A week after I exposed the sensational gutkha scam in Tamil Nadu in June 2017, a retired police officer called to say that he knew who “planted” the story.
His theory was that one of his juniors had used me to settle scores with some colleagues. Even before I could dispel his suspicion, he confirmed what I feared the most by saying, “I know you spoke to him a day before writing the story.”
He was right. I did call and meet the person concerned, and wanted his reaction since he held a key post when the scam took shape. But the officer in question politely declined to comment and was just one among the dozens I had called or met for the story. But how would anybody know who I spoke to or met a day before writing the story? This was not all. Many people who called me to express shock at the scandal also showed a keen interest in knowing my source and the contents of the classified Income Tax documents, which had details of the beneficiaries.
The gutkha scam story is perhaps the most challenging one I have done in my career. It had its origins in a secret note of the Income Tax department to the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary. The note contained details of officials or politicians who allegedly took huge bribes from the manufacturer of the MDM brand of gutkha to facilitate the storage, transportation and sale of the banned substance in Chennai.
Though a copy of the document was made available to The Hindu, the State government maintained that no such papers existed on record. I had to keep writing stories to expose the multi-crore scam despite constant monitoring by vested interests.
With pressure mounting on the beneficiaries, and the Opposition parties demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation, I had strong reason to believe that my phone was being tapped. Senior police officers cautioned me that even calls over WhatsApp were not foolproof.
It appeared to be me that the investigators were focussing more on the informer than the inputs. It had perhaps become a standard operating procedure to stalk the writer and his/her sources. I had a tough time writing the follow-up stories — while a couple of sources refused to meet me fearing surveillance and would occasionally pick up only Internet-enabled voice calls, a few others blocked my number. Some friends, including a few in the police, kept a safe distance. I quit Facebook, limited conversations to personal meetings, and used mobile phones as sparingly as possible.
It felt like I was playing hide-and-seek when I would leave my phone in office and take the bus to the beach to meet someone. I would deliberately call a dozen people in order to conceal the source’s identity. It has been three years since I stepped into the police headquarters and the Commissionerate.
My sources had no motive in passing on the papers except to bring out the truth. Sources are always the unsung heroes of every scoop. It is the duty of all journalists to thoroughly research the information they receive and go to print only when there is indisputable material evidence to corroborate it.
The series of stories in the gutkha scam will go on till the logical conclusion. Fresh inputs and informers will emerge as the case develops. And the promise to protect the identity of sources will be kept always.