TEHELKA’s exposé on the rampant corruption in the Assam Rifles (Commission Officers by Shyju Marathumpilly, 4 October) has led to massive outrage not just in the Northeast, but across the country. The sting operation codenamed Operation Hilltop, carried out with the help of a contractor with Assam Rifles, exposed how corruption is eating into the vitals of the “sentinels of the east” — the oldest paramilitary force in the country, which spearheads counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast.
Officials of the paramilitary force were caught on camera taking bribes for getting work done. Regional TV channels from Kerala in the south to Tripura in the Northeast aired the footage of Operation Hilltop. Many newspapers and web portals also picked up the story.
“In the Northeast, almost everyone of my generation has grown up with the Assam Rifles protecting us. But while the soldiers are facing bullets and bombs in the killing fields of the region, it is shocking to see some of the officers taking bribes. This is just not done,” says Ratnadeep Bhattacharjee, a young professional based in Shillong.
Everyone expected the Assam Rifles to take strict action against the officials caught on camera. But the paramilitary force has sought to defend them.
On 26 September, The Shillong Times, the largest circulated English daily in Meghalaya, published a front-page story on the exposé. The Assam Rifles immediately issued a rebuttal, claiming that the TEHELKA was done “without verification based on allegations which have been made with a motivated and malicious intent by CC Mathew”. (Mathew is the Assam Rifles contractor who helped TEHELKA carry out the sting operation.)
“The brazen manner in which the Assam Rifles has tried to defend its officials is indefensible. The sting operation exposed the truth. The officials were caught on camera and there can be no denial. We had been hearing of corruption in the security forces, but TEHELKA has proved it beyond doubt,” says Agnes Kahrshiing, a Shillong-based civil society activist. “The militarisation of the Northeast is a big issue here and we have seen gross human rights violations by the security forces. Assam Rifles has a commitment towards the region, and when its officers take bribes, it is a betrayal of that commitment.”
The rebuttal by the Assam Rifles also states that an internal inquiry has been ordered. But the fact that the officials caught on camera have not been placed under suspension has given rise to suspicions that it could be a sham. “There are serious doubts on the intentions of the inquiry as the officials have not been suspended. If it turns out to be an eyewash, that would set a very bad precedent,” says Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi.
The exposure of corruption in the paramilitary force that leads counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast has reignited the debate over whether there could be vested interests behind keeping the region aflame as it brings in a lot of funds for the security forces. “The Centre pumps in a lot of money into the Northeast for bolstering the security infrastructure. Now, it’s anybody’s guess if those funds are misutilised or even siphoned off,” says Chandrani Sinha, a Guwahati- based journalist. “But the bigger worry is whether the insurgency and unrest in the region are stage-managed to some extent so that some vested interests can go on minting money.”
TEHELKA has exposed human rights violations by the Assam Rifles on several occasions. For instance, it had brought to light the fake encounter of a 17-year-old tribal boy in Assam’s Hailakandi district (Assam Rifles under Fire for Killing an Innocent Bamboo Cutter by Ratnadip Choudhury, 26 February 2011). The National Human Rights Commission later found Assam Rifles guilty in that incident.
“I took pride in working for the Assam Rifles, but this exposé has shaken me from within,” says a retired Assam Rifles officer from Guwahati on the condition of anonymity. “Army officers deputed to the Assam Rifles see it as a good posting for minting money. It is sad that even after the exposé, the officials caught red-handed were not suspended.”