Like the rest of the nation, I too sat before the idiot box and watched former BJP national president Bangaru Laxman being taken to prison last week. Wasn’t it just the other day when I was actually sitting before him and handing over those bundles of one lakh rupees in cash? He had offered to help clinch a defence deal in what has come to be known as Operation Westend, little suspecting that it was a sting operation.
Bangaru’s conviction and imprisonment left me with mixed feelings though. I did feel vindicated at one level, this being the season of defence scams and scandals. But I was also disturbed by the question of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) fast-tracking the case against the BJP’s Dalit icon and not against equally or even more influential people like Jaya Jaitly, R.K. Gupta, R.K. Jain and others, all caught by me on camera, accepting bribes just like Bangaru Laxman did.
The CBI was clearly in a hurry to bring the case against Bangaru to a closure. In September last year, they were desperate enough to request me to fly back from Goa for a final deposition in court. They even offered to reimburse my plane fare but afterwards, the agency denied making any such offer. I wish the CBI had shown as much urgency in pursuing the other politicians, businessmen and brokers. Why the agency has dragged its feet in the other cases, only the CBI can say.
It all began on a train journey, on the Deccan Queen in fact. I was on my way back to Mumbai from Pune. A casual chat with a co-passenger—who turned out to be a supplier to army canteens—led us to plan the Westend sting operation for the portal, Tehelka, where I was then a special correspondent. The organisation, after some initial hesitation, backed and funded the operation.
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
We created fake brochures for a fake firm in London, ostensibly dealing in equipment for the armed forces. Visiting cards were printed and I began by meeting the juniormost babus in the chain and worked up the ladder to try and sell hand-held thermal imagers. Anil Malviya, the canteen stores department (CSD) contractor who first gave me the idea, was also the one who paid the first bribe, just two thousand rupees, to a junior official of the defence ministry. He had brought an entire list of equipment that the army was looking for.
We met scores of officials, in the ministry and from the army. We met wheeler-dealers and minor politicians. We called on fund-raisers of the BJP and the Samata Party and taped our conversations and used spy cams to record our meetings. Although I personally recorded 99 of the 105 tapes, nobody suspected anything. All of them told us that no defence deal could be clinched without wine, women and cash.
I had earlier met the BJP fund-raiser, R.K. Gupta, who was close to the RSS. He had also accepted cash and promised to help. I had gifted a gold chain worth Rs 10,000 then to Satyamurthy, who was in charge of giving appointments at Bangaru’s house. The reference to Gupta and the gold chain convinced Satyamurthy of my credentials and an appointment was finally fixed with the BJP president.
When I reached his house, Satyamurthy, who brokered the deal, insisted on Rs 10 lakh as initial payment to Bangaru. I offered to pay Rs 1 lakh in cash immediately and the rest later, saying truthfully that I did not have Rs 10 lakh on me. The entire sting operation, I believe, cost Tehelka around Rs 11 lakh. The money would be handed over to me by Aniruddha Bahal, then the editor (investigations) of the portal, and I was expected to actually pay the money and record the encounters.
Catching Bangaru on camera turned out to be easier than I expected. I was using a briefcase device, which had a horizontal lens and a vertical one. Since he was seated and the briefcase was placed on the table in front of me, the horizontal lens was actually turned towards me as I took out the cash.
So, while handing over the cash to him, I had to turn the briefcase the other way, towards him. I was apprehensive that he would notice the awkward movement but he did not react. To hide my nervousness, I asked whether he wanted the remaining cash in Indian currency or in US dollars. He asked for dollar bills.
It turned out to be more difficult to catch Jaya Jaitly on camera. Madam, I was told, would not allow any briefcase inside the defence minister’s house. But she had no problem with cash, of course. She possibly knew about spy cams and the briefcase device. I was told that an Indian cricketer may have shown her how the briefcase-camera worked.
I therefore arranged for a spy cam on a tie-pin. The trouble was that the battery was tucked inside my underwear and the remote was in my pocket. And when I switched it on, the battery would start vibrating inside my underwear. The few minutes I spent in her presence were among the most uncomfortable moments I have ever had.
I was spared the trouble of recording the sexual escapade of Brigadier Iqbal Singh with a high society callgirl, arranged by a former Indian cricketer. She turned out to be a good sport and offered to record her romp with the brigadier.
In court, both Jaitly and Bangaru first claimed that the tapes were fake; their images had been superimposed; pictures were morphed; their voices did not match; that the tapes were doctored. Once forensic tests established that the tapes were genuine and their voice was on them, they pleaded that they were honourable persons and collected donations for the party. They fabricated receipts as an afterthought and claimed they had given receipts for what they received. They also claimed that since Westend was a fictitious firm and as I was posing as a representative of this non-existent firm, there was no real deal and, therefore, the charges against them were not tenable and should be dropped.
In Bangaru’s case, the court held that the tapes showed he had taken me to be a serious vendor, had accepted real cash and had promised help in securing defence deals. And that was sufficient to convict him.
My cover as the representative of the fictitious London-based firm had been blown even before the tapes were released. I had rushed to Kerala to attend to my ailing father. But there was no mobile connectivity in Kerala then and my increasingly suspicious contacts were constantly calling me for the rest of the amount. On receiving no response, they approached the service provider, secured the office address and a few casual questions there led them to my rented flat.
Some of those contacts had been suspicious from the beginning. One of them insisted on learning where I lived so that he could drop by for a drink. Luckily, I knew of an eccentric recluse who lived alone in Janakpuri with as many as 20 dogs. I gave out his address and said that I lived alone in a part of that house. He visited the house only once but left quickly, thanks to the ferocious dogs.
In retrospect, I now believe Operation Westend has been a wasted exercise. Nothing has changed. If anything, things have become much worse. Corruption in procurement for the armed forces has become endemic and more money is changing hands than ever before.
The Tatra trucks, which is in the news following army chief V.K. Singh’s allegation that he was offered a bribe of Rs 14 crore for clearing the purchase of 600 of the trucks, figured in many of our recorded conversations in 2001. Officials openly spoke of deficiencies in the truck and how deals were being struck and how much money was being paid. Ravi Rishi’s name also figured in several of those conversations.
The CBI has been in possession of those 105 tapes for the past 11 years. I wonder why the country’s premier investigating agency ignored the evidence on Tatra all these years. Is it possible that nobody heard the tapes or failed to read the transcripts?
The six serving army officers, and four retired ones, who were convicted for their crimes, were surprisingly stoical. Calm and resigned, they would sometimes chat with me and ask, with a wry smile, whether the sting would stop at ruining only their lives and careers or whether it would also expose the politicians with their dhotis down.
The CBI had registered 12 cases in all on the basis of the tapes. The case against Bangaru Laxman was just one of them. The agency had also filed cases against us in Tehelka for violating the Official Secrets Act. They also filed cases against two officials of the Central Secretariat Service, Neeraj Kumar and Thomas Mathew. Both of them were suspended and charged, possibly because they had interacted with me. But they had played no role in the sting.
I am not really surprised because the CBI also linked me with Sonia Gandhi and her secretary Vincent George (remember, it was the NDA government in power then), two people I have never met or spoken to.
I have not done a single sting operation since 2001. I even discourage others from undertaking any sting, citing my own experience. The day after the Tehelka tapes were released, on March 13, 2001, my landlord in Delhi’s Greater Kailash locality threw us out of his house. Police and Intelligence Bureau sleuths had turned up the heat and he could not bear it. My wife, who worked for a private firm, had to quit her job because it became impossible for her to continue, with police and the IB constantly arriving at her office to make inquiries. Sleuths from the IB even went to my village in Kerala and interrogated my father.
The Tehelka portal had by then been shut down (for two years). I have not held a permanent job since then due to my preoccupation with the cases. For eight months, I worked for the portal without any payment.
While the army provided hospitality and transport for deposing before courts of inquiry, the CBI paid me Rs 250 per day and Rs 25 extra for lunch. The parking fee at the courts in Delhi is Rs 50 and the rest was spent on food and transport. How was I expected to maintain my family?
A labourer in Delhi receives Rs 450 per day under the NREGA. But when I met the CBI director to plead for a reasonable amount so that I could give evidence as a witness, he asked me to get the money from Tehelka. The reply was the same when I spoke to V. Narayanasamy, the minister at the PMO.
The CBI director now, A.P. Singh, asked why I got involved in sting operations and advised me against doing such reports in future. I have now stopped going to the court to depose as witness. I cannot afford to do it any longer. Ironically, I cannot leave Delhi either because of the case against me. I cannot afford a lawyer and I am threatened with the prospect of a non-bailable warrant if I do not turn up to depose. It’s a Catch-22 situation from which there seems to be no escape.
(As told to Uttam Sengupta)
We are a wretched lot indeed. Mathew Samuel’s story is all the proof one needs to understand why a strong whistleblower act must come before anything else (After Eleven Years..., May 14).
Yes, Mr Samuel, you nailed Bangaru, but your life has gone steadily downhill since, hasn’t it? No wonder you advise other camera-in-underwear heroes against sting operations.
Dr V. Mahadevan, Chennai
Anyone will turn into a cynic after reading this account. People must make serious attempts to participate in political discourse.
Sriram N., Bangalore
When you undertake a sting operation against the ruling party, you have to expect to be harassed. Samuel should have considered this while working out his fees for the assignment.
Venkatesh G. Iyer, Chennai
Nations are built by worthy sons like Samuel. May those of his tribe multiply. Someone ought to extend him a helping hand.
Gilbert D’Souza, Bangalore
It is strange enough that Tehelka was so eager to conduct a sting against the BJP-led government; to have the sting operator grumble about poor pay is disingenuous.
Vikram Johri, on e-mail
The bjp has forgotten Bangaru and he will never be heard of again. He’ll be required to fend for himself. This is the fate of a Dalit politician. Others will continue to enjoy wine, women and cash as usual.
Sanket Biswas, Calcutta
The words “Dalit icon” might have been expunged when referring to the CBI’s “fast-tracking the case against” Bangaru Laxman. Corruption has no religion.
Nebil Nizar, Jeddah
Welcome to the games of power and intrigue. Don’t be the small fish if you want to do the heavy lifting. The more things change in Eternal India, the more they stay the same.
Arun Maheshwari, Bangalore
There is no privilege motion strong enough to remove the overpowering stench of corruption from Parliament. The politicians are so conditioned to the smell that the mere mention of cleaning it disturbs them.
Subhash Saini, Hoshiarpur
Tehelka is a succer to have abandoned its hero.
What is wrong if someone is tested on what his/her behavior is when given a situation? George Fernandez got a big one. Let's wait and watch Jaya Jaitly, Brig.Iqbal, and Satyamurthy. Mr.Mathew and his family might feel bad about what happened and I am sure they have undergone the toughest of times since 2001, but Mr.Mathew and his Wife must understand that "every good thing/action happens with a price". Your hardship is a sacrifice for the nation. Wait for the good times to come.
Infact this kind of tests are supposed to be performed on the elite-people before they occupy their seats in their respective offices after they are elected. If everything is happening for money then why did "the schools and colleges" teach us the directive principles, our constitution, law, rights as a citizen, bla bla bla... and every human servant is sacred and every civil office is sacrosanct?
If GOI wants to proceed like this i.e. against nature, against all that we believe through our learning, then it should change all that exists as doctrines and principles. So that we can start believing (100%) what we experience and not what we have learnt (0%). The coming generations can have 100% belief on what they learn and what they experience say after 25years if today the change is done. I think the middle-class and the poor are already 50% screwed-up mentally due to all that is happening for money.
You HAD to mention that it WASN'T Sonia Gandhi & Co?
You were kept with the accussed officers, provide more clarity or do we like reading dumb???
If CBI was in his favor then, what happened when Congress led UPA1&2 came to power?
Why didn't you use media to put pressure for getting fair treatment????????
Welcome to the games of power and intrigue. Never be Alice in Wonderland and don't be the small fish/pawn doing the heavy lifting. Until "rule of law" works there will be no salvation for us as a people. There are no many ancient cultural barriers and modern ones too for "rule of law" to work reasonably for us. It is a low probability tough steep climb up the mountain from here for us.
"In retrospect, I now believe Operation Westend has been a wasted exercise. Nothing has changed. If anything, things have become much worse. Corruption in procurement for the armed forces has become endemic and more money is changing hands than ever before."
In Desh, the more things change the more they stay the same - that is why we are "Eternal India". The poor, small guy (Mathew - the workhorse at Tehelka, Bangaru - the Dalit) are left holding the bag of "sh*t" and "rich, big and poweful" walk into the sunset and to the bank laughing all the way of course, some with a "beauty" holding onto their arm - real life and reel life (in movies) don't follow each other. It would of course be a different matter if all the "actors" were in the same room with a ceiling fan buzzing - think of the fun when the bag of "sh*t" would hit the whiring fan :-) - the perverse revenge of the poor and small.
Always, remember, the politician in particular always wins .... the dice is heavily loaded in their favor. Bangaru was an exception - may be as a dalit didn't have many friends in a "predominantly upper caste loaded hindu party" since a fall-guy was also needed - somebody had to pay for the system to survive and all of us to sleep peacefully. See how they are getting away with Lokpal - they always knew they had time and the dice loaded in their favor. They might know much but they know how to work democracy for themselves (and their near and dear ones). Team Anna has been suitably shackled - fluttering in the wind - after all "all we are just dust in the wind".
Tomorrow might be another day but today all I can think is - we should learn to live with corruption and not waste energy on it. Only question in my mind is can we with the endemic corruption we have still achieve some modicum of being a "decent society" - somewhat better human development indices. We should of course keep inviting some foreign dignitaries - some American - some English - some European, on and off, e.g., Hillary Clinton, to tell us, via Darkha Butt, how great we are and the great future we have - of course as long as we buy "American" now.
But what do they then about the deep desire for "superpower" I suggest we keep it alive in magazines, books, articles, forums and what not .... real work for it is just too hard and we are not cut out for it either.
Another Day in Desh has begun. Welcome to the comedy of errors - the theatre of the absurd. The many gods and goddesses enjoying the theatre show down here from their balcony seats - like a great masala bollywood movie.
What is the significance of a Christian funded attempt to defame BJP Government while conveniently becoming kumbakarna when dealing with corrupt Christian Congress which has been involved in far more serious scams unlike petty scams of Rs 1 Lakh!
Will you do these against Antony, Moino or Pee Chidambaram? I really doubt.
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