After recording the findings and recommendations, Wing Commander Mishra, in presence of Flight Lieutenant Johar, read the whole proceedings of the Court of Inquiry with profound satisfaction of having completed the task assigned to them without prejudice and appended his signature. Though he was quite unhappy with blaming a sincere and hardworking officer, who had not committed the crime for his benefit, he was helpless as the law dictates to apportion blame only based on the evidence and records placed in front of that. Very reluctantly, he went to the office of the Commanding Officer and submitted the file containing the proceedings.
Group Captain Shukla, the Commanding Officer, scanned through the pages of statements given by various witnesses and read in detail the findings and recommendations. As he was being updated on the inquiry daily by the Presiding officer himself, everything was known to him. After reading the recommendations, he raised his head and knitted brows looking at Mishra.
“You are recommending to recover the amount from Flying Officer Jayaprakash. And also, to take necessary disciplinary action against both Squadron Leader Biswas and Jayaprakash.” Keeping the reading glass on the table, he looked at him. “We have no other way than to take action as recommended.” He paused thinking. “I am sure, when this reaches the Command Headquarters, they will take the issue with great concern and straight order a Summary of Evidence, which is a prelude to a probable court-martial. To the face value, I don’t see much gravity. But since the higher-ups in the Command Headquarters has taken the issue with disproportionate importance, might be due to some reasons not known to us, this could be viewed seriously. You know, our Air Force believes in zero tolerance. You just can’t permit an aircraft to be sent to the enemy territory with even a minuscule snag. Unless everything is fool-proof and perfect, we just don’t accept anything at any time, be at wartime or peacetime. That is the way our Air Force works. Zero tolerance.” He looked outside through the open window and said. “I know, both these officers are very sincere and hardworking. I, personally, do not wish to see they get into trouble. But, in service, such things will never be tolerated. Our defense forces will never pardon any issue of misappropriation of public funds.”
“Yes, sir.” With hesitation, Mishra said. “Actually, from my talks with him, I could understand that Jayaprakash had done this to help someone.”
Recollecting, Shukla nodded. “Would be. Even if so, the mistake had been committed by both. Jayaprakash is the one who will have to face the music very severely. Because he is the custodian of the public fund and should have exercised his wisdom to refrain from accepting the requests or demands; whatever might be or from whomsoever that would be.”
“Yes, sir,” Mishra said. “I feel for Jayaprakash. He had accepted the entire blame. Out of records, he divulged that he had done this to please his senior. Yes, sir, the favor was sought by Khanna to meet his urgent commitment – house construction works. But, Khanna never mentioned this in his statement.”
Without thinking Shukla said. “In that case, after recording the statement of Jayaprakash you should have re-examined Khanna.”
“You are right sir. Here, in the statement of Squadron Leader Biswas, the statement is on similar lines. He had conceded of the request of Jayaprakash to meet some urgent commitment.” He paused. “Before blaming, Jayaprakash was asked by the Court, if he wanted to make any additional statement or to being any additional witnesses in his favor. He denied. He accepted the whole blame on his shoulders.”
Mishra chuckled. “That shows his greatness.” He mumbled.
Shukla smiled. He asked his PA to ask Khanna to come to his office immediately.
As expected, Khanna was waiting in his office for the call from the Station Commander’s office, since he knew of the submission of the proceedings of the court of inquiry. Briskly he walked down to that office and knocked at the door and entered with permission.
After asking to sit, Shukla said. “I have studied the proceedings and believe that your sub-ordinate has committed a crime for which he can’t be pardoned. I am forwarding this to the Command Headquarters for their necessary decision as deemed fit. From the mood of the Command, I am sure, they will move this for a court-martial.”
Suddenly, Khanna went morose thinking of the impending problems Jayaprakash might have to face for the favor he had asked. Albeit his closeness, he was apprehensive of the crescendo of abhorrence that may kindle in Jayaprakash due to his callousness. He felt his heart rate rhythmically spiraling up. Involuntarily, felt like shouting to expose his foul play of compelling Jayaprakash to commit the unpardonable blunder. The trauma from guilt strangulated his resilience and he felt highly disturbed for a moment. Recovering, he grunted with a head-shake. He observed Mishra throwing a meaningful glance towards him with a wicked smile.
On his way back to his office, Khanna glanced towards the office of Jayaprakash and saw him busy with his routine engagements. Although disturbed with the raven mental state of pushing a neophyte to deep troubles, he walked into that office pinning a broad smile and sat on the chair looking at the lugubrious face of his subordinate.
“I don’t know if I have committed a great sin by palming off the responsibility of the whole on your shoulders.” Thinking he continued. “I thought that is the best way to facilitate me to make you both wriggle out of this mess, by myself keeping out of this. If I too become one among the offenders, I can’t plead and gain sympathy from the higher formation or even from the Commanding Officer, citing the clean records and sincerity with the hard-working nature of both of you.”
Jayaprakash kept looking at the register in front of him without responding. Without exposing his inner feelings laced with hatred, he tried to present a cheerful face.
“The court of inquiry is finalized and submitted.” With a grief-stricken face, he continued. “Both you and Biswas are blamed. I am just coming out of the office of the Commanding Officer. Mishra sir was there. I did not plead for you both in his presence. I will later talk to him to take a lenient view.” He felt his voice was cracking with guilt.
On cessation of working hours, Khanna went direct to the officer’s mess and walked down to the bar after parking the motorcycle. He found two officers sitting at the bar-counter with beer-mugs. He joined them and gestured the barman to open one for him also. Sipping the chilled beer, he said, “I thought of enjoying a beer before striking home.” He chuckled looking at others.
The officers at the bar wondered on his presence who otherwise seldom visited the bar – that too during lunchtime. One of them asked. “Why, madam is not at home?”
He smiled. “Very much there. She will be waiting for me.” He looked at him and said. “This is just for a change.”
“I know, what would be the cause. Your face is clouded with an enormous amount of tension.” He paused. “I believe, Jayaprakash has been blamed for his fraudulence and might have to face the music.” One officer said with mockery.
Looking at him with dismay, Khanna said. “You are right.”
The other officer said. “It was the height of the courage of him to have signed as having approved for payment and then made payment by himself.” He chuckled. “Being an elderly person, he shouldn’t have done so. At least, he should have thought of his family commitments with two grown-up children.”
The first officer nodded. “When urgent commitments override the senses, one becomes a slave to momentary impulses. Had not someone from his section reported, the matter would have gone unnoticed.” He grunted. “His bad luck. No one can take the amount with a leave application forever. It would have been an adjustment to tide over some emergency.” After thinking he continued. “It is not to be taken as a serious crime. If the Command wants, it can be disregarded and disposed of by giving a warning to the concerned officers. Money has not gone anywhere. It is given with proper documentation. That amount will be deducted from the monthly salary of Biswas, anyway. Then, where is the fire?”
“You are right. But air force will not tolerate even a minor wilful mistake.” The other said. “Otherwise such acts would be repeated by others in other stations and units.”
The first nodded. “There, you have a point.”
Khanna never bothered to comment on anyone’s interpretations or analysis and sat hearing patiently with frequent chuckles and grunts to agree or disagree.
After two bottles, Khanna felt he was high and unsteady. While walking out after signing his bar book with the barman, with a slight wobble, one officer offered to leave him at home, to avoid his riding the motorbike by himself. Showing scant attention to the offer, he briskly walked towards the bike. He set the bike in motion without bothering to wear the helmet which was a mandatory requirement in the Air Force while riding two-wheelers. He looked at the helmet dangling on the handlebar and murmured. “To hell with that. If someone points out, I have an excuse that my house is very close by.”
On the way, he saw the staff car with flag and beacon of the Station Commander racing towards him. When that crossed at high speed, he observed the Station Commander looking at him through the open window. The realization of not wearing the helmet sent waves of the scare of consequences and the intoxicating effect by consuming two beers disappeared suddenly. Cursing his obnoxious decision to defy the regulations of the compulsory helmet while riding two-wheelers, he looked back and, in that process, lost balance and fell with a thud.
The driver of the Station Commander’s car saw the accident on the rear-view mirror and he stopped immediately and informed his boss. The car was reversed to reach him. Khanna was found lying on the road with the bike over him and he was heavily bleeding from the head.
Shukla came out and directed the driver to take him to the Station Sick Quarters, which was about one kilometer away, within the same camp. Immediately, the doctor on duty was contacted on mobile and was asked to be ready with the ambulance to take Khanna to the hospital, if required, after the necessary first aid and minor treatment which the sick quarters could give with their limited resources.
Jayaprakash was at the lunch table while the driver of the Commanding Officer informed him of the accident. He got up leaving the food behind and hurried to the washbasin, after informing Saroja about the misfortune that struck on his boss.
“Have your food.” Saroja insisted. “God is great to punish him for the sins he shouldered.”
“No. This is not the time to expose our abhorrence. I think I will go and meet him.”
“You are not a doctor. Let them look after him by administering medicines. I wouldn’t ask you not to go. Though he has done so much harm to you, your feeling for your senior is appreciated. But, first, you have your food.” She fumed with anger. “His version of keeping away without taking the blame for the abetted crime is an excuse to please you. Why don’t you understand that? What he could do to help both of you from this mess if he stays out like a goody-goody man? Nothing. He is trying to safeguard his expected promotion with clean records.” She grunted.
Jayaprakash looked at her and made a face. “Whatever it would be, I can’t mortgage my humanity.” He changed his dress and hurried to the Station Sick Quarters.
Knowing well that whatever she might say would be like drawing on water, she grumbled. “There is no use of paining on ice.” She made a face and got up to wash her hands.
After basic treatment, the doctor decided to refer Khanna to the Military Hospital.
With Mrs. Khanna, Jayaprakash sat inside the ambulance and reached the hospital in record time as the driver was advised by the doctor, who had accompanied the patient.
A team of specialists in the Military Hospital attended Khanna in the operation theatre. They needed the blood of AB negative group to transfuse, as the patient had lost so much. They commented on the immediate medical help the patient received with no loss of time as the accident was witnessed by the Station Commander. The blood bank of the hospital was not having stock of blood in that group and they needed the help of volunteers. Luckily the blood group of Jayaprakash was matching with that of Khanna and his willingness for transfusion solved that issue.
Jayaprakash continued to sit in the hospital imparting courage to Mrs. Khanna. Frequently he continued to receive calls on mobile from his wife and children asking to return home. With some excuse or the other, he informed them of his decision to wait for a positive encouraging response from the doctors.