Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011, Tarun Tejpal declared that his magazine, Tehelka, had come close to closing down “around 200 times”. It was an apt, well-crafted pitch, just right for the air of radical cool it breathed—and advertised. It wasn’t just another magazine. It was the quintessential applecart-upsetter for the establishment, almost insurrectionary in its vibe. Self-consciously so. Managing editor Shoma Chaudhury once famously told a foreign delegation meeting Indian scribes that she wasn’t just a journalist but an “activist-journalist”. Their persecution in the early days won them sympathy, honour and accolades. The nasty crackdown by the NDA government following Operation Westend in 2001—one of the biggest and most outlandish scoops in Indian journalism, which led to the resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes—was described by Tejpal as an encounter with the “beast” and “its entrails”. The beast metaphor has turned up a bit of late at Tehelka. In Goa, at the ill-fated Thinkfest, Shoma even hosted a session on rape and the “beasts amidst us”. So it’s both a great tragedy and irony that it would be a beastly tale that would do them in. What Tehelka’s foes couldn’t achieve in years, Tarun’s self-destruction did in days. Allegations of sexual assault against the founder-editor by a junior colleague at the Thinkfest—now derided by many as a “stinkfest”—haven’t stopped letting off a terrible odour. But now the gloves are off. It isn’t just about sexual harassment anymore but about its “supari journalism”, as journalist Sucheta Dalal alleges, and the financial inventiveness apparently practised by the magazine, as detailed in papers like The Indian Express. Advance obituaries are being written, many with a touch of glee, all against a very vocal atmosphere of politics: for neither Tehelka nor the BJP hide their mutual dislike. Sexual assault—in a five-star hotel lift—has been the proverbial drop that made the cup overflow.
Ex-Tehelka man Amit Sengupta is hesitant to be part of any “lynch mob”. Yet he believes there is a larger principle here. “They pushed the limits of detachment from ethical principles—as much in journalism as in life. Tarun got to be Jesus Christ and Shoma anointed herself as a saint. They’d begun manufacturing consent, believing their own lies. While they went around selling public interest journalism as a brand, they simultaneously went around selling their conscience. It is this contradiction that rankles.”
Rise And Fall Of Tarun
The manner in which the operation was run and funds collected raises serious issues of media ethics. One Tehelka staffer quit in 2011 after a proposed investigation on the Gujarat-based Adani group, which has interests in mining, energy, agribusiness and logistics, was axed. Intriguingly, advertisements of the group started appearing in the magazine around the time the staffer quit. Adani is also one of the leading sponsors of Think 2013. Another leading sponsor was the Essar group that has huge mining interests in Chhattisgarh, although Tehelka presents itself as a crusader against mining lobbies. Jindal Steel and Wave, a firm owned by the late liquor baron Ponty Chadha, were also sponsors. It was, in other words, trying to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares. (Outlook sent Shoma a set of questions about these allegations but she didn’t respond.)
Some of the most damaging reports are coming from ex-employees themselves. Raman Kirpal, now with Firstpost.com, has claimed in a report that Tarun and Shoma made windfall profits by selling shares of Tehelka’s publisher Agni Media Pvt Ltd (now Anant Media Pvt Ltd), which they had acquired for Rs 10 each, for over Rs 13,189 each to a little known firm, AK Gurtu Holdings Private Ltd. This yielded profits worth crores. But on the same day Tejpal acquired shares in the same firm, not for Rs 13,189, but Rs 10. The new Finance Act, 2012, prohibits private companies from issuing equity shares at more than their net asset value.
Deals And More Deals
Tehelka has been openly attacked for killing a story on illegal mining in Goa in return for favours, both financial and political. Defending Tehelka, Shoma had written with trademark flourish that Kirpal, a senior journalist with extensive experience, had failed to produce a story that was up to scratch. But Outlook has learnt of claims that the journalist concerned was assured his piece—detailing violations by Vedanta subsidiary Sesa Goa—would be used “as a cover in 20 days or so”. The delay, he was told, was because Tehelka CEO and Tejpal’s sister Neena Sharma Tejpal was to meet then Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat to discuss sponsorship for the first Think conference. Goa is also where the Tejpal-run AOD Lodges now owns a luxurious six-bedroom villa that rents out for Rs 55,000 a night—the heritage villa’s renovation has also been in some controversy for having reportedly violated local rules. Kamat declined comment.
Worrying questions had been doing the rounds in media circuits too for some years now, even as Tehelka often dazzled with its stings and exposes. What was the editor of a financially struggling magazine doing buying expensive properties? Why woo Ponty Chadha, who was murdered last year, to launch an elite social club? Why organise the Thinkfest, apparently intended to elevate the discourse, at 2G scam accused Shahid Balwa’s controversial Grand Hyatt? And why accept funds from K.D. Singh, a controversial businessman and TMC Rajya Sabha member? (He was once caught with Rs 57 lakh in cash at Delhi airport on his way to poll-bound Assam). The worst will now be asked: had Tehelka become just a ruse to expand personal wealth, build other interests?
ToHellKa, The Alchemy Of Tarun’s Desires
All of this was happening when journalists working there were complaining of being underpaid. Indeed, a swanky property came up near Nainital at a time when staff was not even being paid their salaries regularly and many had to quit (one of the “200 times” Tehelka appeared to be going under). A former editor goes to the extent of calling it a “chit fund scam”, as Tarun took money from lifetime subscribers (at least one subscriber has complained that he did not get even a single copy). Even Union minister Kapil Sibal says he wasn’t aware he had been issued shares in return for his “donation” of Rs 5 lakh.
These allegations will impact Tehelka’s image more adversely than what the case may be for a more mainstream publication. “If the moral spine, which it claimed differentiated Tehelka from the others, is broken, it impacts them much more than others,” says Vijay Simha, former deputy editor. This, he feels, will make it difficult to draw talent both at the senior and junior levels, especially the latter as fresh graduates will hardly think of it the same way. “This means their biggest resource will taper off. If you don’t have quality people to produce content, the rest really doesn’t matter.”
TMC MP and Alchemist group’s K.D. Singh; media hounds after Shoma Chaudhury at her residence
Those defending Tehelka insist one must distinguish between the accused individual and the institution. In most cases, this shouldn’t be a problem but in the case of Tehelka, the remarkable work of its journalists notwithstanding, separating Tarun and the institution seems challenging at the very least. For it was entirely kept afloat by his efforts and ideas, some of which now appear to have been not quite kosher. Tarun also saw to it that only he and Shoma were built up as brands. For Shantanu Guha Ray, again ex-Tehelka, what stands out in this ongoing controversy is that the institution “hasn’t found a single journalist friend”. “They backstabbed so many and rubbed so many others the wrong way,” he says. He remembers how Tejpal boasted about the launch of a proposed title, ‘The Financial World’, at an awards gala, just 48 hours before he was to nix the launch and render several journalists unemployed. “Something seriously wrong was going on. You can’t just call off a launch like that.”
There is ultimately a tragic tale here about great ideas and marketing but also one about an empty, distorted reality created around Tehelka. What started out as a crowdsourced public interest initiative ended up being pretty much controlled by the Tejpal family and Shoma. As Tarun seems headed for jail and a long legal battle, it’s been a terrible tumble for a brand that had some brilliant moments. Some have argued that it’s also a crisis for left-liberal values, but then as the ownership and financing patterns reveal, Tehelka mutated in some ways into something quite different from what it was made out to be. This isn’t just a morality play about men making unwanted advances on women. It’s also about money and the media. Tarun knows how to reinvent himself, so the final chapter of his notoriety/celebrity is yet to been written. Tehelka, meanwhile, appears to be stung by its biggest story yet.
A small story on Tehelka: The Big Think (Dec 9). Not too long ago, I read rave reviews of a book by Tarun Tejpal. Intrigued, I tried to get a copy, but didn’t find any in the book stores of Calcutta I usually go to. I then asked my sister, who was in Delhi, if she could get it for me. Reluctantly, she went to a book store in Connaught Place—an old shop with a dignified grey-haired gentleman at the counter, which has since closed down and has been replaced by a chic restaurant. “Sir, do you have...er...a book called Alchemy of Disaster?” she asked him apparently. “Alchemy of Desire,” she was corrected tersely, and handed a copy. Now, after all these years, it seems such a prophetic lapse.
Goutam Das, Pune
Tehelka was funded by briefcase firms located in Jamuna-paar bastis. These firms purchase shares with hawala funds generated in or from outside India. No wonder the addresses of a majority of Tehelka’s shareholders turned out to be fictitious.
Ashok Kumar Ghai, Mumbai
I do not know why people think that the media’s role is to inform the public and be a champion of public good. All traditional media, without exception, is subservient and answerable to corporate interests, not yours or mine. Accordingly, everyone has an angle determined by the owners’ business interests and political affiliations—Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, IBN, NDTV, Outlook, Open.... Why did we expect Tehelka to be any different? Journalism is a profession much like that of a used car salesman. Their job is to sell ‘belief’ in their words and their aim is to make profits. It’s not exactly a Freudian slip that they need a ‘managing’ editor to run the show, whose job is to “manage”, not edit. They ensure stories that bite the hand that feeds do not get printed. Crusading zeal, accountability to readers/viewers are just good taglines.
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
It is the same old story repeating itself. A clever operator who exploits the weaknesses of people well-placed in life, blackmails them in the name of a social crusade, and on the side makes money by unscrupulous means, making friends among the ruling elite by gunning for the opposition. But sooner or later, it all comes apart, and the hitherto high and mighty stand exposed as common criminals.
V. Mahadevan, Chennai
How does Outlook treat its women staff? Hope there are no skeletons in its cupboard.
R.D. Philip, Bangalore
Two eyes for an eye begets justice.Pour petrol on r a pist/his parents/his children/his supporters/his house/his properties and burn them alive.
64 D Rakhal
"Men have no brains"
"Men have no brains"
And how about eunuchs like yourself?
"Actually, "Logical argument based on facts", has never been the forte for females."
And your posts prove quite conclusively that men have no brains.
62 D Bonita
Actually, "Logical argument based on facts", has never been the forte for females.
Actually, "Different thread, same drivel" applies to hysterical females like yourself.
Actually, "Different thread, same drivel" applies to hysterical females like yourself.
When will you learn that name calling is no substitute for logical argument based on fact?
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