September 4, 2001


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A letter to Pervez
Arvind Lavakare

Tehelka: Take Two

Impersonation is fine, but prostitution is not; voyeuristic videos with whiskey are fine but with whores are not; bribing with cash is fine, but with courtesans is not. That about sums up the shrieking U-turn made by our press, politicians and public over the latest revelation of tehelka's antics which had caused a national cyclone in early March this year.

In its issue of March 26, 2001, India Today magazine editorially proclaimed tehelka's tapes made under a false identity as 'a proud moment for India's journalism, and that too good old-fashioned investigative journalism.' That view of the nationally renowned weekly, now in its 26th year mind you, was generally echoed by the rest of the country although only some of the tapes were publicly shown. Such was the pro-tehelka wave that, on June 25, the Congress party presented to the country's President a memorandum reportedly signed by 62.5 million people demanding the sack of the Vajpayee government on tehelka's 'expose' of corruption in defence deals

The conversion of bouquets into brickbats for the fraudulent 'arms dealers' has been emphatic. In its first editorial of August 24, the 124-year-old The Hindu blasted tehelka's use of 'the most ugly and detestable ways' as 'journalism at its worst --- deceitful, unscrupulous and manipulative --- and a shame on the profession. It is difficult to conceive of another example when Indian journalism had sunk so low.' The hero had become a zero.

It is clear now that the sane voice accusing tehelka of criminality as far back as March 26 in this column and citing support 10 days later from two intellectuals had largely fallen on deaf ears despite's vast reach. In fact, one popular columnist even fell just about short of abusing this writer for faulting tehelka's use of criminal methods.

If the truth has finally dawned now, it is only and only because tehelka used 'call girls' aka harlots and strumpets and courtesans and whores for its 'noble' purpose of exposing governmental corruption. There is a great irony there that exploitation of female flesh should have revolted the sensitivity of that very country which has generally treated women contemptuously through the centuries and even today witnesses them being paraded naked on the streets as a 'punishment' for some perceived 'wrong-doing.'

There's more irony. Writing this eight days after The Indian Express of August 22 blew the lid on tehelka's 'sex bribes,' not a single effigy of tehelka's Tejpal has been burnt, not a single stone hurled at his portal's office, no protest march held, no police complaint lodged. The National Commission for Women has not come out against the vulgar use of women. And Sonia Gandhi has not marched her Congress brigade for the photo op before Rashtrapati Bhavan the way when 62.5 million signatures were shown to the President of India. All that has happened is that women's wings of different political parties have merely condemned tehelka. All that has happened is that the executive director of an NGO working for the rights of sex workers has demanded that 'if no action is taken against Tejpal, then the Government should legalise prostitution.'

The political class has displayed cold feet or feet of clay depending on where they sit in our Parliament. Those on the Treasury benches are mortally afraid that if they do seize upon some law of the land to maul tehelka, however belatedly, the rest of the country would be at their jugular for not doing the same against their kin --- Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly. Those from the Opposition are not going to the police station and the court because they fear that they may succeed there but lose the very war they waged in March on the Vajpayee government. Notice, for instance, how Kapil Sibal, the Congress legal eagle who had loudly and repeatedly demanded that government file an FIR against those 'caught' by tehelka, has now shut his FIR trap.

The truth behind this lack of any legal move against tehelka may well lie elsewhere as pointed out by India Today. In a crow-eating article that is the anti-climax of the Bharat Ratna its March editorial had conferred on tehelka, the weekly, while conceding that ethical issues had been raised by the latest revelations, pointed out that the last thing the government wanted was 'the issue snowballing into a dispute over media freedom.'

This fear of ruffling the feathers of a 'free press' is quite ubiquitous among our politicians --- and among the corporate world, too, one might add. Though a BJP leader of the Maharashtra assembly did dare earlier this year to use the Anti Corruption Bureau to catch a journalist accepting 'hush money' from him, our politicians tend to either tolerate journalists or avoid them or --- fawn on them. Rare is the one who takes them on, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

At the bottom of this awe of theirs is, one suspects, their ignorance of the law. All of them believe, one suspects, that there exists in this country some unique privilege known as 'freedom of the press.' The press doesn't do anything to remove this impression --- naturally. In fact, some arrogant upstarts aid and abet that impression by now and again touting that phrase of 'freedom of the press.'

The legal situation on the ground is totally different and unknown to politicians as well as to pressmen perhaps. The factual Constitutional position as stated by a legal luminary, M P Jain, is as follows:

'In India, freedom of the press is a part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a). There is no specific provision ensuring freedom of the press. The freedom of the press is regarded as a species of which freedom of expression is a genus. Thus, being only a right flowing from the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press in India stands on no higher footing than the freedom of speech of a citizen, and the press enjoys no privilege as such distinct from the freedom of the citizen.' (page 527 of Indian Constitutional Law, 4th edition, 1994 Reprint, Wadhwa & Company, Nagpur).

The above position is unlike that in the USA where the First Amendment of its Constitution specifically protects a free press. As conceived by the US Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, 1971, the prime purpose of the free press guarantee is to create a fourth institution outside the government as an additional check on the three official branches --- executive, legislative and the judiciary. Yet, the US permits only the FBI to mount sting operations of the tehelka type, and that too after obtaining court permission as well as under strict guidelines. Those restrictions, mind you, in the world's freest country where 'freedom' is one of the most important words ingrained in the citizen's consciousness.

But here, despite the absence of anything resembling the First Amendment, even the Venkataswami Commission of Inquiry seems so wary of touching tehelka. Amidst contradictory reports to that effect, it is not clear whether the Commission is at all going to appoint an expert body to ascertain the very authenticity of each and every tape and transcript 'produced and directed' by tehelka. Such an ascertainment is paramount because 'Whosoever …makes any false entry in any…electronic record …or makes any…electronic record containing a false statement, intending that…such false entry or false statement may appear in evidence in a judicial proceeding…and that such false …entry or false statement, so appearing in evidence, may cause any person who is …to form an opinion upon the evidence…to entertain an erroneous opinion…is said to fabricate false evidence.' (Section 192 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as amended by the Information Technology Act, 2000).

Nor has the Commission yet bothered, more than four months after its formation, to examine the 'stars' of tehelka's 'shooting' as to whether they were 'acting' out only an imaginary script. Instead of tackling the filmmakers and their heroes and extras, the Commission is sitting on a mound of files relating to defence deals. Do we then need a separate inquiry into this seemingly unpardonable filibuster?

Meanwhile, Tehelka: Take Two goes on --- under the table and into the bed, whiskey and all. Cheers!

Arvind Lavakare

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