Grime And Glory
The dizzy highs and dismal lows of investigative journalism - from Operation Westend to Operation Dhritarashtra.
I was on assignment in Mumbai for Outlook, when I got the call from Delhi by the highly-motivated Aniruddha Bahal (my would-be editor), who informed me that Tarun Tejpal had left Outlook. They were launching India’s first news portal tehelka.com and would like to hire me as their first employee (a correspondent).
It was this call that I used to recall while rotting in jail for six months on trumped up charges by the CBI on the instructions of the then BJP-led government. The same BJP who is now shouting from the rooftops over misuse of the CBI by the present government!
My entry into journalism in 1998 coincided with the most modern phase of journalism in the country. It was the post-liberalisation period and the dawn of the new millennium. The landscape was changing and the electronic media was in the midst of its birth. The idea of news consumption was going through a sea change. Outlook, India Today’s rival, which had launched a few months earlier in the style of a multi-starrer movie, had just started changing its stripes. Their exposé on match-fixing in cricket became a blockbuster of sorts with fast bowler Manoj Prabhakar making disclosures that shocked the Indian public.
And I saw my target destination as a cub reporter.
I caught hold of the stern-looking (but mild mannered) Editor-in-Chief of Outlook, Vinod Mehta, who immediately dismissed me by saying that Outlook has a policy of not entertaining freelancers. But he referred me to Yuvraj Ghimire, an Assistant Editor at that time, who half assigned me a story – half because he felt I wouldn’t come back with it.
That was the beginning of my beautiful relationship with investigative journalism.
The best thing about investigative journalism is that it’s a sort of kick-ass journalism! Away from the regular stuff, you’re on the prowl for something bigger, almost always, even in your sleep. Everybody is your source and you never know when you could stumble onto the next big exposé. And when the story comes through, the respect and admiration from your peers is befitting compensation for all the trouble and risks taken.
The five stories that I did for Outlook took me from Kathmandu to Bhilwara in Rajasthan, all sorts of places in Bihar, Mumbai and then to www.tehelka.com.
The stint in Tehelka was the stuff of Hollywood films. Gutsy editors, a super-charged atmosphere, five-star after-exposé parties, a growing network of influential sources (politicians and bureaucrats), shocking stories and pretty faces all around. I was moving ahead in every way.
And then, like in Hollywood movies, the downturn was sudden and steep. Tehelka had already broken Operation Westend, exposing senior politicians and army officers for taking bribes to push for a fictitious arms deal. The “party with a difference”, not thinking collectively, began gunning for everyone.
Our investor Shankar Sharma was arrested on frivolous charges (of conspiring to bring down the stock market) and our would-be investor forced to back off. Our Editor Investigation, Aniruddha Bahal, was arrested on charges of “obstructing a government servant in discharging his duties”. Mathew Samuel, Special Correspondent, who went with a spy camera to the high and mighty and got the story, was slapped with a case under the Official Secrets Act. And I, who was first one to go for the assignment of Operation Westend and who saved www.tehelka.com from embarrassment when a Union Minister was mistakenly named as the person to whom money was handed over at the Defence Minister’s house (by finding the real person with just one second of grainy footage available), was arrested on charges of “conspiring to poach wild animals for a story”!
My case was the most ridiculous one but turned out to be the most damaging, as the intention was to put words in my mouth and get to my editors, Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal. They mistook me for a soft target but repented when they came up against a wall they couldn’t get through. Eventually they had to abandon their plan of destabilising tehelka.com by keeping its editors in jail. But they managed to keep me in jail for six and a half months, until the honourable Supreme Court of India granted me bail and chided the CBI for keeping me in jail for so long. (The Nobel Laureate Sir VS Naipaul attended the bail hearing, his first court appearance)
tehelka.com, which was a robust news organisation with more than 100 employees, came down to five, with no money to pay its office rent. But amidst all this, what stayed with us was a sense of humour and courage that saw us through the onslaught of the then government’s might.
Indian society is still in an evolutionary phase compared to a fully developed democracy like the United States of America. While we can ape the institutions and their working style, the mindset will take time to evolve. So while a public outcry after a media exposé in the US forces the government to take immediate steps to investigate and punish the guilty, here in India it is the opposite. Instead of looking into the overwhelming evidence against the culprit, the tendency is to dodge the exposé for a while by negating its worthiness, then finding ulterior motives, and finally shooting the messenger. Pity that they don’t understand that they are doing more damage to themselves in the process. Yeh public hai sab jaanti hai, as the then NDA government realised when they were shown the door in the election held after the Tehelka episode.
Tarun Tejpal found support in the masses who contributed money as advanced subscription and also in high net-worth individuals (HNIs) who contributed generously to launch a print version of tehelka.com which is running successfully. After six and half months of incarceration for nothing, I went ahead to do more exposés (with a vengeance) for Tehelka: The People’s Paper.
After leaving Tehelka in 2005, along with Aniruddha Bahal and Suhasini Raj I did the biggest ever exposé the country has seen – Operation Duryodhan. It was aired on the news channel Aaj Tak, and 11 members of Parliament were caught on camera taking bribes to ask questions in the Parliament. Famously called the “cash for query scam”, for the first time the country witnessed swift action after a big exposé as all 11 MPs (including six from BJP) were dismissed from Parliament. Never in the history of India has such a huge dismissal of the high and mighty taken place. This was investigative journalism at its best, as the story passed the test of two disciplinary enquiry committees – one set up by the Rajya Sabha and the other by the Lok Sabha.
Investigative journalism, in a short span of time gave me access to the corridors of power, transit through the world of criminals and undertrials in a rural jail (and their unusual worlds), highly sensitive and top secret information, being treated at par with the members of Parliament in the enquiry committee sittings, and VIP security for over five years. Quite a contradiction from my time in jail!
The current atmosphere of exposé after exposé by civil society groups doesn’t augur well for media organisations who are perceived to be piggybacking on them. And this is why a story like Operation Dhritrashtra scores the point. The veracity of the matter can only be established legally after investigation by a government agency (is there one?), but technically it has already been established in the minds of the people. The intelligent thing to do is to not shrug it off, but to face it and clear the air. Otherwise, people see through things, and there are enough investigative journalists lurking around to make people see through them.
Image source [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollieolarte/3028314931/sizes/m/]