Thursday, November 5, 2009

Prism, prism, tell me the truth

Tehelka as Metaphor
Author :Madhu Trehan
Publisher :Roli Books
Price: Rs 595

Rajesh Singh

It can be said with some amount of accuracy that true sting operations in the country began with Tehelka’s Operation West End that ruthlessly exposed the politician-bureaucrat-defence nexus in defence deals. The revelations eventually destroyed political careers, seriously dented the image of public figures and put serving defence officers out of jobs. In the process, however, Tehelka itself came under attack — and not just from the Establishment — for some of the dubious methods it deployed to expose the rot. While the powers-that-be ensured it was reduced to near decimation, few peers openly backed the organisation — peeved that someone among them (and not they) did something noteworthy, and also because they had reservations on the ethics of the operation. In the end, for all its faults and alleged linkages with a political party, Tehelka and its brand of investigative journalism became important enough to be discussed, debated and written about. The latest in the line is a 580 plus page book by journalist Madhu Trehan who, incidentally, can also claim credit for investigative stories through her path-breaking Newstrack video series.

While the book traces the sting story from the very beginning and rounds it up with the denouement, the account is more than a mere rendering of a by now well known episode. Trehan goes beyond the story, into the merits of the methods used, the innocence of some of Tehelka’s reporters and the wiliness of others, the revenge by the State, the desperation of financiers who were concerned more about their investments than the “path-breaking” journalism being indulged in by the group led by Tarun Tejpal. The book recounts the frustration of journalists who worked tirelessly and under fear only to see the credit hijacked by more savvy people, who finally basked in the glory of the after-math. Although (despite her best efforts to sound ‘neutral’) she comes across as an admirer of Operation West End, the book does give adequate space to dissenting voices. In fact, the author herself expresses unhappiness over certain aspects of the Tehelka approach, and is unflinching in her condemnation when she feels it is due.

Who then are the heroes and the villains in the book? Mathew Samuel is placed on the highest pedestal, higher than his bosses Aniruddha Bahal and Tejpal. The author deserves praise for pushing into the limelight a journalist who did all the dirty (and dangerous) field work that led to the scoop. While Tejpal went on to become a national celebrity and Bahal stayed afloat on the Tehelka achievements — writing a book and managing a website that (you guessed it right) specialises in sting operations, Samuel almost slid into oblivion. Unlike the other two, he is neither seen on TV shows nor is he on the lecture circuit. Trehan has virtually resurrected him in the memories of thousands of people who relate the defence rip-off with the likes of Tejpal and Bahal.

It is, thus, appropriate that the book is laced with conversations with this remarkable but, by the account provided by the author, an unassuming person whose faulty English lends credence to his naivete. Samuel did all the damning interviews and the secret filming of his ‘victims.’ He bluffed his way when faced with technical queries from senior defence officials, and courageously handled the articulate and sharp Jaya Jaitley. He knew all along that one slip on his part would not just doom the project but his own career as well. But, for all the simplicity, it is difficult to believe him when he says he did not know he was breaking a few laws in the process as well. He professes innocence, for instance, when he was asked in the Commission set up to inquire into the episode about the criminal codes. He responded by expressing a deep respect for the Indian Penal Code but added he knew nothing about them. All that he knew was he was doing his duty as a journalist and that it was for a greater good. When the counsel of an alleged middleman (in the defence deal) claimed in the Commission hearing that he tried to lure his client, Samuel with a straight face replied that he did not understand what ‘lure’ meant. On another occasion, to a charge that he had political leanings, he said he was unaware what ‘leaning’ was, reminding the Commission he had admitted earlier to a poor grasp over English.

While heads rolled after the exposé, the issue ironically led to a parting of ways among the people involved. Trehan chronicles the rift between Tejpal and Bahal — the former refusing to categorically back his colleague when asked whether he had sanctioned the use of sex workers as bait and whether he approved of it, and the latter cribbing that Tejpal had taken credit for work done by him, and completely shutting him out of the loop. Samuel himself refused to have anything to do with Tehelka after it was re-launched as a weekly magazine.

The author has been more than fair to all the key players of the episode, from the journalists involved to the victims. She extensively interviewed them to get their perspective, and sympathised with their plight, alluding in some cases that the punishment to the victims exceeded the crime. She has been equally harsh with fallacious justifications, questioning motives — whether those of reporters or the ones caught on tape. One detects, for instance, a tinge of pity in her tone for George Fernandes, who was dragged into the controversy although he does not once appear on tape; and for Jaya Jaitley who could have simply accepted that money was indeed taken and that it was normal for parties to accept donation.

Madhu Trehan says, “…there is great wisdom in looking at life in shades of grey. It is in the hazy hue of grey that you will find a crystal of truth.” Perhaps it is this realisation that led her to adopt the ‘Rashomon approach,’ where every participating individual has the opportunity, in hindsight, to reflect on what happened from his or her own perspective. One crime, many interpretations (and justifications). The legendary Akira Kurusowa would never have imagined Rashomon swamping a book on sting operations.

Finally, here is my Rashomon on Tehelka: The only other major sting operation it has done is on the Gujarat riots, a little over a year ago. Is it a mere coincidence that all Tehelka stings have targeted parties opposed to the Congress?

(First published in The Pioneer)

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