On Friday, January 12, former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, and co-founder Aniruddha Bahal, appeared before a Delhi High Court bench to make a stunning admission. They acknowledged that retired Indian Army official Major General MS Ahluwalia neither sought nor accepted any bribe, retracting the allegations they had made against him.
In a surprising turn of events, Tejpal and Bahal admitted to falsely framing Ahluwalia and expressed their willingness to issue an unconditional apology in leading newspapers, including the Hindustan Times, for defaming the decorated Army officer back in 2001. Additionally, the duo agreed to deposit Rs 10 lakh each with the Delhi High Court.
The defamation case against Tehelka and its journalists, including Tarun Tejpal, Aniruddha Bahal, and Mathew Samuel, had been filed by Major General MS Ahluwalia in 2002. The magazine, in its sting operation named Operation West End, had accused Ahluwalia of accepting bribes in defense deals.
A division bench, comprising Justice Manmeet Pritam Singh Arora and Acting Chief Justice Manmohan, was deliberating over an appeal filed by Tejpal and Bahal against a previous year’s ruling by a single judge. The earlier ruling had ordered Tehelka and journalist Mathew Samuel to pay Rs 2 crores to Ahluwalia for defamation.
Major General (retd) MS Ahluwalia had named Tehelka, its journalists, and Zee TV, along with its chairman Subhash Chandra and CEO Sandeep Goyal, in the defamation case, as the sting operation had been broadcast on Zee TV.
In March 2001, Tehelka, under Tarun Tejpal’s leadership, embarked on a mission to expose corruption in political and defense establishments. Operating under the guise of a fake company named ‘West End International,’ they attempted to sell hand-held thermal cameras/imagers to the Government of India in an undercover investigation spanning several months.
The sting operation implicated Major General (retd) M S Ahluwalia, showing him offering a bribe of Rs 50,000, which he refused to accept. However, Tehelka alleged that he had indicated a need for money to introduce West End officials to top army brass. The magazine also claimed that Ahluwalia had demanded a bottle of Blue Label.
As a consequence of these false allegations, Major General MS Ahluwalia faced a court-martial by the Indian Army, with the initial recommendation for dismissal from service. However, the punishment was later downgraded, and he received a ‘Severe Displeasure (Recordable)’ from the army chief.
It is noteworthy that initially, Tehelka had claimed Ahluwalia demanded Rs 1 lakh but later revised it to Rs 50,000. During the army’s court of inquiry, Tehelka journalist Mathew Samuel admitted that Ahluwalia never demanded any money or expensive whiskey. The acknowledgment and apology by Tejpal and Bahal mark a significant development in this long-standing legal battle.