For over 17 years, 900 body bags procured by the Indian Army have been lying locked up in a neglected warehouse, while military personnel struggle to bring their casualties back from the field, an Asia Times investigation revealed.
Disturbing images of seven Indian Air Force personnel, killed while bringing supplies to Indian Army troops at a remote post in the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the China-India border, caused wide-spread outrage after they surfaced a few days ago. The images were widely circulated on social media and highlighted the fact that the Indian Army and the Air Force lacked basic equipment to ferry home their dead comrades in a dignified manner.
In an official statement, the Indian Army called the lack of adequate facilities to evacuate the bodies in a proper manner an “aberration”.
The 900 body bags were part of a consignment that was procured on August 2, 1999, records show. According to documents accessed by Asia Times, the BJP government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered the purchase at the height of the Kargil war.
The original order was placed in July 1999 when India and Pakistan were at war in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, after Pakistani troops were detected on the Indian side of the Line of Control. The war erupted in May that year, but the government was keen that the bodies of the soldiers killed in battle were returned home.
But the procurement erupted into a major controversy when allegations surfaced that the government had taken kickbacks for procuring the body bags and caskets. Opposition parties, led by the Congress party, raised the issue in Parliament a year later, forcing the government to weather the political storm.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted nearly a decade-long investigation that failed to produce results. “After years of investigation, the CBI officials realized that a typing error had led to the purported scam,” a senior military official stated on the condition of anonymity.
The error arose when a clerk typed the weight of the caskets as 18 kilograms, while the actual weight was 55 kilograms. This error erupted into a major controversy, for a deal worth $400,000. If the original deal had gone through, the Indian Army would have received 3,000 body bags and 500 caskets. The caskets are similar to those used by the US military.
The idea to procure body bags and better caskets came from an Indian military unit posted on a UN mission in Somalia. The unit commander wrote back to Army Headquarters recommending their procurement. With the war on, the government expedited the procurement and found an American firm to supply them.
In 2013, the CBI finally cleared the military personnel accused of trying to fix the deal. By this time several military careers had already been cashiered. In October 2015, the Supreme Court confirmed that charges had been false and cleared everyone involved.
Since then, the CBI sat on the case while the 900 body bags and 150 caskets lay forgotten in an abandoned Delhi warehouse. Ironically, the documents show that government auditors also queried the price of the caskets and the body bags at the time of the purchase in 1999. Senior military officials fear this could lead to more delays, even as the current stock lies unused.
“This neglect is just the tip of the iceberg and the rot runs much deeper,” Lieutenant General H.S. Panag, who retired from service a few years ago, told Asia Times during a telephone interview. “We have been trying to get these body bags for over a decade, but the Ministry of Defense and the bureaucrats have stymied all our efforts.” Panag was the first one to raise the issue on Twitter, leading to massive outrage and debate.