The rituals of swearing in had barely been completed that our phones
began to ring. Our colleagues from the media wanted quick sound
bites. What did we have to say about the re-induction of George
Fernandes into the cabinet - once again as defence minister, the
post he had resigned from following the revelations of Operation
West-End, carried out by Tehelka.com’s investigative reporters.
I suppose we were expected to fulminate; and perhaps that was the
right thing to do. But that was not what we did. What could we say?
It just seemed futile.
Already this is a story that has clung on to us way beyond its tenure.
As journalists we had done whatever could possibly be expected of
us. We had scented a story, followed it, and broken it - against
all odds, running every gauntlet. On March 13, the day we broke
the story, we made it clear that as far as we were concerned our
role was over. The story was now in the public domain. Other institutions
- police, judiciary, executive - had to now kick in and take it
to its logical conclusion. But a lesson in dubious reality awaited
us. We had set out to expose the leech that drains the public white;
a shockingly brazen establishment turned around and shamelessly
stuck it on us, reckoning it would quickly suck us off our energy
To begin with, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel spent eight extremely
tense months doing a very difficult and dangerous story; and now
we have spent the last seven months defending it. We at Tehelka
have been pressured, harassed, extended, as the government floats
blatant cock-and-bull theories against us, and actually presents
them on sworn affidavits at the Venkataswami Commision of Inquiry
(that the government itself instituted). So instead of pursuing
journalism, we spend our scarce time, money and energy confabulating
with lawyers and engaging with the commission. The whole thing is
a disgrace; and I completely agree with A.G. Noorani who has written
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.
Now each time a government faces a story of corruption, it will
go for the media rather than addressing the findings of the story.
In Noorani’s own words (written before Venkataswami had accepted
the brief to head the commission): “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 in practise is that 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, under controlled conditions, 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 in governance.
As we have been saying repeatedly since March 13, our story is not
for or against any party or individual. And at the end of the day
individuals are inter-changeable - and the cynics tell us uniformly
corrupt - and it does not matter who gets indicted and who doesn’t.
What would matter, what would make the exertions of the story worthwhile
- and this too we have said repeatedly - is if two important things
resulted from Operation West-End. One, the arms procurement system
is overhauled and made completely transparent - and here it seems
a welcome move is afoot to legalise agents and monitor them. Two,
and more importantly, a serious move is initiated to reform the
funding of political parties - an issue that lies somewhere at the
heart of the Tehelka tapes.
None of us personally knows George, Jaya, Bangaru or any of the
other dramatis personae, and have absolutely nothing personally
against them. They may well be much less venal than other politicians
(as some suggest). The point is they have been caught out, and they
have to walk. Being Tendulkar doesn’t allow you to flout the rules
of the game; it puts a greater burden on you to play fair. And one
would imagine it is a burden Atal Behari Vajpayee would shoulder
gamely. It is the death of yet some more rules - in an increasingly
anarchic game - that we have to worry about. The defiant rehabilitations
we are seeing are, thus, not mine or tehelka’s problem alone. I
think this is something everyone has to look, react to, and act
upon. What we are simply witnessing is an incredibly cynical exercise
of power. A complete disregard of all public or political proprieties.
If this is the way this country has to be governed then why not
rehabilitate the army officers too?
End this farce of honesty, integrity, cleanness, justice. Why continue
with the Venkataswami Commission at all?? Wind it up. I think the
powers-that-be had hoped the judge would give out a reasonably ambiguous
signal so that they could take refuge under its smokescreen to re-instate
themselves. But the judge, and the commission’s stellar counsel
- bless them both - have declared categorically that Tehelka’s tapes
are genuine and undoctored. So it seems the government has
decided to just ignore the commission and carry on with what it
wants to do. If that is the case, then shut the commission down.
Why insult the judge, and waste all our time. As for the people,
in their own way, make their reckoning. Sooner or late