Tehelka exposed the endemic corruption in the defence department, and it had paid a heavy price.
It got immense support from everyone, but an intolerant and vindictive government pushed it to the wall, says tehelka's editor-in-chief Tarun J Tejpal

New Delhi, December 11

This is what we did.

We pursued a story on corruption in defence procurements.

It took us eight months, two reporters, and a great deal of resources.

The story turned out, at least for us, depressing and dramatic.

It showed up the defence ministry - India's holy cow - as a cesspool of profound corruptions.

It held up a mirror to ourselves. It was an ugly picture.

We broke the story on March 13, 2001 with a public screening. We gave away clips of the footage to every television channel, and anyone else who rang our doorbell.

We thought our role in a dangerous, exciting, revealing expose was over.

We had done our job.

This is what we said.

On the day we broke the story, we said we had no affiliations with anyone. No political party,
no business house.

We said we knew none of the people exposed on the tapes. And we had nothing against them,
or for them.

We said the story was not about a party or an individual. It was about systemic decay.

We said, in our opinion, had there been a different party in power, or a different cast of characters,
the results of the expose would have been the same.

We said the politics of the story did not interest, or concern, us.

As journalists our job was over.

This is who we were.

We were a group of professional journalists running a news-views website.

We had several dozen journalists on our rolls, most of them from the leading media organisations
of India.

We covered everything. Current affairs, environment, sports, culture, entertainment.

We had perhaps the finest Indian literary platform in mass media, online or offline.

We had an investigative team that broke stories all the time.

Yes, we also had an erotic channel, where we were not afraid to tastefully cover issues of human sexuality.

The finest Indian writers in the world wrote for us.

We put up twenty stories a day. The equal of two newsmagazines a week.

We had a growing band of readers all over the world. A high quality of reader because we offered
nothing but reading material.

We were funded by venture capital.

We had no owners to tell us what to do.

We could do the kind of journalism we wished to. We could play it safe. Or we could go for the jugular.

This is what happened.

We broke the story and all hell broke loose.

Everyone jumped on to the bandwagon.

Nobody looked at the story. Everyone looked at how it could be leveraged. How it could be spun.
What were its motives.

We became very famous. We received staggering amounts of love, acclaim, goodwill, and also from some quarters, hatred.

Some boys took on a contract to kill us. We came under heavy security cover. The police said the ISI wanted to kill us.

This is what the government did.

It launched a campaign of lies. Called us ISI agents, Congress stooges, Dawood Ibrahim's gangmen, stockmarket riggers, et al.

It established itself as a master of propaganda (Its doctorate, of course, would come a year later,
from another state).

It unleashed its hounds: CBI, Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax, Company Affairs,
Intelligence Bureau.

The hounds jumped all over us. They tore up our investors. We were nipped and scratched.
And in time comprehensively mauled.

It kept denying everything.

It set up a commission of inquiry. One of its terms was to body-search us.

This is what the commission did.

It held nearly two hundred sittings. In the course of 20 months.

It held in camera investigations into fifteen actual arms deals that had been mentioned on our tapes. Neither the public, nor us, had access to these inquiries.

What was up for public display was the investigation into us.

It pronounced the tapes genuine and undoctored. Three times.

It appeared to resist bludgeoning from the government.

This is what the government did in the commission.

It shed all pretext of morality at the door. It did not file a single line against those found guilty
of corruption.

It filed hundreds of pages of lies against us. On sworn affidavits.

It did not cross-examine a single person found guilty of corruption.

It sent its most illustrious officers - keepers of the legal fibre of the nation - the attorney-generals
and solicitor-generals, to thwart us and harangue us.

It leaned on people. The commission's lawyers in an outburst declared they were pressurised.

It tried to soften up the judge.

And it finally derailed the commission when it became clear that Ram Jethmalani's initial cross-examination of the first government witness was going to expose the state terrorism that had gone on against us. There were seven more government witnesses to come, and it was likely they would all be up for perjury.

This is what we did in the commission.

We spent 35,000 man-hours combating cock-and-bull charges.

And re-establishing the truth. Like filling up a hole you have dug so that you can fill it up again. You have shown us the corruption, now let's muddy and mix it all up, and see if you can show it to us again.

We had more than a dozen lawyers clearing the murkiness generated by the government's
mud-making machine.

This where we are now.

We had 120 staffers when we broke the story. We have four now.

Our investors had 17 offices when we broke the story. They have one now.

Three from our company have been arrested since we broke the story. One spent two-and-half-months
in jail. One is still in there, five months on.

We owe everyone money. The debt creeps up past our ears.

We also owe many friends and splendid warriors much more than just money.

Among them wonderfully large-hearted lawyers, without fear or avarice.

This is what every political party wants to do now.

Appoint another judge. Another inquiry commission.

Set up a JPC, a joint parliamentary commission.

This is what they should do.

Drop the charade of JPCs and commissions. Which is the last one that yielded anything?

Look at the cost. The just killed one must have burnt anything between one crore to ten crore rupees. Ought we to take off on another cycle of burning?

Inquiries in India are set up to diffuse red-hot, unmanageable crises. If that has been achieved with this story, then we can look further.

Further is not too further. Let Parliament form a cross-party committee, with some experts, to proactively fix the grievous gaps in the system shown up by the tapes.

Make available to the committee the inquiry report on the 15 deals. And since these may go back to many governments, and set off a fresh wave of accusations and charades, do it not to apportion blame, but to nail down safeguards for the future.

Since defence, everyone declares, is such a big deal, and the country is shrill with competing nationalists, surely we can all rise above ourselves.

Let the committee give the country a tangible, transparent blueprint.

Surely it should be a no-brainer for A.B. Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. And the shining many others.
The horse of the story is dead. No flogging will make it rise.

The spirit of it is alive. And it can still yield good , solid things.

This is what we will do.

We will not participate in any more commissions or inquiries.

We have given everything we have. We have stated everything we knew.

We have neither the resources, nor the desire to be part of another charade.

The truth is out there. In the tapes.

Most people have seen it. And recognised it.

Those who choose not to are free to do so. I suppose there is no reason the truth must be acknowledged just because it is the truth.

Our conscience is clear. We sleep well.

We have been with this story two years and four months. It has made us very poor, very famous.

It is now poised on the edge of the black hole of public memory and governance.

It can be saved. But others will have to do it. We have run ourselves through.

We have nothing now that can make it more, or less.

(Courtesy: Hindustan Times)
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