WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
Four weeks after we broke our expose, Operation West-End, on
March 13, 2001, and changed our lives forever, I heard a most revealing
and remarkable story. It came to me from a cameraman, an Indian who
visited our office with an American crew. After the last question
had been asked and answered - no different from a hundred other last
questions and answers - and the interviewer was switching to a loose
and chatty mode, the cameraman, winding up his wires, said tentatively,
“Sir I want to tell you a story before we go. It’ll take only two
The cameraman had just come back from eastern Uttar Pradesh, after
visiting his village in Jaunpur. There, as in the cities, the chaupal
conversations had revolved around the Tehelka findings. But there
was an interesting difference. There, in the crevices of eastern UP,
the villagers had no understanding of the medium the expose had taken
place in. They had seen it on TV; they’d read it up in the papers;
and they knew there was a new kind of entity that was responsible
for the story. But beyond that they were clueless. Clueless about
the .com, clueless about the world wide web.
There was absolutely nothing in their experience or their imagination
that could help them make any sense of a website or the internet.
So they had conjured up a construct. Tehelka, for them, was a device
in which “subka bhrashtachar nanga ho jaata hai”. A kind of x-ray
machine which exposed naked anyone’s corruptions the moment they passed
in front of it. The talk there, said the cameraman from Jaunpur, was
that this, the threat of the corruption-exposing machine, was the
reason the prime minister had not appeared in public for the first
few days after the scam broke.
Nothing had prepared us for the avalanche of energies that were triggered
off by Operation West End. For months we had known that we had chanced
upon a story of great gravity and impact. For months our dread had
grown steadily as it became increasingly clear that this was not a
story that stopped at a given point and offered itself up for analysis,
criticism and policing. It was a story that went all the way to the
top, and by doing so left little scope for face-saving manoeuvres:
we couldn’t get one part of the governmental hierarchy to police another,
inferior, part of it: by indicting everyone we were risking taking
on everyone. The entire system, all of government. My standard line
to Aniruddha Bahal, who masterminded the investigation used to be,
“We’ll blow the whistle, but who’s going to police this?”
One and a half year later every worst fear has come to pass; every
moment of dread that assailed us during those eight months has proven
well-founded. In many ways the establishment’s conduct in the aftermath
of Operation West-End has been as great a scandal as the expose itself;
in many ways our efforts at defending the story have been as - if
not more - labyrinthine and exhausting as the actual doing of the
To understand the importance, context and relevance of Operation West
End, you have to study not just the expose but what happened after
the expose, to those who made the expose.
It is difficult to tell how we would have proceeded had we foreseen
the avalanche of persecution, lies, and deceit that would follow.
In retrospect our conscious decision to refrain from attempting to
foretell the fall-out was a sound one. Worrying about the future would
have certainly impaired our ability to finish the story. It is just
as well that we stuck to some fundamentals. We decided to keep our
eyes close to the ground. To maintain a narrow frame of reference,
purely journalistic. To not worry about who would gain and lose, and
other consequences. To stay with the story, just the story. And to
deliver it the moment it was done.
So there were two reasons we were not prepared for the scale of the
fall-out. One, we deliberately kept ourselves from thinking about
it. And, two, like the residents of Jaunpur, there was nothing in
our experience that could have helped us anticipate it.
OPERATION WEST END BEGAN like most stories in a quiet, humble way.
In the August of 2000, Aniruddha Bahal, coming off the disappointment
of a major scoop he had been working on the for the last three months
(it had seen him disappear for weeks in pursuit of the story), floated
the idea of an investigation into the dubious nature of defence purchases,
and the general porousness of even a ministry as sensitive as defence.
Bahal has the two traits that distinguish outstanding reporters: moral
and physical courage, and a preternatural nose for the rot. When Indian
journos were writing impossibly florid accounts of the wondrous deeds
of our cricketers, it was Bahal who first smelt the stench of match-fixing.
When the establishment was trying to cordon off defence as a holy
cow, it was Bahal who intuited that it was no more sacred than the
average Indian shrine where the pandas, the keepers of idol, rip the
devotees of their last few rupees, swiftly and seamlessly converting
devotional piety into personal profit.
Bahal firmed up the story idea of Operation West End in the context
of several things. The most recent provocation was the fire at the
Bharatpur ammunition depot that had trashed crores worth of equipment.
The rumour mills suggested it was basically a set-up to destroy inferior
purchases. The other things on our mind were the nagging questions
that continued to trail the end of the Kargil war.
Both Bahal and I had been at Outlook during the Kargil war. He had
covered the last bits of it as a reporter; and as the magazine’s managing
editor I had had some role to play in Outlook’s editorial policy on
the conflict. Our position had been very clear. During the course
of the war we kept our nationalism within the journalistic frame:
we were careful to avoid stories and pictures that could demoralize
our troops or the war effort.
But the moment the conflict was over, we switched to the critical,
questioning stance we construe as good journalism and began to ask
all the uncomfortable questions that were jumping out at all of us.
For us the sum total of the picture was: the troops did a great job,
but the leadership, military and civilian, tripped up seriously. Of
course in no time at all the establishment’s stormtroopers were in
action trying to obfuscate the questions in a web of denials, counter-charges
and so on. Yet the questions stuck, and most people were left with
the lingering feeling that all was not well with our defence establishment.
The third factor prompting the story was an old one. The fifteen-year
old Bofors-fuelled controversy about kickbacks in defence deals. This
was a controversy that had ravaged Indian public life for years, and
had led in 1989 to a ban on defence middlemen. Since then on different
occasions, different defence ministers, including George Fernandes
two years ago, had asserted that their inquiries revealed there were
no more defence middlemen operating in India.
But the truth that everyone of the chattering power elite of Delhi
knows is that the city crawls with defence middlemen; that the best
farmhouses that gird the city are owned by defence middlemen; the
most expensive cars are driven by defence middlemen; the most lavish
parties thrown by them. They may work under different guises and label
themselves other things, but then no crook nails a plaque on his door
IT WAS IN THE BACKDROP of all this - Kargil, Bharatpur, the middlemen
controversy - that Bahal and his Falstaffian sidekick, Samuel Mathew,
an investigative reporter of extraordinary grit and resourcefulness,
began their story. Over the course of the first few weeks they did
some background sleuthing and chanced upon a defence product that
was in queue for purchase. It was something called a hand held thermal
Neither of them knew anything about the product. They downloaded information
on it from the net, and with the help of Tehelka’s design department
created a brochure for it. Designed it in-house, printed it in-house.
They also formed a dummy company, and named it West End International.
This entire phase of the operation was full of literary allusions,
that have escaped unnoticed in the furore that has followed.
The thermal camera was christened Lepak by Bahal, a reference to the
Lepak gun,, which can glue together formations of fighter planes in
the sky, that Yossarian waxes about in Catch-22. The logo of West
End International was taken from a book-jacket that the design department
had made as a dummy presentation for one of V.S. Naipaul’s books.
Armed with this rudimentary paraphernalia, Bahal and Mathew sailed
into one of the most audacious journalistic stings ever. They started
at the bottom of the food chain, with their first contact being a
section officer in the ministry of defence, who earned Rs 2000 off
them. And then before they knew it they were sucked into a web of
graft and dealmakers. Over the next few months the soul of the system
bared itself open to them. It was an ugly sight, based only on the
principle of greed.
Everyone, from army officers, bureaucrats, defence dealers and politicians
were willing to help push anything as long as there was a kickback
in the offing. The avarice was naked, completely transparent: percentages
and commissions were openly discussed; help of all kinds in circumventing
the system was generously offered; in a spirit of camaraderie, secrets
of other dubious deals were served up; credentials were established
by flaunting rosters of personal corruption.
There was no trace of shame, no intrusions of conscience.
Tyros in matters of defence hardware, totally ignorant of the subtleties
of financial skullduggery, Bahal and Mathew - particularly Mathew
- made enough gaffes to render some moments into pure slapstick. In
one meeting, asked about West End’s bank, Mathew replied Thomas Cook.
On another occasion he said the head office of the company was based
in Manchester United. My own favourite is his answer to a question
about the range of the thermal binocular. “Unlimited, “ says Mathew
cheerily. “Unlimited?” goggles the interlocutor. “Well, it blurs after
a point,” admits Mathew. Arundhati Roy’s favourite moment is Mathew’s
description of the product range of his company as including “typical
type of bombs”.
To my mind, there are only two explanations for this incredible lack
of all discernment on the part of those who manned the defence gravy
train. The first is that the greed was so blinding that they could
see nothing else. The second is that deals of this kind were so quotidian,
so everyday that there was no reason for anyone to suspect anything.
But it would be a big mistake to conclude that the entire operation
was a vaudeville affair, starring a couple of bumbling reporters.
The truth is that Bahal and Mathew planned each sting with meticulous
care (in fact neither took a single day off for six months). Bahal
would give thorough briefings to Mathew, who then carried out most
of the stings. The devices would be checked and re-checked - in the
knowledge that they could land one set of confessions, or capture
the transaction of a deal, only once. The venues would be recce’d
in advance. They would tick off detailed checklists (which grew more
elaborate as the cast of characters increased and with it the possibilities
of an unintentional gaffe). And having done all that both of them
would turn to God. Before every operation, Mathew would visit the
church, and Bahal would nip into a temple.
Even with god on their side, Bahal and Mathew had to display exceptional
courage. People keep asking me about the cameras the team used. All
that is idiot stuff, not rocket science. The cameras are just low-end
devices which can be purchased or put together at any electronics
outlet. The key is the gumption of those who used it. Had they been
discovered at any point the consequences could have been very serious.
You have to only imagine what could have happened if Mathew had been
caught out at the defence minister’s house, all wired up. They would
have doubtless taken him to the cleaners.
THE FACT IS THERE was continual tension, and it mounted with every
passing month as the final contours of the story began to reveal itself.
By the time Bahal and Mathew nailed Bangaru Laxman, and walked out
of his room with a demand of US $ 30,000 ringing in their ears, it
was January 2001, and the story had pretty much played itself out.
To proceed any further we needed two things: more money, and the actual
product, the thermal hand held camera. And since we had neither, the
curtains were pulled down on the fieldwork by the middle of January,
and the tedious task of transcribing, scripting and editing the evidence
Two large rooms in our office were cordoned off, their windows blacked
out with opaque cardboard. Till now a mere half dozen of us in the
office had known of the investigation; now fifteen staffers were handpicked
from different departments - television, investigations team, and
Tehelka - and conscripted for transcribing the almost ninety hours
of tape. This entire team worked around the clock, in shifts, in total
secrecy - with Bahal administering the omerta every day. No sooner
did the thick bound transcripts begin to emerge that Bahal began to
script the story. When edited, the first cut clocked in at over seven
hours. Bahal then took another go at it, and ruthlessly hacked it
down to a little over four hours.
The general consensus was that even this was too long for anyone to
sit through. With song, dance, hero, heroine, villain, a Hindi film
can become tedious at under three hours. Our earlier investigation,
Fallen Heroes, into matchfixing in cricket, had been just an hour-and-a-half
long and had the attraction of starring famous players, and a subject
everyone was crazy about. In the case of Operation West End the dramatis
personae consisted largely of unknowns, and the subject matter was
far less accessible and exciting. Faced by this we took a decision
that strengthened our belief and resolve in what we were doing. We
decided the story was way too serious, and went beyond the normal
issues of mass media: viewer interest, accessibility, attention spans,
and so on. We decided we would give the story the space it needed
to establish itself. If it needed more than four hours to play out
and prove its findings, then so be it.
(That decision was to prove critical. It freed us up. Over the coming
weeks as the odds against us mounted, as pressures of investments,
funding, friends, foes, ethics, motives, legal notices, threats, phone
tapping, surveillance, et al grew, we took refuge in the calm certainty
of the story. We were journalists and had done a journalistic investigation,
and that, in sum, was it. All the other shrapnel
flying around couldn’t damage that core truth.)
The final tape was ready by the afternoon of March 12. In less than
24 hours, on the afternoon of March 13, we broke the story, screening
it in the ballroom of the Imperial Hotel in Connaught Place. The screening
was scheduled for 1.30 p.m. The editors at Tehelka arrived at nine
at the Tehelka office and began to punch the phones. I made a couple
of mandatory calls, one each to Amitabh Bachchan and Shankar Sharma,
of First Global, our first round investors. Neither was told the details
of the story; just that we were breaking a very important story in
We had gotten so far, but we were still very tense. In a display of
amazing commitment the twenty odd people who had worked on preparing
the tapes had maintained the omerta, but there was always the fear
of the last minute slip.
The same morning I also went and personally met half a dozen important
people - none of them politicians. We may have been naïve but we were
not so foolish as to be unaware of the sheer gravity of what we were
doing. We were also not unaware of the entrenched and vested interests
our story would end up hurting. I felt the need to make sure that
nothing - no envy or doubt - muddied the story once it broke. I also
felt the need to rally the good behind us.
But I have to confess that we were on tenterhooks till the screening
actually began. About 300-odd people - among them retired generals,
bureaucrats, mediapersons, and then as word spread, politicians -
showed up for the screening, not quite sure what to expect. And then
as the tapes began to roll, as the story of Operation West End began
to seep into the public domain, the tension began to flow out of us.
Now nothing could pre-empt us, nothing could trip up the story. For
better or worse, it would soon cease to be our sole and onerous responsibility.
Our duties were done; our work was over. The story was out there,
and was now everyone’s duty and responsibility.
IT DIDN’T QUITE TURN out like that. True, the story did dominate the
public domain, and ended up being claimed by everybody - politicians,
public, media. But, sadly, it did not get quite as detached from us
as we had imagined. At the press conference, after screening the investigation,
we had made it clear that as far as we were concerned our role was
over. We had followed a story, it had turned out to be a good story,
we had broken it, and we were now out of it. The politics of it did
not concern us.