Right: An internet image of the SAR-21 carbine
Left: An internet image of a Singapore Navy team carrying SAR-21 rifles
by Ajai Shukla
26th May 2009
Exactly six months ago, on what has come to be known as 26/11, Indian security men in Mumbai, clutching antiquated rifles, fled shamefully before a handful of well-armed terrorists. Now, documents available with Business Standard reveal that if a similar attack were to take place today, much the same might happen. The reason: infighting within the government has scuttled the Ministry of Home Affairs’ bid to equip its police with modern weaponry.
For six years, India’s central police organisations (CPOs), which include the CRPF, the BSF and the CISF, have urged the home ministry to equip them with carbines to replace their cumbersome military-use rifles. CPO jawans presently carry the INSAS, and even World War II era .303 rifles, which are no match for the terrorists’ AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles. Carbines, in contrast, are lighter, smaller, and can spray bullets at a target, better equipping a policeman for encounters in confined and built-up areas.
Just five days before 26/11 — in a telling coincidence — NSG commandos completed trials on two carbines offered to the home ministry by the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB). One of them, the OFB-developed AMOGH, was rejected outright. The other carbine, the SAR-21 MMS, jointly offered by the OFB and Singapore Technologies Kinetic (STK), was found suitable by the NSG for India’s needs.
The stage seemed set for an immediate purchase. The home ministry's five-year modernisation plan urgently sought 47,286 carbines for the CPOs by March 2008. This deadline was extended till March 2010 because OFB-developed carbines failed repeatedly to pass user trials.
The OFB was ready to deliver the first carbines within six months of an order, and complete delivery of all 47,286 carbines by February 2011. STK pledged to transfer technology in full, thereby allowing the OFB’s new factory (coming up at Korwar in the Amethi parliamentary constituency) to manufacture lakhs of carbines for the CPOs in subsequent five-year plans.
The army, too, is separately purchasing several lakhs of carbines.
Had the home ministry placed the order, the first OFB-STK carbines would have been entering service now. Instead, the process was derailed by a mysterious red herring. The home ministry informed the OFB (in letter No IV-13018/8/2009-Prov.II dated 17 March 2009) that a foreign vendor, Israel Military Industries (IMI), had written in, alleging bias in the carbine procurement.
As if on cue, controversial Samajwadi Party MP Hari Kewal Prasad (in 2007, he had alleged being offered Rs 10,000 to vote for Pratibha Patil in the presidential election) wrote to the home minister, making the same argument in very similar words.
It quickly became evident that this was an attempt to scuttle the carbine purchase. On March 26, IMI’s Marketing Director to India, Bran Sela, wrote to the home minister, clarifying that the letter had not been sent by IMI. The letter also pointed out that IMI was no longer producing small arms like carbines; its small arms division had been sold to a private Israeli company, Israeli Weapons Industries (IWI).
IWI’s stakes in the carbine deal quickly became obvious. In early March, just days after the fake letter, government-owned Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) threw its hat in the ring, informing the ministry of defence that it would import, market and manufacture IWI weaponry for the Indian market. BEML’s Chairman and Managing Director V R S Natarajan wrote personally to the home ministry (letter No CMD/606/1923 dated 20th April 09) asking for the tendering to begin, so that the BEML-IWI carbine could be offered.
Exactly six months after 26/11, the purchase of carbines is at a standstill, while two defence ministry production units — the OFB and BEML — compete for the order. And defence ministry sources said any decision on this issue is most unlikely after the arrest on May 19 of the recently-retired OFB Chairman Sudipta Ghosh on corruption charges.