Currrent - Issue


Well over three years after Operation Westend rocked India's defence and political establishment, a London agency has declared the Tehelka tapes as genuine. The dotcom that broke the story is dead, instead editor Tarun Tejpal has chosen a newspaper to keep the establishment in the news.
                                                                                                                         By Vatasala Kaul

The guy in sandaled feet is running down the India Today staircase sideways in the manner of school boys, his pants flapping, his thick hair unruly, a fountain-pen jutting out of the flap-pocket of his thick white Tcotton shirt. The fortnightly issue is out, with another one of Tarun’s trademark essays—an eloquent pirouette in the middle of a political circus with literary references to Eliot that most of the magazine readers couldn’t care less about. "Yes, but it was f******* fun, wasn’t it?" he laughs loudly. More misty memories come back to me—grapevine gossip about the darling of the desk girls, rapid-fire conversation laced with expletives, concluded with a guffaw; a toy glowbug in his daughter Tiya’s room; a rollicking party at his friendly home where someone fat sat on a glass table and they both gave in to gravity. That was the summer of 1988.

Now a decade and a half later, he is in FabIndia general issue cotton kurtachuridar. The hair is in a ponytail, the beard is dappled, the face weather beaten as if he has been out on  the  open  ocean  for  months ,  piloting  a balky, old-world sailing ship through rough waters. You could say he has. Only it wasn’t Old World, only he wasn’t allowed to be Columbus.In March 2001,, with CEO and

Tarun Tejpal
editor Tarun J. Tejpal, 41, at the helm of the web-only news site pursuing 'free, fair and fearless' public interest journalism, hit the stormy headlines with two stories. One was its investigation of a cricket match-fixing scandal, and the second, its sting operation —Operation Westend, a rare example of journalistic brilliance — that exposed corruption in the Indian defence establishment, with senior military and government leaders caught on tape accepting bribes.

The ruling Government, stung and smarting, swooped vengefully down upon Tehelka in a copybook case of shooting the messenger. The camp stood  divided: those who thought Tejpal was a deliverer from the diabolic, and those who questioned Tehelka’s methods of using concealed cameras and call girls.

In the following months and years, Tehelka faced unrelenting persecution from the establishment. Dozens of charges were levelled, cases were filed, and interrogations and CBI enquiries initiated. Its staff of 120 became truncated to five, its office had to be vacated, equipment sold bit by bit, three of its staffers and its main financial backers arrested and harassed, and its debts sent up a spiral. Tehelka was accused of everything from conspiring with the ISI to having plans to destabilise the country’s economy. A murder plot was uncovered, and his office and home sandbagged.

With the power of the state arrayed against them, a future for seemed unlikely, but Tarun is not someone who howls maa, rolls over and dies. "It was a tough battle," says Tarun, "we bore the brunt of relentless extraconstitutional abuse of authority. And I said I am not giving up. I thought if they can do this to me—like any other journalist, I too have powerful friends—if it were an ordinary guy they would have wiped him out in two days. We could have died 600 times in the past three years, but we survived . I wanted to make that point—that however much the system can f*** you, you can survive, if you don’t throw in the towel. You may pay a price but you will succeed. A society in which good stories like Operation Westend fail, is doomed."

Tarun got hitched to his larger destiny as a household name, a ballsy bearer of the legacy of 80s-style incisive, impactive journalism in an epic battle between Truth and Deception. The story became a public metaphor, and the whole country was watching."It was a daily battle," Tarun recounts, "there were legal problems, all kinds of money issues, personal and professional." Tehelka spent eight months doing the story and three years defending it.

Meanwhile, a tight circle of friends and family helped Tarun. "I have an incredible family," says Tarun, "and friends would come for dinner and leave cheques behind… not one day did I feel that we would fail."

Close friend Puneeta Roy believes the period made Tarun a less reactive, calmer person. "The mantle of crusader was thrust upon him," she says. "He neither invited it, nor feared it. He could have let it go, but he chose the more difficult path. When he saw how the young were responding to his vision, he was inspired and the momentum pushed him to something beyond  himself . "Two  years  into  the  fight


"A few weeks ago, a London based forensic agency cleared the suspect Operation Westend tape as the camera original. A vindicated Tarun now wants compensation for years of harassment. "

something went click in Tarun’s head. As far he was concerned, he had said and done everything he could. Now he wanted to bring Tehelka back. But how? No one thought he could do it. After two false starts, on January 30,2004, Tehelka, The People’s Paper, hit the stands-funded by The People for whom it was meant. "We started without a rupee of investment," says Tarun. "When have you last heard of that happening in a media organization?"

Alyque Padamsee, it appears, thought of the idea of founder-subscribers. And there they were, the nation’s conscience keepers, who gave one lakh rupees each for their belief in Tarun’s vision-Alyque Padamsee himself, Mahesh Bhatt, Mira Nair, Shah Rukh Khan, Pritish Nandy, Shabana Azmi, Sunil Khilnani, Mark Tully, Shyam Benegal, Naseeruddin Shah...

Mahesh Bhatt too discovered him, "like the world", after the sensational sting operation. "He showed on a mammoth scale what we all felt about events in the country. Amongst a media that largely toadies in overt and covert ways to the establishment, a voice like Tarun’s kindled something that had died in us." Bhatt made a special effort to meet Tarun at a film awards function. "I found him a simpler person than he was made out to be," Bhatt says, "a native at heart, who says things simply and does not hide his vulnerability." Bhatt took early morning flights, paying for his own tickets to join Tarun at various public meetings to promote Tehelka the paper. In the end, Tehelka launched with 172 founder-subscribers.

Besides, of course, the 14,000 subscriptions. The emotion ofidentification found reflection a thousand times over within the country, and without. In a packed auditorium at Standford University in California, just one of the stops on Tarun's tour through the US in the fall of 2003, Girish Agrawal, engineer turned law student, saw the larger picture. "As he talked about building a People's Paper, I joined the ranks of the hopeful subscribers."

The dream perhaps had started to take hazy shape when Tarun left India Today in August 1994. Aroon Purie, Tarun’s boss at India Today who believes that Tarun has done an amazing job of investigative journalism, recalls, "He did a great job as a copy editor in India Today, ensuring it maintained a high standard of writing. Tarun had good editorial judgment about stories. After a while, I sensed he was getting bored with everyday journalism and was drawn to the literary world."

Sumir Lal, Tarun’s roommate from his days at DAV College, Chandigarh, recalls the pair spending hours debating the meaning of life in their PG digs at Sector 9. It was a time when cooking and eating was an adventure and cheques acquired from winning quiz after quiz never lasted long. "We left college with two guiding principles," says Lal, "that we would live up to our fullest potential unmarred by norms and what people tell us to do, and we would leave the world a better place. Tarun has lived up to both."

Tarun’s wife Geetan, whom he met while they were both in college, says. it’s amazing how his creativity peaks in a crisis and finds an anchor within himself. You see, Tarun wrote a novel, his first, while Tehelka collapsed around him and all he himself read was legal affidavits. Believe it. The Alchemy of Desire, has been bought by Picador, with a six-figure advance. No, V.S. Naipaul, whose close affiliation with Tarun is well-known, has not read it yet, but has promised to write a blurb for the book, making the publisher very happy. Andrew Kidd, Picador’s publisher, had this to say: "It is a novel quite unlike any other, with a power and a weight of feeling one almost never encounters in contemporary literature." The story? Tarun is dismissive (or secretive?): "Love, desire, loss, colonialism, India, separation, pain, you know, the usual…" He wrote the book in hotel lobbies, on flights, in lounges, in hotel rooms-and sent it off without re-reading to Gillon Aitken, the literary agent. You would believe him now when he says he is a "lunatic".

Integrity and lunacy are not mutually exclusive, after all. "It is the madness that makes the other side possible," says Tarun, "to be able to apply one’s own yardstick, and when called to a higher order of conduct, to not sell out, run away, cut a deal or ask for mercy. The reproduction of information is the simplest thing to do; you have to take sides, the side of the right, the side of the truth. If you are too cynical, if you don't care and if you are too tired to do it, what are you doing here?"

The Tehelka that Tarun built-again-is the kind of workspace he dreamed of: "A quality media organization that would allow irreverence, iconoclasm and risk-taking" and a 'lunatic' editor is a very desirable thing.

A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Forensic Science, London, cleared the suspect Operation Westend tape as the camera original. A relieved and vindicated Tarun is delighted, and has written to the Prime Minister of the new government demanding compensation for years of harassment and
victimisation. There's no reply yet.

Jaya Jaitley, one of the worst affected by the sting operation, who resigned as the president of the Samata Party at that time, is still deeply wounded by the allegation that she would sell her country for "two lakh of rupees". "Every word that comes out of Tehelka is a lie," she declares. "It was a fraudulent exercise; they created a story and stage-managed it to fit people into it."

Meanwhile, at the crowded, cramped Tehelka office, determination obviates the need for decor. The low ceiling, just a few inches above Tarun’s head, cannot keep down the palpable buzz—tomorrow they break another investigative story, another sting operation. "At Tehelka, we have intellectual concerns, we are serious, and we are not afraid to get out hands dirty."

I walk out and look again at Tehelka’s symbol on the stark white signboard outside. A bright red chilli, curled in puzzled amusement at those who do not dream, dare or dissent.