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Herr Eichmann Calling

Tehelka, India's Watergate, kicked up a storm, then knuckled down into a farce, and crept out on a tiptoe

Herr Eichmann Calling
Herr Eichmann Calling
Prism Me A Lie: Tell Me A Truth—Tehelka As Metaphor
By Madhu Trehan
Roli Books Pages: 587; Rs. 595
Among the frequent scandals that make Indians breathless, the Tehelka expose was the top attraction in 2001. Readers may wonder why Madhu Trehan would want to rake it up again. Eventually the case is well put out—that Tehelka was India’s Watergate, a journalistic scoop that would challenge a government, polarise the nation and test the moral values of professional communities. But unlike Watergate, where Americans did not compromise with the government’s fire-dousing initiatives, Tehelka brought out a fascist streak of institutional brutality from New Delhi, which, coupled with incompetence, made Tehelka simply fade away.

Tehelka was a start-up of the now busted dotcom boom. Funded by Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, the company had a bunch of rambunctious owner executives. Fired by the idea of owning a "kickass" journalism site, they zeroed in on exposing corruption in defence deals. Headed by Tarun Tejpal, the team included Aniruddha Bahal, head of the investigation, and Mathew Samuel, the sting reporter who provided some lighter moments during the Commission of Inquiry. In scope, the expose was a massive job, covering six serving army officers (two generals), four retired officers, three MoD officials (one additional secretary), one finance official and nine civilians (three politicians). Some or all of them accepted money, gifts, whisky and women. One official flatly refused to accept anything, and in not including his interview, Tehelka was justifiably criticised. The camera team paid out over Rs 10 lakh in bribes to speed up the acquisition of fictitious equipment called the Lepage 90, the ALION and the Krueger 3000, the first lifted from Catch 22!

The tapes were presented at the Imperial Hotel on March 13, 2001, with an exultant Tejpal announcing, "This government will fall." Trehan presents extensive backgrounds of Tejpal, Bahal and Samuel to show that apart from other qualities, a driving ambition ruled all three. Eventually, when the fight became bitterly political, the ruling government would vastly misuse the government’s agencies to go for the most vulnerable—financiers Sharma and his wife—while sparing Tejpal out of fear of the press. Reading through the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry is a bit like reading a comic opera, despite Justice Venkataswamy’s best efforts to give the farce some purpose. In contrast, as Trehan’s narrative shows, the army’s purposeful Court of Inquiry restores some faith in Indian institutions. The serving army officers were all sentenced by 2003, while the Opposition Congress shot itself in the foot by protesting in Parliament at Venkataswamy heading two inquiry commissions. Venkataswamy resigned, and was replaced by Justice Phukan, who creatively assisted in the farce.

So a reader may ask, why would a rerun of the Tehelka episode need a book of 587 pages? In answer, there is the hard-hitting Chapter 19, after reading which this reviewer felt exactly as he did after visiting the Belsen concentration camp in North Germany. As with the Nazis, second echelon troops committed the grossest atrocities—the Income Tax department, the Enforcement Directorate, sebi, the Registrar of Companies and the Reserve Bank, all of them financial institutions under the finance ministry. They brutalised Sharma and Mehra. Appallingly, justice was meted out to Nazi butchers like Adolf Eichmann even 15 years later by the Israelis, but the guilty ministers and bureaucrats here have been promoted and prospered.

Finally, in 2006, the UPA government ordered a CBI case filed against eight of the unpunished non-military people. Trehan expands on a few other subjects—with comparatively less success. Should married military officers succumb to one-night stands? A subject far better dealt with by someone like Sudhir Kakar. But Trehan does better in telling us how others reacted. The press supported Tehelka; some lawyers like Siddharth Luthra did a stupendous job, the judicial system performed catastrophically, outperformed by a group of army officers constituted into a court martial. The business community and its institutions were no better than vultures awaiting carrion. This is a blazingly honest and idealistic book that needed serious editing to improve its focus.


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