TEHELKA’s exposé on the rampant corruption in the Assam Rifles (Commission Officers by Shyju Marathumpilly, 4 October), the oldest paramilitary force in the country, led to a massive outrage not just in the Northeast, where it spearheads counterinsurgency operations, but across the country. Several officers and men of the paramilitary force, also known as the “sentinels of the east”, were caught on camera accepting bribes. The sting operation codenamed Operation Hilltop was carried out with the help of a contractor with the Assam Rifles.
Though the Assam Rifles ordered an internal probe following the exposé, the attitude of the force since then raises doubts over the seriousness of its intent to curb the corrupt practices that seem to have eaten into its vitals.
On 24 October, a letter was dispatched to TEHELKA from the office of the director general of the Assam Rifles at Shillong in Meghalaya. In the letter, it is alleged that TEHELKA did the story based on the version of a contractor, CC Mathew, who had already been “blacklisted” by the paramilitary force. The magazine has also been accused of deliberately trying to malign the reputation of the force and its senior officers in order to sell a sensational story line. The Assam Rifles has also asked TEHELKA to publish an unconditional apology and remove the exposé from all digital platforms.
However, not even once have the authorities in the paramilitary force denied that the officers and men posted at the Shillong headquarters were accepting bribes. Instead, they have chosen to be ambivalent on the prevalence of large-scale corruption in their midst and are now trying to train their guns on TEHELKA.
By hurling baseless allegations at TEHELKA, the Assam Rifles seems to be trying to bury the sordid truth. Perhaps, the authorities of the paramilitary force hope that by putting pressure on the magazine, they can save the skins of those who were caught on camera. But the attempt is bound to fail as people across the country have already seen the footage that shows officers and men of the force accepting bribes.
TEHELKA has always maintained that the sting operation was carried out with the intention of bringing to the public domain the deeprooted corruption in the Assam Rifles. The contractor, Mathew, was the whistleblower who helped TEHELKA to expose the corrupt practices. Even if he was “blacklisted”, as the Assam Rifles claims, that does not in any way detract from the fact that officers and men of the paramilitary force were caught on camera accepting bribes. It seems that by raising this irrelevant issue, the Assam Rifles is only trying to divert attention from the crux of the matter.
“The exposé brought the sordid truth to light and that is why senior officers in the force are worried,” says an Assam Rifles officer posted in southern Assam, who does not wish to be identified. “I have been working with the paramilitary force for the past 20 years and have seen first-hand how corruption has increasingly become commonplace. The sting by TEHELKA exposed corruption at the headquarters, but it affects the force at every level. There is massive corruption at the sector level and even at the battalion level. Of course, there are many honest officers, but most of them have been sidelined. We have to keep quiet for the sake of our job.”
Adhering to best traditions of journalism, TEHELKA has expressed its willingness to fully cooperate in any probe into corruption in the Assam Rifles. It has offered to provide all the evidence that is in its possession to the investigation authorities.
“The need of the hour is an independent probe and not an internal inquiry. It is disheartening to see how Assam Rifles has been backing the corrupt officers and men even after they were caught on camera,” says Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. “Now that they are asking TEHELKA to apologise, it seems even more likely that the internal inquiry is just hogwash.” Is this what is expected of the oldest paramilitary force of the nation?