April, 2006, leaving it headless. “Before that, they could not act because the secretary was there to shield me and my team-mates in the secretariat,” says Saini.
Those familiar with the functioning of intelligence agencies can easily join the dots. “We are facing a situation where inputs and assessments of intelligence agencies are crucial to deal with the complex security challenges the nation is facing. Agency and departmental turf battles and settling of personal animosities have been evidenced. We can just hope that this case does not become part of this tragic pattern,” says Commodore Uday Bhaskar. The moment such a grave charge is levelled against an individual, says Bhaskar, he or she is abandoned and isolated both institutionally and socially.
“Even if we assume for a moment that the charges were all true, this is no way to treat officials in intelligence agencies. What happened here was uncalled for,” says a former IB director on the condition of anonymity.
An internal security analyst with a Delhi based think tank, who does not wish to be identified, however, says there may be more to Saini’s story than meets the eye. He says, as per his information, Saini and Minchew often met after office hours. “This does mean that Saini passed some information to her, but officers of the stature of Saini who work with the NSCS are very well aware of the protocol. They know that there are times when their moves are monitored. He should have avoided meeting her,” the analyst said. The analyst added, though, that the interrogating agency was clearly biased while probing the case. “Why didn’t they interrogate the American delegate?” he asked, “After all, as per the allegations, she was the recipient of the information. Why did they let her go without any questioning of any kind?”
While in jail, Saini, cyber security expert with a masters in computer applications, business administration and science, helped fellow inmates in drafting bail applications and read chargesheets.
“Around 200 of them got bail,” he says. In his free time, he would paint and make portraits with pencil colours—his childhood hobby. Two of his paintings hang in the drawing room of his Maya Enclave house in West Delhi.
It was not all rosy in jail, of course. He would be strip-searched every time he crossed a gate. But he is not cribbing. “Jail life is jail life. They were just doing their duty. I did not expect any special treatment,” he says, drawing a long breath. It was equally tough on his family, wife and children, while he was behind bars. “They would harass my wife and children,” he says, “They asked my daughter’s friends to stop meeting her or else they would also land in jail. My wife was stalked.”
Now that he is out on bail, he is worried his savings will not last for long. “Nobody is hiring me,” he says, “I have savings which will last for a couple of months more. After that I am broke.”
This appeared in Governance Now, October 1- 15 issue.