Chitra: The Story Behind Bofors

Chitra Subramaniam tells Madhu Trehan about the pulls & pressures of working on the Bofors exposé. The limitations of journalists & the editorial tussles at The Hindu. And why India still doesn’t know the truth about Bofors. N Ram responds.

WrittenBy:NL Team
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The context of the interviews with Chitra Subramaniam and N Ram (above) is the Bofors story in particular and journalism in general. N Ram was the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu from 2004 to 2012. For those who were not born or were too young at the time – Chitra Subramaniam was the reporter credited with breaking the Bofors kickbacks story in 1989. For those not born or were too young and disinterested until now – Bofors was a story about kickbacks paid in the purchase of a Swedish gun involving an Italian gentleman called Ottavio Quattrochi whom the BJP alleges was a family friend of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. For those not born, too young, disinterested and living in a cave – Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Mini… Oh, never mind.

We spoke to N Ram after Madhu Trehan’s interview with Chitra Subramaniam. What the two have said is in the videos above. Given below are Chitra’s responses post Mr N Ram’s interview.

N Ram: “Chitra Subamanium was a stringer at that time. Much of this period she was a stringer for The Hindu, based in Geneva. She struck gold by making excellent contacts for which we have nothing but praise. Her role was to send notes. Even in her book where large portions have been lifted from the columns of The Hindu even from material that she did not write. I wrote most of it. But there were also others like VK Ramachandran who visited the headquarters of Bofors and did a number of stories. So for whatever reasons, without acknowledgment that sort of stuff has been lifted and used in her book. But in that book she acknowledges correctly that the stories were written by me…often joint byline.”

Chitra: In his role as an editor, Mr Ram wrote the final stories. Everybody knows who the main driver behind this investigation was.  If there had been genuine teamwork and an atmosphere of trust and transparency, the story would have stayed with the team and not moved with me an individual, when I went to The Indian Express and The Statesman.  Mr V.K. Ramachandran – as far as I know – was then a doctoral student in Finland and traveled to Sweden to pursue the story. Interestingly, I never got to meet with him throughout our working as a team on this story.

For teams to function well – and I have learned this from working with individuals and corporations – there has to be a leader who clearly defines the roles of others and ensures that every member of the team is respected.

N Ram: “We also appreciate the work of Chitra Subramanium at that time, although not what she has done later to sort of belittle the investigation, especially considering in a book, the narrative in the book she has lifted without acknowledgement. Much of the material was published in The Hindu. Most of the work is written by me, but as I said even some reportage done by my friend Prof. VK Ramachandran.”

Chitra: I hadn’t realised that stringers and reporters are treated differently from editors and owners in a team pursuit of factual information in a major story and that editors can help themselves to the work of stringers and reporters without any acknowledgment. Stringers and reporters work in good faith and hope to learn from their elders. How does one lift work from one’s own work, especially when the work involves continuous investigation and bits and pieces are filed every day to help the bigger picture emerge?

Some of the Indian investigators belittled themselves and, by extension, India. We all know the consequences of some of the stories they planted.  I reported on what I saw. I believe that is the job of any journalist, irrespective of who is in power. Governments talk of friendly and unfriendly newspapers and owners. I didn’t understand it then. I do now, but will not accept it as a given – doing so would be cynical.

In addition, The Hindu was out of the picture as far as the investigation in Switzerland was concerned as it had ceased publication of work on it in 1990. So, whatever anyone including Mr Ram has to say about how the investigations went on here is second-hand or information they may not have been able to verify independently.

N Ram: “There’s no correction…nothing…no correction of any kind. The byline from the beginning, from the first day, the byline said first name Chitra Subramanium and N Ram. Of course not…Of course not…From the start because the whole thing went as it is…as printed in The Hindu. And in any case it wasn’t written by her. That she herself has said, that it was mentioned from this… I don’t know what she was talking about. Go to the website it’s exactly the same. The work was not just for one story. The recognition…the story was selected…see, what they selected was the body of work alsosay in some cases just one story…if they did one story, but here they were saying body of work,they were picked. I had nothing to do with it. We did not enter anything…they knew…they had done their research and they had it on their records, they picked it and this is for an…alumnus. Chitra Subramanium, to the best of my knowledge, is not an alumnae of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. And…she is absolutely nothing…and I made it clear in the interview to The Hindu which also meant that it was a team work. It was not just Chitra Subramanium. She…she sent…she wrote these documents, the first ones, later on I was also there…and she struck gold but there were numerous others who contributed very important material to the Bofors investigation, without which we couldn’t breakthrough…and this was recognised but not so…that is ridiculous. I think, she got into a state, I think on this…and Columbia School made it clear what it was from day one, so I think…I would expect…better from mature people.”

Chitra: I had a long conversation with Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman, Associate Dean for Communications, Columbia. We spoke off-the-record, discussed journalism, ethics, the role of teams, editors, reporters etc. She said they had worked on the project (all the stories) for nearly one year. She sent me her contact details.  I don’t know if the correction had anything to do with our conversation. I sent her the interview in The Hoot.

Links to Bofors (Archives)

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