Gunner Roy Mathew’s Death: The Quint Asks the Unanswered Questions

The Indian Express, in a report published on 28 March, stated that the Nashik police has filed a case of abetment to suicide (punishable by imprisonment up to ten years) and criminal trespass (under Section 3 (spying) and 7 of the Official Secrets Act) against Poonam Agarwal, on the basis of a complaint by the Army.

The Quint published a video story on 24 February, exposing the abuse of jawans, despite the Army having recently issued a circular to put an end to the misuse of the “sahayak” system.

The identities of all the jawans featured in the video were masked.

Following the death of one of the jawans featured in the video, The Quint took down the story on 3 March, in the interest of the investigation and to ensure that the other jawans who appeared in the video were not harassed and driven to the same fate by officers whose misconduct was exposed.

Trigger for the Story

The trigger for the story was a selfie video posted on Facebook (on 13 January) by an Army jawan, Lance Naik Yagya Pratap Singh, complaining about the abuse of the “sahayak” system. Following the video going viral, Poonam, Associate Editor, Investigation, at The Quint, was contacted via Twitter by a retired Army officer (Colonel Sukhwant Singh) from Devlali. The officer asked Poonam to reach Devlali to witness the real situation with the “sahayaks” there. He then put Poonam in touch with a person who is a Kargil War veteran, an Operation Parakram hero and a triple amputee. This source then guided Poonam with her story that exposed the misuse of the “sahayak” system.

Video and Letter Sent to Army PRO

Right after publishing the story on 24 February, Poonam sent a mail to the Army PRO in New Delhi, along with the video, requesting the Army’s response to the following queries:

  • “A Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended the abolition of the ‘sahayak’ system in the Army. What action was taken by the Ministry of Defence on that report?
  • Are the Army and the Ministry of Defence making efforts to repeal the system?
  • My story exposes how the soldiers are made to do menial jobs by army officers’ families in peace stations. What action will you take to stop the humiliation of our soldiers?’’

The Army PRO responded (on 28 February) saying that there was a proposal pending at the Ministry of Defence to replace combatants with non-combatants for the “sahayak” system. His comment on the story was that “ill-treatment of subordinate at any level is an offence under the Army Act”.

Army PRO’s response, sent on 28 February, to Poonam’s questionnaire.

Gunner Roy Mathew Went Missing

On 28 February, Lance Naik Roy Mathew’s cousin contacted Poonam via Facebook Messenger to say that they were not able to get in touch with him (Mathew had featured in the video but with his identity concealed). Mathew had called his wife on 25 February but had not been reachable thereafter. The family sought Poonam’s help and shared with her the contact details of the officer whom Mathew was reporting to – Colonel Anil Jethania. On 1 March, despite several efforts by Poonam, Col. Jethania’s phone was not reachable.

Over the next few days, Mathew’s family was in touch with Poonam, seeking her help to track the Gunner.

On 2 March, around 11 am, Poonam received a call from Mathew’s cousin, informing her that Mathew’s body had been found. He was found hanging at an abandoned barracks within the Devlali Cantonment; the body had decomposed, and he had most likely died a good four days earlier.

Mathew’s cousin provided Poonam with Mathew’s father’s phone number. Roy Mathew’s father told Poonam that his son’s body was now at the police station. During the call, he alleged that “his son was killed by the Army”.

Family Dissuaded From Filing a Missing Person Report

On 3 March, Poonam heard again from Mathew’s sister (based in West Asia) on WhatsApp. She informed Poonam that Mathew’s father had received a call from Col. Jethania on 1 March, telling them not to file a missing person complaint. When the body was discovered on 2 March, it had already decomposed by four days. Which would mean that when Col. Jethania called Mathew’s father, the Gunner’s body must have already been hanging at the abandoned barracks, allegedly separated from the living quarters by an 18-foot road.

Advance Post-Mortem Report

An advance post-mortem report referred to Gunner Roy Mathew’s death as “unnatural” due to asphyxiation by hanging. The body was decomposed by about four days, severely limiting the efficacy of the autopsy.

Poonam was called for questioning on 22 March. She provided all the details related to the sequence of events to the police. She also submitted all the raw footage to the police.

Harassment by the Army

Poonam has enough evidence, which she has made available to Deolali police in her complaint, to indicate that some rogue elements in the Army were questioning, harassing and torturing jawans who featured in the video.

The Quint has not received any FIR or formal communication from the Nashik police.

The Quint has no formal update after Poonam was questioned at Nashik.

Unanswered Questions

Poonam has now filed a complaint against Colonel Anil Jethania, questioning the following:

  • Why did Colonel Jethania advise the family against filing the missing person report on 1 March? Mathew had been missing for a few days already, and no probe had been initiated.
  • Late Roy Mathew had called his wife, Finy Mathew, on 25 February to say that he was questioned by seniors. But the Ministry of Defence press release states that “there was no question of any inquiry that could have been ordered since the identity of the Army personnel involved in the clipping was hidden and thereby not known to the Army’’.
Army’s press release. 
  • As per the press release by the Ministry of Defence (on 3 March), Mathew wrote a note in his diary (found in the abandoned barracks) saying that it was better to die than be court martialled. Who put the fear of a ‘court martial’ in his mind?
  • The abandoned barracks is within Devlali's Cantonment area. How can the body of a ‘missing’ jawan be hanging within the cantonment for four days without being spotted? Was the officer not looking out for the missing jawan?