The Lagaan Team

The inside story of how the BJP-led NDA Government willfully destroyed Tehelka

September 16, 2004 in Culture
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At about 6.30 pm everyday, over the last several months, a motley bunch of us have been regrouping at what once used to be the sappy, livewire offices of Tehelka.Com. We laughingly call ourselves “the Lagaan team”: a ragtag combination of tea-boys, secretaries, unpaid journalists, and beleaguered editors – not more than 10 or 15, we are all that’s left of a spry young media outfit that took on the Indian government.

So when that government accuses us of “destabilising the country” and paints us as instruments in myriad sinister conspiracies, we look at ourselves with amazement and laugh. Ramlaganji, a Hinduja hand? Aniruddha Bahal an ISI mole? Samuel Mathew a stock-market decoy? Tarun, a Congress stooge? It’s the surprised humour of trick mirrors, the tickle of finding yourself cast in bizarre shapes so entirely removed from the truth.

But beyond the laughter, the lying torsion of the government’s looking glasses has led to an appalling travesty. I joined Tehelka as a literary editor when it was first set up, two and a half years ago. It was an exciting time.

We were riding the last crests of the dotcom boom. Everything seemed possible. Three Delhi-based journalists had gone to Mumbai selling a heady meld of ambition, talent and, an almost naïve, idealism. Given the spirit of the time, venture capitalists were ready to alchemy money into that. The idea was simple: Buffalo Networks was to be a multi-media company with Tehelka at its core – a news-and-views magazine on the net that would break new ground.

We were mandated to be excellent, adult, iconoclastic, unafraid. Nothing was to govern us – none of the management constraints that had crept into the profession, no business interests or political affiliation – nothing except the rigours of good journalism. It was to be a site where an investigative journalist like Aniruddha Bahal and a literary junkie like myself could each chase our grails without conflict; he was given the licence to work on a single story for eight months; I, to commission three in a day if I wished.

For an intoxicating period, we achieved our mandate. Very quickly, Tehelka became among the top five Indian websites in the world. We posted an average of 20-25 stories a day. The best writers wrote for us. The best readers read us. Our future looked resplendent. Then, in March 2001, we broke a historic story.

Over the last year, like a sandcastle assaulted by a creeping tide, Tehelka has slowly been run to the ground. The maverick green and cheeky reds of our office lie shrouded in darkness; its acetylene energies are extinguished. Our doors are locked; our computers are sold; our generator has no diesel.

Where there was once the clatter of keyboards working through the night, the stray strum of a designer’s guitar waiting for inspiration, there is now only an eerie silence. A half circle stain of tea darkens on a desk. The laburnum pods at the window by my table bob unnoticed. Its haiku beauty is beyond my reach. We, the 15 of us who remain from the 105 we were, have been pushed down to the basement. Next month, we have to vacate even this.

Tehelka is no longer merely the company I work for. It is the transformative experience through which I have discovered the nature of the troubling country we live in; the creeping, horizonless limbo trapped in which, I and my colleagues, have come to understand what power can do to those who question it.

I am never more keenly aware of this than when I attend the Justice Venkatswami Commission of Inquiry. The government’s witch-hunt of Shankar Sharma, Tehelka’s investor, is a human rights atrocity: it would take just one cub reporter to document why it’s also an astounding media attack. But it is in the commission that the government has struck its most insidious note in its opera of intimidation: it has forced us to defend ourselves ‘legally’ against every mad eruption in its malicious imagination.

It is difficult to convey to others how dangerously universal Tehelka’s tribulations can be. Sitting at the commission is like watching Kurosawa’s Rashoman. The judge is the only still point in a situation rendered morally rudderless by the government. He is a good man. Watching him, I have learnt to believe in his impartial intention. But it is the nature of the beast: as the octopus of legality unfolds, the perjuries and false affidavits pile up, and versions of the story run amok – Rashoman-like, the truth becomes harder and harder to find. The empirical core of the story is lost.

As literary editor, I had little or nothing to do with Operation Westend. I saw it fully for the first time at the Imperial Hotel on March 13, 2001. It was a story that ripped open the corrupt seams of defence procurement in India, a Smirnoff lens that revealed people for who they really were. I remember walking out twice – sickened by the matrix of public life I saw there.

Corruption is not new to India, but such damning visual proof of it is. I expected swift retribution, a cleansing catharsis, an attempt at systemic change: the ordinary expectation of an ordinary citizen. Mr Vajpayee was the head of a party “with a difference”. If he reached for the right action, they would become heroes: nothing could sully them.

But the contrary happened. What was just a small pimple, the first blotch on a young government, was vengefully itched by its own brash adolescence into a full-blown rash. Today, in many ways, this is the most discredited government since the Emergency. Its immoral position in the commission can pass for a synecdoche of all the reasons why. In a vigilant media, the enormity of the government’s fraud on Tehelka would have made for gleeful stories: their affidavits are matchless examples of stupid incompetence combined with malice – the giant bungling of a giant bully. But as things stand, their dark comedy is played out – largely unwitnessed – at the Vigyan Bhawan Annexe, where the commission is under way.

In this hall sits a formidable shoulder of 40 odd lawyers: the confederate front of those caught on the Tehelka tapes. Marooned within that hostile dogleg, sit our lawyers: a feisty team of two, sometimes one. In front, sit another row: one set of lawyers representing the government, the other the commission. We, the Lagaan team, sit silently at the back.

Friends ask me why I expect anything different, but I can never contain my shocked contempt when I watch the government of India – represented by the additional solicitor general and attorney general of India – range itself brazenly on the side of the accused. The inquiry has been in progress for 16 months.

In all that time, they have not deemed it fit to investigate or cross-examine a single other witness – not one of the 31 caught blatantly on the Tehelka tapes. Yet, when Tehelka appears at the witness stand, like shoddy conjurors, these august men stand up to pull fake rabbits out of their hats. I can understand Jaya Jaitley, Bangaru Laxman and the army officers defending themselves with passion, lies and knuckle-dusters. But is this what the venerable government of India – caretaker of a billion people, beneficiaries of our hard-earned money – should be doing?

As literary editor, in a just world, I need not have had anything to do with Operation Westend. But watching it perform shameless moral cartwheels in the commission, I find I have an urgent list of cross-examination questions myself. Will the democratic Indian Government answer them?

Also Read: Night Of The Long Knives

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