REPORTERS WHOSE STING BROKE INDIAN DEFENSE SCAM FACE OFFICIAL WRATH
by Aman Singh
American Reporter India Correspondent
New Delhi, India
NEW DELHI, Aug. 18, 2002 -- He might be called the Matt Drudge of India. But unlike the man who broke the story of President Bill Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the founder of the investigative Web news portal Tehelka.com, Tarun Jit Tejpal, is now facing the government's wrath for his reporting.
Tejpalm's Website shook India in March 2001 when it spilled the juicy details of a Tehelka "sting" of high-ranking officials that demonstrated extensive corruption in the nation's armed forces, political parties and central government. The expose even included a videotape of the then-president of India's ruling BJP party taking a bribe.
Tejpal started the Tehelka Website (www.tehelka.com) in May 2000 to present original and sometimes controversial views, but never once thought that he would have to pay so dearly for exposing powerful figures in the government.
When Tejpal, along with his colleague Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel, broke the story of their sting, the Indian political corridors were rocked by the revelations. For once, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre - as Indians call the federal government - had nowhere to hide.
"Operation West End," as the reporters dubbed their $24,000 sting, "is the ultimate indictment of Indian governance and ethics. It is the ugly fable of a poor country that has been completely sold off by its rich and powerful. We spent eleven lakhs on the story. If we had a little more money we could have ripped open the entire system end to end. We were just a group of amateurs, a leanly funded media organization with limited resources," a story on the site says.
The journalists had everything on tape, from President Bangaru Laxman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) - the majority party in the Alliance - receiving wads of money from a Tehelka reporter to Army generals speaking of being middlemen and getting work done on "conditions" - a thinly-veiled request for a bribe.
"Operation West End is about being cheated of your nationalism," Tejpal wrote in the expose. "In the final count, Fallen Heroes was only about being cheated of some entertainment; Operation West End is about being cheated of your nationalism. In the cricket story, there was the betrayal by a group of men who excited and inspired a hundred million; in Operation West End there is the betrayal by a group of people who lead a hundred million. At its worst Fallen Heroes was about losing games; at its worst Operation West End is about losing lives. ... "Operation West End is enough reason to lose all hope in the idea of India."
On a personal level, Tejpal is an ordinary person who hated studying in college and claims to have whiled away his time playing basketball all day. "I have a contempt for the formal education system, so as a protest, I did not collect my Bachelor's degree on graduation day," he says. Interested in literature and reading since the beginning, he spent all the money he could lay his hands on to buy books and read. For him, journalism was as a natural choice.
Tejpal began his career in 1983 at a magazine where his first salary was a meager Rs 700 ($14) a month. When his editor died in 1984, he got "bored stiff" and instead went to his ancestral house in the Punjab, in northwestern India, where he spent 10 months doing nothing but reading in his hometown of Chandigarh.
By this time, Tejpal's affair with childhood girlfriend, Geetan Batra, also from Chandigarh and a journalist, had become serious and the two wanted to marry. Her parents opposed the idea.
He recounts his meeting her with a naughty glint in his eyes, saying that ultimately he had to give her parents an ultimatum. "I told them either they came to the marriage or not, I will marry her within two months. And I did." They got married in 1985 and now have two daughters, aged 12 and 15.
He left his third job in 1987, also "bored stiff," he said, of covering the Punjab and the 1984 riots there. "After all there's only much you can do covering the same area and I just had to get out. So we packed and went off once more to Delhi," he remembers.
On coming to the capital he joined a successful national magazine, India Today, where his Essays column became famous and earned him a widely-recognized byline. Three years later he moved on once again to revamp the Financial Express, one of the most successful business newspapers in India.
"Having done that, I was offered to a role in the core group that began Outlook, (a national weekly magazine), which has now achieved a lot as a media organization. Despite the fact that I was part of the core group, there was only one editor, Vinod Mehta, and I was the number two, the managing editor. There were differences, but no ill will was involved as I peacefully backed off," he explained.
He then moved on to the publishing field and started a publishing house called IndiaInk, which published the very successful "The God of Small Things," the debut novel of celebrated Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. With their first book the publishing house was off to a good start, but Tejpal now has no shares in the company due to "conflict of interests," he says.
It was then that his search for venture capital began as the idea to starting a journalist's Web portal gradually took shape in his mind. His site, Tehelka.com, was finally launched on May 27, 2000, with an expose about the fixing of matches at the famed cricket field called Fallen Heroes. The story sent shockwaves through the international sports community and created a sensation everywhere the game is played.
"Since the Website was launched, we have had great writers, both national and international, writing for our site and it has been wonderfully successful," he beams.
The Tehelka site has been featured widely and favorably for its intrepid reporting in international media like CNN, BBC, Time magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, New York Times, England's The Guardian, Financial Times, Sunday Times of London, The Economist, The Independent, Singapore's Straits Times, the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News, the Far Eastern Economic Review, IRNA News, Asian Wall Street Journal and Daily Telegraph.
Bahal, who masterminded Operation Westend, for which he and Tejpal became household names in India much like the Wahington Post's Woodward and Bernstein team of Watergate fame, has had a long assocaition with Tejpal, who gave him his first job in 1991. The two have been worked together since then wherever Tejpal went. Bahal won't make any career decision without discussing them with Tejpal, acquaintances say.
"Then of course, the defense deals expose happened, and all hell broke loose," Tejpal recounts. On March 13, 2001, they broke the Operation Westend story and since then, the company and its Executive Editor haven't had a moment's peace. Their problems began with the government's protest of the methods by which the company had conducted the entire expose. India set up a special commission to probe the matter last September, and since then the company has had to spend more for legal fees than to run the Website. Tehelka.com once boasted of updating 20 stories a day; now it struggles forward with two or three (as does The American Reporter).
In an article he wrote on the expose(http://www.tehelka.com/channels/investigations/operation/tarun.htm), Tejpal speaks of the corruption the story aimed to expose:
"The Tehelka Investigation Team (saucily acronymed TIT) or, more accurately, Bahal and his Falstaffian deputy Mathew Samuel, began their undercover operation into defense purchases sometime in the August of 2000. Their gameplan was simple and logical. Enter at the lowest level of the food chain - the section officer in defense procurement - and work your way up the ladder of graft. Eight months into the investigation we are still astonished at how incredibly high the ladder goes, and how at every rung there were avaricious men waiting to pull us up as long as there was money to be had for it. Eight months later, as we look at the footage of the sting, we are still astonished at how blinding the greed was that two rank amateurs with close to no knowledge of defense hardware, hawking a patently absurd product, could go so far as to slice open an entire industry of high corruption.
"Bahal and Samuel set out to hawk fictitious hand-held thermal cameras, under the brand name of a fake company West End. Using spy cams, over a period of seven months, they shot more than hundred hours of footage. After a point, the Web of contacts, posturing and cross-referencing became so intricate and messy that both of them lived in the constant fear of having their covers blown. Their stress levels mounted with every passing week as the tightrope became ever thinner. I waited every day for them to come and tell me that it was over, they'd been caught out, seen through. But miraculously, greed had dulled every other sense of those who trafficked in the defense gravy train.
"The cast of characters nailed by Operation West End is stellar. At the very apex, the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, who took a one lakh ($2,060) token bribe to facilitate West End's prospects. In a revealing meeting, he waited expectantly for another $30,000, which never came, because we never had it. Then Jaya Jaitly, President of the Samata Party and a close aide of defense Minister George Fernandes, who accepted a bribe of Rs. 2 lakh ($4120). In fact, the Tehelka investigation leaves the Samata Party with not a leg to stand on, as its treasurer too airs all the sleazy deals of his party with great pride and glee.
"Tragically, the army too covered itself in disgrace as a slew of generals were caught grubbing for payoffs. Among those nailed are Lt. Gen. Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Director-General Ordnance Supply; Maj. Gen. P.S.K Choudary of Weapon and Equipment; and Major General Murgai, Director Quality Assurance, who has now retired."
In the end, the investigation had to be halted not because there weren't any more ladders to climb but because the expenses were increasing and the bribes becoming more ambitious.
What has followed has left Tejpal's company in shambles. First Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, the owners of First Global, the first Asian company to become a member of the London Stock Exchange, were targeted because, according to Tejpal, they have a minority share of 14.5 percent in the company. In the last eight months, the firm was hit with flimsy charges, some 200 summonses and more than 25 raids, he says.
"This belies their track record of 10 years of running First Global, when they have never had a tax or legal infringement," he said. "Now their businesses have been shut down; their properties attached; their travel banned; and even as I say this, Shankar Sharma has been arrested. This is what a venal government does to young talented people who deliver on the great Indian dream. And solely because they invested in a portal called Tehelka.com, though they own only 14.50 percent of it, and have never had a word to do with its running," fumes Tejpal.
Ironically, after spending eight months doing a dangerous and difficult story, Tehelka has now spent more than eight months defending it. It has been pressured, stretched and harassed as the government floats absurd, "cock-and-bull theories against it," he says, and actually presents the allegations on sworn affidavits at the commission.
According to Tejpal, six staffers - including two senior editors - have spent more than 6,000 man-hours since the story broke doing commission-related work instead of practicing journalism. They spend their days attending commission hearings, and confabulating with as many as 12 lawyersm he says.
Now Tehelka's meager resources and energies are being totally expended on endless and unwarranted legalese.
"In a word, even though the luminaries of government know Tehelka is totally clean - because various agencies of the government have been foraging for anything on us for the last eight months, and have found not a whit - even though they know Operation West End was a purely journalistic effort, they are waging a war of attrition to wear us down. There are very few independent media companies whose resources would stand the strain and we are no different."
While the majority of the journalistic community here is up in arms against thegovernment terming its measures as ways of "muzzling the press" and "trying to cut through the freedom of the press", nothing that the national press is doing (whichincludes protest marches, strong editorials against the government and discussions) has managed to shame the government yet.
Nevertheless, he is positive about the future and isn't as disillusioned as any otherjournalist would have been in his place. "Tehelka is going to survive. It might be that we change the medium. making it print or television, but it is essential that Tehelka survives as an independent media organization and continues," he assures. Looking at him, you want to believe this man who has lived under the scrutiny of the government for the last year and is restricted in his movements for security reasons since an attempt on his life last year.
Along with the Website, Tejpal has won a number of awards for his efforts in the journalistic field. These include Business Week naming him as one of the 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia and AsiaWeek's list of Asia's 50 most powerful communicators last year. At India's Brief Media awards in October 2001, Tehelka won all the key prizes including the Investigative Story of the Year, and Media Brand of the Year (ahead of popular music channel MTV) and Tarun Tejpal won Content Head of the Year. He also received an honorary mention for net excellence from Prix Ars Electronica, one of the best-known Web recognitions.
Although he has numerous bailable warrants (and a most recent non-bailable one, too, which has been stayed) against him, Tarun Tejpal exudes confidence, dignity and simplicity in all he does and says.
"I am absolutely confident that this phase will pass. I have lived my life like this. No problems as long as I'm truthful. This will pass and we will emerge correct," he said, ending the interview with a content smile lighting up his face.
American Reporter Correspondent Aman Singh has been a contributor to the Tehelka Website since 2001. She is based in New Delhi.