By: Luke Harding
January 6, 2003
Tarun Tejpal is sitting amid the ruins of his office. There is not
much left - a few dusty chairs, three computers and a forlorn air-conditioning
"We have sold virtually everything. I've even flogged the airconditioner,"
he says dolefully.
Twenty months ago Tejpal, editor in chief of tehelka.com, an investigative
was the most feted journalist in India. He had just broken one of
the biggest stories
in the country's history - an expos└ of corruption at the highest
levels of government.
His reporters, posing as arms salesmen, had bribed their way into
the home of the defence minister, George Fernandes, and handed over
ú3,000 to one of the minister's colleagues. The journalists found
many other people prepared to take money - senior army officers,
bureaucrats, even the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party,
who was filmed shovelling the cash into his desk.
The scandal was deeply embarrassing for the BJP prime minister,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Mr Vajpayee sacked Mr Fernandes and ordered
a commission of inquiry. The scandal promoted a mood of national
catharsis, and congratulations poured in from ordinary Indians tired
of official corruption. Tehelka, which had only been launched in
June 2000, was receiving 30 million hits a week. But the glory did
"I had expected a battle. But we had not anticipated its scale,"
Tejpal said yesterday. "The propaganda war started the next day."
Nearly two years later, he has been forced to lay off all but four
of his 120 staff. He has got deeply into debt, sold the office furniture
and scrounged money from friends. "They drop by for dinner and leave
a cheque behind."
The website, which once boasted sites on news, literature, sport
and erotica, is "virtually defunct". George Fernandes, meanwhile,
is again the defence minister.
The saga is a depressing example of how the Kafkaesque weight of
government can be used to crush those who challenge its methods.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Hindu nationalist-led government
"unleashed" the inland revenue, the enforcement directorate and
the intelligence bureau, India's answer to MI5, on Tehelka's office
in suburban south Delhi.
They did not find anything. Frustrated, the officials started tearing
apart the website's investors. Tehelka's financial backer, Shanker
Sharma, was thrown in jail without charge.
Detectives also held Aniruddha Bahal, the reporter who carried out
the expos└, and a colleague, Kumar Badal. Badal is still in prison.
"It got to the stage that I used to count the number of booze bottles
in my house to make sure there wasn't one more than the legal quota,"
The government commission set up to investigate Operation West-End,
Tehelka's sting, meanwhile, started behaving very strangely. "The
commission didn't cross-examine a single person found guilty of
corruption. It was astonishing," said Tejpal. Instead, it spent
its days rubbishing Tehelka's journalistic methods.
The official campaign of vilification against the website has attracted
protests from a few of India's prominent liberal commentators, such
as the veteran diplomat Kuldip Nayar and the respected columnist
Tavleen Singh. Tehelka's literary supporters, who include Salman
Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and VS Naipaul, have also expressed their
outrage. But in general, India's civil society has reacted with
awkwardness and embarrassment to the website's plight.
"I read all of Franz Kafka when I was 19 and 20, but I only understand
him now," Tejpal wrote in a recent essay in the magazine Seminar.
"He accurately intuited that all power is essentially implacable
The treatment of the website's investors has scared away anybody
else from pumping money into Tehelka. The company owes ú620,000.
Mr Vajpayee's rightwing government has bounced back from the scandal
and is expected to win the next general election in 2004. Last month,
it won a landslide victory in elections in the riot-hit western
state of Gujarat after campaigning on a virtually fascist anti-Muslim
The murky world of arms dealing goes on. Tony Blair and his ministers
are still trying to persuade the Indian government to buy 66 Britishmade
Hawk jet trainers, but the billion-pound deal remains mysteriously
stuck over the price.
Tehelka's expos└ was not about "individuals", but about "systemic
corruption", Tejpal insists. He admits that his sting operation
would have gone down badly with any government, but says that the
BJP's response was venomous. "The degree of pettiness has been extraordinary.
They have a crude understanding of power and a lot of that stems
from the fact they are in power for the first time. Our struggle
is emblematic of a wider issue: can media organisations be killed
off when they criticise governments?".
The gloomy answer appears to be yes. Last night Balbir Punj, a leading
BJP member of parliament, claimed the government had nothing to
do with the website's collapse. "Just because you do a story exposing
the government doesn't mean the gods make you immortal," he said.
"Many other [internet] portals have closed down. The boom is over."