The Budgam helicopter crash incident of 27 February 2019 in which we lost precious lives of air force personnel, is in the news again.
There were reports in the media that the chopper came down on account of ‘friendly fire’, and that the Air Force was contemplating trying the officers responsible for the incident, for culpable homicide. I even saw reports and comments on social media that the pension and other benefits of the families of the fallen would be determined as per the conclusions reached in the investigation.
I personally find the above quite odd for a variety of reasons.
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‘Culpable Homicide’ Statement Is Reckless
- First, the hint of the friendly fire aspect might be true. But, I do not feel that the conclusion of all attendant circumstances qua the fixing of the blame can be reached until the statutory Court of Inquiry convened by the Air Force under the Air Force Rules renders its report.
- Second, in case someone connected with the procedure has casually stated that the officers should be tried for culpable homicide, the statement seems irresponsible, simply due to the fact that till now the Court of Inquiry has not reached a conclusion or ascribed blame. Hence, it would be absolutely reckless and immature for any person officially associated with the proceedings to make such a statement.
- Third, the decision to take action against the guilty, if any, is of the concerned competent authorities under law and not that of the Court of Inquiry, which is simply a fact-finding body and recommendatory in nature.
- Fourth, even before the conclusion of the Court of Inquiry, and establishment of culpability, it would be totally inappropriate to prejudge the matter, and would be far-fetched to comment upon the sections of law under which a person would be tried.
‘Culpable Homicide’ Allegation Is Far-Fetched
In fact, this is one aspect that the defence services, de hors the instant case, need to be quite alive about. Because, statements such as “the concerned official(s) shall be given exemplary punishment” start flying left, right and centre even from senior officers on any unfortunate happening or alleged crime. And this clearly gives rise to the fear of institutional bias and prejudgment.
Fifthly, the incident can plainly be ascribed to the fog of war and battle ambiguities, albeit highly undesirable in a limited conflict situation, and would at most be a case of negligence leading to death (Section 304-A Indian Penal Code).
It cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be termed as ‘culpable homicide’ (Section 299 Indian Penal Code), as it requires an element of “intention” or “knowledge”.
In any case, there are specific provisions related to such incidents available under the Air Force Act, such as Section 62 (Offences in relation to aircraft and flying) which again grade the wrongdoing into higher and lower categories based on whether the action was willful or otherwise.
Families Of the Fallen Should Receive Benefits Regardless
It would be inane to tag the issue with the release of benefits to the families of those who unfortunately died in this incident. The grant of benefits to the families should have no connection whatsoever with the culpability of the concerned employees.
The families of the fallen are casualties in an operational area, and are eligible to full and liberalised pensionary benefits and ex-gratia, as is available to deaths in operations. The locale of the incident is a notified operational region.
While the incident was extremely unfortunate, it is hoped and expected that the Court of Inquiry reveals the nuts and bolts of the happenings of that fateful day, not only to establish the truth, but also to ensure that such mishaps never happen again.
I am confident of the fact that not only would the Air Force go into the very minute details of the matter without prejudging any guilt of any personality involved, but would also display the moral courage expected of it in unravelling the truth.
Irrespective of the regrettable circumstances surrounding this incident, the nation and the defence services firmly stand with the families of those whom we lost that day in February.
(The author is a practicing lawyer at the Punjab & Haryana High Court and writes on law, public policy and military related issues. He is the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association at Chandigarh and also Member of the International Society of Military Law and the Law of War, Brussels. He tweets @SinghNavdeep. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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