Recollections of a Communicator; George Fernandes finally absolved in Kargil Coffin Scam Case

New Delhi, Oct. 13 (ANI) The dismissal of a public interest litigation yesterday by the Supreme Court of allegations against former defence minister George Fernandes in the first National Democratic Alliance Government, in what is popularly known as the ‘Coffin Scam’ , finally puts an end to the allegations against him.

Unfortunately, George Fernandes is unwell with Alzheimer’s and is not capable of understanding the significance of the judgement.

Fernandes was defence minister during the Kargil conflict in 1999 and was accused of allowing the import of aluminium caskets worth USD 2,500 each from the United States to bring back the dead bodies of officers and soldiers from the front.

The Comptroller and Auditor General in his report had alleged that there were gross irregularities in the purchase of the coffins and that middlemen had made great profits.

Fernandes resigned from his post when the scandal broke, but was persuaded by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee to rejoin.

I was in touch with the defence ministry during the Kargil conflict, and was recasting the Technical Publicity Rules after the conflict. Fernandes, with whom I had interacted when I was the Principal Information Officer, persuaded me to join his ministry as a consultant to interact with the media.

I know how much negative impact the controversy had on the working of the ministry. The target was Fernandes.

Fernandes then issued a statement, where he said, “I was nowhere in the picture when the army went through the process of acquiring the caskets. The purchases were cleared at the level of the defence secretary. I learnt about the transaction only when the matter was raised in Parliament after the CAG report was submitted.”

After an initial investigation, a chargesheet was filed against the then military attache in the Indian Embassy in Washington, Major General (Retired) Arun Roy, Colonel (Retired) S. K. Malik, Colonel S.D. Singh and American vendor Victor Baiza of Buriritrol and Baizaree, which supplied the caskets.

Later, both the American and Indian ambassadors released written statements that indicated that each of the coffins was indeed worth USD 2,768.

The scandal was used by the opposition to attack Fernandes. He had to face a judicial commission, a CBI inquiry and a Public Interest Litigation. He was exonerated by the CBI in 2013, and now, the Supreme Court has cleared him and the army officers of committing any irregularities.

I know the anguish that Fernandes experienced all those years ago.

Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. He can be reached at raoramamohan@hotmail.com . (ANI)

By I. Ramamohan Rao

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