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Posted on 14 June 2011
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
BULLETS & BYLINES
Daipayan Halder

The elephant in the newsroom

Daipayan Halder on the days he spent with J Dey, Mumbai’s top crime reporter who was gunned down near his home, and what the murder means for the media

UNKNOWN TO the other, we were competitors before we became compadres. It was during those heady days of 2006. As Mumbai journalism was being turned downside up with the launch of two new newspapers in the city, J Dey and I were working night and day to upstage each other. The page one desk of DNA, of which I was a part, was on the lookout for the big stories that would force Mumbaikars to change their reading habit. Being new to the city, I learnt from colleagues that news coverage in Mumbai centers around four Cs – cinema, commerce, crime and cricket. I also learnt there was someone called J Dey who had joined Hindustan Times to boost their investigations team. “He’s the best there is, boss. Not good news for us,” said a junior colleague. I shrugged off his concern. What can one man do? I didn’t have to wait long to see what a byline can do for a newspaper. Launching a month before us, Hindustan Times couldn’t have asked for a better lead to go to town with, a story that touched both the underworld and Bollywood and brought the unholy nexus between the two to the fore. It was the Salman Khan tapes story. Reported by J Dey. In the months that followed, as the story got criticised, the authenticity of the tapes questioned, the decision of a broadsheet in running with a story fit for a tabloid debated, Dey’s absence in our newsroom was sorely felt. A byline had become the game changer. In my three years in Mumbai, I never met Dey. But after a hard day’s work at one of the seedy bars in Parel, a few drinks down, I would often discuss the impact of the Salman Khan tapes with colleagues. Many young crime reporters told me how few reporters could match the depth of Dey’s coverage of Mumbai’s underworld. Many reporters who have trained under Dey regarded him as their guru and looked forward to an opportunity to work with him. If only we had Dey with us, I thought at such times, things could have been different. It took me three years, a change of job and city to work with Dey. I took over as the New Delhi editor of MiD DAY while Dey had been working with the paper for some time in Mumbai. Though separated by cities, we spoke over the phone often to pan out national investigative stories. I was taken aback by his simplicity and childlike enthusiasm for big stories even after so many years. Qualities rare among journalists of his stature. I got into the habit of referring to him as commander and he started calling me chief in jest. Dey had this uncanny ability of coming up with lead stories from nowhere on a short notice when the regular news list threw up duds. His contacts in the underworld, in the betting mafia, and with the now discredited encounter specialists of the Mumbai police, had earned him the reputation of being an encyclopedia of crime journalism. Be it the betting stories during the previous IPL series, the Radia tapes or the real estate mafia, or more recently the oil mafia, Dey was our man for the page ones.

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AT THE Mumbai edition, reporters would compete with each other to be a part of Dey’s team. And the man himself was always willing to help out even the most junior of reporters if required and prod them to get exclusives. Every time we would get nervous about the repercussions of putting out stories that could hurt the powers that be, Dey would say: “Arre boss, ek baar hi maroge na (chief, you only die once).” In journalism, as in life, such fearlessness is the mark of men who stand apart, often at huge personal loss. His words came to mind as I watched the news of Dey being shot. Who killed Dey? The oil mafia? The Chhota Shakeel gang? Too premature to conjecture. Too hurt to go looking for answers. The breaking news slugs on television channels, the bytes, the conspiracy theories, all seem meaningless. The truth is Dey is gone and it just doesn’t sink in. In my two years with Dey I never got to know as many things about him as I did from the national media after his death. I know now that Dey had received death threats often. As one colleague remembered, at the peak of the Mumbai’s underworld days, Dey got a threat call from none less than Chhota Shakeel, Dawood Ibrahim’s key aide. Though scared for a second, he mustered the courage to snap at the caller. Fellow crime reporters are now saying how he would often follow encounter cops in their excursions. Or that a hardened crime reporter like him had an amazingly soft side as he would go out in Navy or Coast Guard boats to watch migratory birds take shelter in abandoned ships. Dey never told me all this. Guess we never had the opportunity to discuss our lives, so busy were we in planning and executing stories that would bring us firmly back into the game. I don’t know the last story he was working on. A story that could have, if published, shaken things up. Was it his appearance at Zero Dial, a book on police informers released by actor Ajay Devgn and PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, which gave his face away, so far hidden under his famous hat? Did this make him recognisable to his assailants? How long did his killers trail him? How did they know he would be there at that time? Will we ever know the whole truth? What does Dey’s muder mean for crime reporting in India’s crime capital? Dey had in the past reportedly told a friend, “I hate to come in media glare but have to for the sake of the book’s publicity.” Was that his undoing? Asked by television reporters several times over, all I could say was I don’t know. Heck, it’s only now and that too from the papers that I know J Dey stood for Jyotirmoy Dey. To me, though, he will always be the commander. Sad, I won’t get to hear him call me chief anymore.

Daipayan Halder is the Resident Editor of Mid Day’s New Delhi edition.
deepnow@gmail.com

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Posted on 14 June 2011
 

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