WITH THE DEVIL
In my eighteen years in journalism, had I spent more time hanging
around with politicians, and less
with other kinds of achievers, I would have known better. In eighteen
years, had I dabbled more in the business of journalism than in journalism,
I would have known better. When Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel
finished their spectacular eight-month long investigation - unparalleled
in India for its ingenuity and courage, and driven by nothing but
the excitement of a major expose - I would have perhaps, had I the
savvy in business and political venality, known better than to have
dived off the
It is not as if we did not take pause. We did, but not for long enough
to break our resolve. With due respects to Kamala, Antulay and Bhagalpur,
we were aware we were taking on much more than any other story, because
we were going up against an entire ruling party and government whose
various echelons had been captured in corrupt compromise. All good
editors know that guerrilla stories, investigative skirmishes, are
easy to commission and handle: you nip at one flank while warmly stroking
the other: the behemoth tolerates the pinpricks and laps up the caresses
in some kind of cosy understanding of occupational necessities. The
watchdog and the monster go dancing into the twilight, making just
enough yipping sounds to confuse the onlooker.
The nip and yowl, the dancing semblance to a duel, allows even the
most honorable editors to break bread with their conscience. The others,
the savvy ones, have of course figured that journalism is just another
business, and dancing with the devil inevitable in public affairs.
We, on the contrary, knew we were sailing into a pitched battle, and
were allowing the monster no room to dance.
But we did not think too hard about how it would pan out; we just
went with the momentum of the story. We knew we would reap a whirlwind,
but were confident of weathering it because we imagined our fulcrum
of pure intentions and honorable motives would keep us from being
uprooted. Many people have called it naivete. If it is, then let me
say it proved to be valuable naivete; without it there would have
been no Operation West-End, and its many distressing revelations.
So we do not for a moment regret our inexperience in pursuing or breaking
the story. What we have begun to deeply regret is our inexperience
in accepting the terms of reference of the Venkataswami Commission.
We should have heard the truth in A.G. Noorani’s words when he warned
early this year that this commission, with one of its four terms of
reference (term d) being to investigate the journalists, is the most
dangerous of precedents that could have been set by any government.
It strikes at the very roots of liberal democracy and the freedom
of the press. It allows governments facing charges of corruption to
go for the media instead of addressing the charges.
In Noorani’s own words: “Never in the half century of the Commission
of Inquiry Act, 1952, was the body ever asked to probe into the credentials
of those who had made the charges. The focus was on the message, never
the messenger. If this move is allowed to pass muster, the press will
be effectively muzzled. Any time it publishes an expose, the government
will retaliate by setting up inquiries not only into the truth of
the charges, but also into the motives, finances and sources of the
journal which published them. The widely worded remit - d (of the
Venkataswami Commission, dealing with Tehelka) includes everything
except the kitchen sink.”.
What it means is that after spending eight months doing a dangerous
and difficult story, Tehelka has now spent eight months defending
it. Tehelka has been pressured, extended, harassed as the government
floats absurd, cock-and-bull theories against Tehelka, and actually
presents them on sworn affidavits at the Commission. Since the story
broke, six Tehelka staffers, including two senior editors, have spent
more than 6,000 man hours doing commission-related work, instead of
practicing journalism. They spend their days attending commission
hearings, and confabulating with as many as twelve lawyers.
In a word, Tehelka’s meagre resources and energies are being totally
expended on endless and unwarranted legalese. In a word, even though
the luminaries of government know Tehelka is totally clean - because
various agencies of the government have been foraging for anything
on us for the last eight months, and have found not a whit - even
though they know Operation West-End was a purely journalistic effort,
they are waging a war of attrition to wear us down. There are very
few independent media companies whose resources would stand the strain.
Already, the lives of two outstanding young professionals - Shankar
Sharma, 37 and Devina Mehra, 36 - have been destroyed. First generation
entrepreneurs, brilliant rankers from top management institutes, owners
of the first Asian company (ex-Japan) to become a member of the London
Stock Exchange, they have had their lives torn apart by an irate,
draconian government. In ten years of running First Global, they have
never had a tax or legal infringement; in the last eight months, the
government has hit them with 200 summons and 25 raids. Their businesses
have been shut down; their properties attached; their travel banned;
and even as I write this Shankar Sharma has been arrested. This is
what a venal government does to young talented people who deliver
on the great Indian dream. And solely because they invested in a portal
called Tehelka.com. Though they own only 14.50 per cent of it, and
have never had a word to do with its running.
The message is easy to read. And is for all of Indian media. Our investors
have been destroyed, and we have been trapped in a commission that
has taken away our journalism, and is bleeding us white. For a democracy
the signals are dangerous and sinister: don’t even bother criticizing
a government or exposing its corruptions, unless you are a truly wealthy
media organization, with deep pockets and deeper resolve.
The government’s conduct is truly appalling because amid all the reams
of malafide and nonsensical affidavits it has filed in the Commission,
there is amazingly not a line against all those found guilty of corruption
in the Tehelka tapes. The incredible travesty is that while those
whom Tehelka vividly exposed remain untouched - and actually actively
defended by a government elected on the promise of “cleanness” - Tehelka
is being relentlessly harassed for exposing corruption.
Tehelka’s nearly hundred hours of investigative tapes, shot under
the most trying circumstances, are being subjected to a legal scrutiny
that has no parallel in India. Every word is being controverted and
fought over. A film shot in a studio would have struggled under such
vicious scrutiny. But rest assured Tehelka’s story will survive this,
its integrity intact. Because misplaced punctuation, bad chapter headings,
and even poor printing, do not change the intent or message of a story.
And Tehelka’s story
is about one and only one thing, and that is rampant and endemic corruption
The greater fear is the Commission - by its very mandate, by its very
capacity for attrition - will have done its damage. Ensured that in
the future the watchdog only dances with the monster. Not barks
at it. Nor bites it..
TARUN J TEJPAL