An exclusive interview for daijiworld.com by Richie Lasrado, Resident Editor
Photo: Ahmed Anwar
"Tehelka" is a terminology which was heard only in Bollywood movie dialogues until the turn of the new millennium, with someone macho like Dharmendra vowing with a chilling shriek, "Main aisa tehelka machaa ke rakh doonga…" and that said it all. It remained within the portals of movie histrionics and rhetoric, until the web portal www.tehelka.com really happened just over two years ago.
And, ever since, things never really have seemed to be the same like before. In whatever way one looked at it. Of all persons, Tarun J Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of the portal, should know better. Because he has not just seen the worse, but has gone through the worst.
Ever since the portal made an eight-month-long investigation into defence deals which brought several skeletons out of the ministry's cupboards, every effort has been made to browbeat the Tehelka team. Some of them have been jailed on flimsy charges, their office has been raided by various government agencies several times and their investors' business has been ruined.
In the given circumstances, anyone else would have crumbled and faded out. But not Tarun Tejpal. None other than the present union home minister Lal Kishan Advani had commented on the conduct of a majority of the press in India during the days of the infamous Emergency - "when they were asked to bend, they chose to crawl". He said so with a blend of wit and sarcasm of a Churchillian kind. It is a different matter if he said that after the Emergency was lifted.
But both Tarun Tejpal and Advaniji know that we are certainly not living in an Emergency ambience now. Yet what has happened in the recent past vis-à-vis Tehelka is perilously close in resemblance to and patently reminiscent of the events of those dark days. The atmosphere is hazy with accusations and different versions flinging around.
The union government was awfully embarrassed. Defence minister George Fernandes resigned. The Venkataswami Commission was appointed to make an enquiry. However, ultimately the focus was more on Tehelka's antecedents, motives and the sources of finance. No defence officials were summoned.
Just as Ram Jethmalani's cross-examination of witnesses began, it was realized that the report was going to be very adverse. Immediately the judge was shunted out on a different assignment. The report was to be out shortly. But nothing has happened since.
When it was found that the defence officials were cooperating very well with the enquiry in his absence, the defence minister was promptly put back in his seat. The official steps have been only a warning to everyone - don't you dare to do such things, and don't you even dare to invest in enterprises of Tehelka's kind.
Come a close encounter with Tarun, all these things become clear. Crystal-clear at that. How a small group of public-spirited individuals is pitted against the might and juggernaut of the propaganda machinery of the establishment has perhaps only one parallel in history. That of David and Goliath.
At the bottom of it all, the fact stares you in the face. Tarun Tejpal is made of a different stuff. The outer appearance of an elite Delhiite is combined with inherent ethnic, inborn strength and mettle found, say, in an essential, characteristic Punjabi. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," is the saying that fits him best.
Tarun Tejpal is a journalist and publisher. In a 20-year career, he has been an editor with India Today and the Indian Express groups, and the managing editor of Outlook, India's premier newsmagazine. He has also written for several international publications, including The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times and Prospect.
In March 2000, he left Outlook to start Tehelka.com - a news-and-views magazine on the Net that has broken ground with its sting investigations. In 2001, Asiaweek listed Tejpal as one of Asia's 50 most powerful communicators, and Businessweek declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia.
Tehelka has garnered world-wide acclaim for its journalism, and is seen as one of the seminal web sites of world media. Khushwant Singh and Sir V.S. Naipaul are on Tehelka's advisory board.
Tarun Tejpal being interviewed by Richie Lasrado
Tarun was very pleased to know about another portal that was doing a good job, i.e. daijiworld.com and willingly gave an exclusive interview to Richie Lasrado.
Tell us about Tehelka:
Although 'Tehelka' also means sensation, I use it in the sense of 'making waves'. And make waves it did. It exposed a lot of cases of corruption ever since it was set up in 2000.
One of your first exposes was on match-fixing in cricket. But, later on, the image of Manoj Prabhakar himself was at stake. Has that episode affected you?
Manoj's image might have suffered. Tehelka had nothing to do with it. We are satisfied that our expose was followed by many other match-fixing cases coming to light.
After you exposed the defence deal scams, the propaganda machinery of the establishment has run you down on two counts, thereby pushing the issue of corruption to the backburner. One, that the morale of our armed forces was compromised. Two, that you used the unethical means of employing women of dubious repute to achieve your goal of pursuing the truth.
Firstly, it was not a generalization. We only exposed what was going on in the defence deals. I am the son of an army officer myself and I have great respect for our armed forces. But I have come across the fact that our soldiers guarding our borders in extremely harsh conditions in Kargil and Siachen are getting a pittance of salary like Rs 3000 to 10,000, while some top defence officials sitting in Delhi have fattened themselves through kickbacks in defence deals. I only wanted our people to know this. There is no question of bringing the morale down. Secondly, on the subject of using those women, first I was not aware of it, when my two colleagues used the ploy. The truth had to come out. Later, I apologized for it. But I started getting hate mail over and over. Everyone asked: "What do you have to apologize for? Let the fellows be damned!" There are thousands of people in the country who feel that if it weren't for the method used, the truth would never have come out.
What is the main message you have driven home with your investigations into the defence deals?
More than the scam part of the defence deals, I am emphasizing on the ethics of party funding that has been going on through such deals. We have managed to bring out the systemic malaise in broad view.
What are the bitter lessons you have learnt post-Tehelka?
Anyone would have asked himself the same question - "Why should you do the right thing if the price you pay is extinction?". Yet I pursued the campaign for truth. The actions against us were particularly alarming because they emanated from the very same persons who fought for the freedom of expression during the Emergency period of 1975-77. If that was the downside of the whole story, there was the upside. During the last one-and-a-half-year period, in my efforts to garner support for my proposed weekly, I have come to know of common people's unremitting love and affection that I have earned because of my fight against corruption in high places. Besides, eminent legal luminaries like Ram Jethmalani, Kapil Sibal, Prashant Bhushan and others have defended us in courts without charging a Rupee.
In spite of having been through the mill, you haven't crumbled. What has given you such moral fibre?
The support which I have received from my family and friends has kept me going. Besides, wherever I have been in India, people have spontaneously appreciated our work in bringing out the corrupt deals. The love and goodwill I have earned from the general public is my greatest strength.
Your critics say your campaign was politically motivated.
That is untrue. I have been stressing on the same point for the last two years. I am not anti-BJP or anti-Congress. Even if the Congress party was in power, we would have exposed the bare truth the same way. On the other hand, the campaign that has been going on against us is a political vendetta.
After having antagonized the powers-that-be, have you found any threat to your life? Aisa kuchh mehsoos ho raha hai ki aap ki jaan khatre me hai?
Not at all. I am not scared even a wee bit. I am standing for truth so I feel safe.
Can you tell us about the vision and mission of your proposed weekly "Tehelka - The People's Paper"?
It will take journalism back to the values of 1980's. It was at that point that things had changed under former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The press was expected to be the handmaid of the government. The imposition of the Emergency changed the whole perspective in that it was realized in fact the press had to play the role of the opposition. I regard the freedom of expression as a dominant impulse and want to do away with the manager-owner vs. editor equation thereby laying the stress on the decision-making being invested with the editor. It will be a creative media platform. It will stand for transparency and ethics. It will be aligned only to the people's good. We have on our advisory board eminent personalities like Mark Tully, Swami Agnivesh, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Julio Ribeiro and others.
How are you going to manage the economics of it, when it is very clear that setting up a weekly magazine would entail multi-crore funding?
I was offered 20 crore to start the paper. But I declined it. This weekly will not have any political or business affiliation. Currently I am travelling across the country and collecting money from the people only in the form of advance subscriptions. About 80 individuals have offered Rs 1 lac each. Those intending to subscribe can SMS "Yes" to 3636 from their mobiles and they will be contacted soon after. They can e-mail to: email@example.com also.
What ails us Indians in general? What is your message to your compatriots?
Perhaps there is a lack of sense of greater social good. At the time of independence, the institutions that formed the body politic of our country were gifted to us. For one, I believe that all institutions have to be created by us through a collective effort. Rule of law and individual right are the pillars of our society. We have to protect our families and the future generations from the abuses of power and abuses of money. The onus of responsibility now lies with the affluent and powerful. Everyone should contribute to the process of change. There has been a steady fall in the quality of leadership. Crooks network very well together. But the good stand in a corner and complain. Then there is the disjunction between those who think and those who act. As a result, there has been a general feeling that success and integrity don't go together. I am not a Gandhian, but I would like to stress on the four tenets propagated by the Mahatma, namely, Non-violence, Tolerance, Compassion and a Sense of Humour.
Who is your role model in leadership?
I would rate only Nelson Mandela as a world-class leader.
Which are the events that have shaken India's political structure?
In my opinion, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Gujarat carnage of 2002 are the worst incidents.
Are you still continuing your intellectual pursuits like literature?
Honestly, for the last two years, I have been reading only the legal affidavits.
How did you like Mangalore and Udupi?
This is a lovely place. I have earned a lot of new friends during this single visit.