In early 1970’s America was rocked by a scam which later on came to be renowned as Watergate scandal and resulted in the resignation of the then President of United States Richard Nixon. Since then the world media had made it a habit to make up every perceived scam as some ‘Gate’ so much so that there are over 130 scams prefixed as ‘Gate’ from all around the world.
Interestingly Watergate was not about water though by some unknown magic the nomenclature stuck, propagated and flourished over new found fancies of investigative journalists.
In India we have had our own versions of Scamgate’s in form of Choppergate (Helicopter purchase scam involving AugustaWestland), Coffin Gate (Burial Casket scam), Coalgate (The coal block scams) and much recent Lalitgate.
Indeed one such perceived scam that caused major uproar in Indian parliament and was heavily debated, scrutinized and their after investigated by CBI was CoffinGate.
It all started when during 1999 Kargil war the NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decide to make purchase of standardized aluminum caskets for to carry mortal remains of martyrs in more dignified manner.
The Coffin Gate, if at all it can be called one, was an allegation against the Government of India that the coffins bought for the martyrs of Kargil were heavily overpriced and caused a loss of $1,87,000 to the exchequer. The caskets were purchased from Buitron and Baiza, a company based in United States of America rendering funeral services at $2500 per casket, which was presumed to be 13 times inflated than their original price.
However, the ambassador from both the countries India and United States of America later did give it in writing that those caskets had an actual cost worth 2,768$ each.
The then Defense minister George Fernandes was accused by political opponents of his direct involvement in the coffin gate scam.
During those days it was a bureaucratic norm to not to forward purchase orders less than 5 crore to minister’s desk. Henceforth directly accusing Defense minister in Coffin Gate was more of a shortsightedness.
Yet, Sonia Gandhi herself took charge to protest against this alleged scam. Every time George Fernandes rose to speak in parliament he would be quelled down by chorus of ‘Kafan Chor’ with Mrs. Gandhi leading the choir.
George Fernandes though managed to give a statement in parliament 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 defense secretary. I learnt about the transaction only when the matter was raised in Parliament after the CAG report was submitted.”
Interestingly in consecutive UPA governments tenure CBI filled its initial report and gave George Fernandes a clean-chit and absolved him of any involvement or wrongdoings in CoffinGate.
The CBI further investigated the case and filed a charge sheet against three Indian Army officers in August 2009. The agency has lodged a case under sections 120-B (Criminal conspiracy) read with 420 (Cheating) of the IPC and under the provisions of prevention of Corruption Act 1988.
In December 2013, a special CBI court found no evidence and hence discharged all the accused.
A parallel PIL was also filed in the Supreme Court in 2004 alleging corruption in purchase of rockets and snow shoes during Kargil war. These allegations collectively dented the image of otherwise clean ABV government.
However a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice TS Thakur has finally delivered a verdict on 12th October 2015 after being informed by the CBI counsel that it could not establish the guilt of any accused in the said scam.
The PIL was dismissed by Supreme Court after observing that nothing survived in the said litigation as nothing was found amiss in the CBI probe and trial.
The court also stated that there was no evidence to proceed against Victor Baiza, the middleman, in the purchase of aluminum coffins from the US suppliers.
Sadly, by the time when the taint is completely gone, George Fernandes has no memory and is unable to express any joy or relief and former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee is also suffering through medical ailments that restrict him from following recent developments.
Yet, political opponents have already taken the political mileage of allegations that they made out of thin air. There is no going back to it. The relieved aren’t happy, the prosecutors aren’t sad still the justice somehow seems to have prevailed.