April 03, 2020
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The Graphic Portfolios

Public lives, private acts. Where do we draw the line?

The Graphic Portfolios
The Graphic Portfolios

It’s been a public humiliation for Abhishek Manu Singhvi, one of the country’s top lawyers. Caught on camera with a woman (he says it was morphed and his driver says so too), one of the less crude jokes in the capital’s political circles these days is there are three types of MPs in the Upper House now— elected, erected and ejected. Last week, Singhvi quit as chairman of the standing committee on law and justice and also as Congress spokesperson.

It’s not the first time a sex CD has ruined a reputation in public life. A powerful man with his pants down is an easy target. Yet there is a bigger debate now—over where we draw the line about private acts becoming public and whether we are playing it for cheap titillation.

“In the Singhvi case, why should we speculate about favours done/exchanged when there’s no complainant?”
Aniruddha Bahal, Cobrapost

India is fast shedding its coyness about making sex scandals a matter of public debate. And in the age of the internet, Singhvi surely won’t be the last one to have his private moments downloaded and viewed by millions. Modern Indian politicians now have to pay dearly for their sexual indiscretions. While the jury is still out on whether these cases should be treated simply as a private matter between two consenting adults or an action that denotes abuse of power, the fact is, till now, none of the sex scandals involving Indian politicians have ever led to any revelations beyond the sex. No public or national interest has really been served by the hours spent circulating, watching and gossiping about the CDs.

Voyeuristic in nature, cases like these have often resulted only in titillation, humiliation and little else. In some instances, the cases were given a quiet burial after they faded from public memory, in others they have been used to settle scores or damage and dent seemingly promising political careers.

“Cyber laws need to be better. While technology has developed in a big way, the system is yet to catch up with it.”
Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP spokesperson

Indeed, an unfortunate offshoot are the many rumours and plausible half-truths of power-brokers setting up starlets to entrap politicians and businessmen—the classic honey trap, sex-for-blackmail strategy. Private detectives confirm that election time brings politicians to their door in droves, essentially to spy on rivals. And during investigations, it is not uncommon for MMS clips and videos to be made to tarnish opponents. While all recordings may not be of a sexual nature, even trade-offs are recorded to be used as a tool for blackmail later. V. Chauhan, a private detective and former IB official, relates the case of a woman in Sikkim who facilitated a huge land deal by tom-toming proximity to senior politicians in Delhi and UP. According to Chauhan, “we recorded the lady’s tall claims and handed over the tape to the client. There is a huge probability that he may have used the tape later against the people mentioned in it”.

Political sex scandals, to be sure, are not entirely a 21st century phenomenon for us. The first big one in India goes back to the late ’70s and involved Suresh Ram, the then 47-year-old son of Babu Jagjivan Ram, defence minister in the Janata Party government. Explicit pictures of him in a compromising position with a 21-year-old Delhi University student were splashed across the centrespread of Surya magazine, then edited by Maneka Gandhi. At the time, Jagjivan Ram was considered a powerful opponent to Indira, with even a chance of becoming the first ever Dalit prime minister. The scandal blew that possibility (the ironic footnote is that Suresh Ram eventually ended up ‘marrying’ Sushma Chowdhary, the woman with him in the pictures).

“People in public life have chosen to be there. They cannot then say that their private life is beyond public scrutiny.”
Siddhartha Dave, Supreme Court lawyer

While many would dismiss this episode as an outcome of the dark days of the post-Emergency era, political circles are rife with rumours on how sex and sleaze were used to fix RSS strongman and powerful BJP general secretary Sanjay Joshi. In 2005, Joshi was badly stung, videotaped in a compromising position with a woman, and the CD circulated to members attending the BJP national council in Mumbai. Evidently, it was a hatchet job from the ‘inside’. For Joshi, the awkward part was that as a pracharak (full-timer) he was expected to have given up all pleasures of the flesh. He, like Singhvi, claimed it was all fake then and has since been partially repatriated.

Now to put the shoe on the other foot, does the settling of scores by political rivals make public figures deserving of any sympathy? Political commentator Yogendra Yadav says that we are being asked to choose between two kinds of vulgarities. “On the one hand it is voyeuristic, in the sense that directly or indirectly, even when we seek to condemn what is being dished out to us, we become participants of that voyeurism. On the other hand, there is a male conspiracy of silence, particularly in the media that invites us to a ‘yeh sab chalta hai attitude’ towards the use of public power for private transaction.” Yadav argues that if people use public office and power for private transaction—which could be money or personal favours—then it becomes a public issue.

Incidentally, there have also been situations when exposes of this sort have had far greater repercussions than just reputations being destroyed. Just last year, Mahipal Maderna, a minister in the Rajasthan government had to quit office and was arrested following allegations of his involvement in the abduction and murder of a nurse, Bhanwari Devi. Secretly recorded videos surfaced, the likely story being that he was being blackmailed by Bhanwari. Former UP minister Amar Mani Tripathi too is doing life for murdering poetess Madhumita Shukla after she became pregnant and threatened to expose him.

“The place, circumstance where such acts happened, these are incriminating when discussing such cases.”
Aman Lekhi, Supreme Court lawyer

Other worthies who have, comparatively, gotten away a little easier—political reputations destroyed but jail time avoided—include octogenarian N.D. Tiwari, who was seen in a romp with young girls at, of all places, his governor’s residence in Hyderabad. Then there’s former Orissa CM J.B. Patnaik, accused of being involved in group sex with minors; Laloo Prasad Yadav’s brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav, reportedly involved in a sex scandal that ended in the alleged suicide of two youngsters, Shilpi Jain and Gautam Singh; Kerala minister and senior Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikutty, accused of sexually exploiting a minor and running a sex racket from an ice-cream parlour.

Of course, in the above cases at least, the public-private debate has no standing. In fact, Supreme Court lawyer Siddhartha Dave argues that once you are a public figure, you are fair game. “In the case of a public figure, it is humanly impossible to segregate the public life from the private. People in public life have chosen to be there. They cannot then say that their private life is beyond public scrutiny,” he says. Dave also points out that while society may view such cases only as immorality, there are legal grounds for the spouses of both parties to file a case of adultery, punishable by five years imprisonment.

“A conspiracy of silence, in the media particularly, exists...a ‘yeh sab chalta hai’ attitude towards use of public power.”
Yogendra Yadav, Political commentator

Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal, who brought sting operations and hidden cameras into Indian consciousness, believes every case needs to be discussed and treated separately. “In the Singhvi case, it’s at best a matter between two individuals and should be left at that. Why must there be speculation about favours done or exchanged when there is no complainant? There have been various casting couch stories earlier but in each of those cases there was an aggrieved party. In this case, there is no such person.”

Senior SC advocate Aman Lekhi, however, holds the opposite view. “Public figures are people who have the authority to influence people, decisions and policy. They have to be accountable. Besides, the circumstances and place where such acts happened...these are very important and incriminating when discussing such cases.” So like many people, Lekhi believes the location of the Singhvi episode—apparently taped in his court chambers—is central to the case.

No public or national interest has really been served by the hours spent circulating, watching these sex CDs.

BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman may shed no tears for Singhvi but is worried about public figures being vulnerable to blackmail. “In the last 10 years, the rapid availability of technology has made politicians targets. Technology, if misused, is dangerous...because it can be used to settle scores and damage the credibility of individuals.” Which is why she argues that there is an urgent need to set up forensic sciences agencies that can authenticate the claims made by individuals in CDs and other recordings. She also wants stricter laws in place so that those misusing technology do not go unpunished. “Cyber laws need to be better. After all, we are at a crossroads here—while technology has developed in a big way and plays a big role in the world we live in, the system is yet to catch up with it,” she says.

Till we can figure out how to do that, such scandals will continue to out, and even if the targets get stay orders from the court, they will land up on the Net and will be circulated widely. In Singhvi’s case, there’s all the usual ingredients—sex, CD and suggestions of blackmail by the Congressman’s driver. The details are fuzzy, what is clear is that the camera has become an actor.

CD Baat: Sex Tape Sagas
Our leaders are prone to indiscretions of a sexual nature. Some of the more bizarre cases....

2012. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, After securing an RS berth, the Congress lawyer-spokesman is allegedly caught in a compromising position in his SC chamber. Despite HC injunction, CD goes viral. Singhvi resigns as chairman of the standing committee on law and justice. 2012. Tara Chowdhary, Arrested for allegedly luring film extras into the flesh trade, the small-time Telugu starlet comes out with startling claims—says top politicians as well as bureaucrats were her clients.The focus is on a retired IPS officer.

2011. Mahipal Maderna, Secretly recorded video shows Rajasthan minister in romp with murdered nurse and midwife, Bhanwari Devi. Sacked from Ashok Gehlot's ministry, Maderna is under arrest. 2011. Amar Singh, SC lifts a five-year gag order on audio CD containing conversations featuring the Samajwadi Party leader. Sidelined by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Amar Singh pushed into political wilderness.

2009. N.D. Tiwari, 84-year-old Congress veteran resigns as Andhra Pradesh governor after sting operation featuring him and three young girls surfaces. Pushed into political oblivion, he resurfaces in the 2012 Uttarakhand poll campaign. 2009. Azam Khan, Samajwadi Party heavyweight and known baiter of Amar Singh accused by Jaya Prada of distributing her nude pictures. The filmstar-turned-politician goes on to win the 2009 LS polls.

2005. Sanjay Joshi, Videotape of senior RSS pracharak and BJP general secretary in a compromising position with a woman forces his resignation and suspension from party. Joshi remains in the wilderness till 2011 when he was informally reinducted and put in charge of UP polls. 2005. P.S. Natarajan, Jharkhand IGP caught on camera with a tribal girl young enough to be his daughter—who secretly gets the act filmed and gives it to the media. Natarajan is dismissed from service.

1996-97. Gopinath Munde, The then home minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP govt in Maharashtra is accused of regularly visiting a tamasha dancer in Pune. Later, a tape surfaces. Munde did not resign; nor did he file any cases of defamation against the persons who made the charges/allegations. 1994. Jalgaon rape case, Influential politicians, businessmen and officials accused of running a forced-sex racket involving around 500 women, many of them minors, in Maharashtra. The gang lured school- and college-going girls into their trap, raped them, taped the acts which were then used to blackmail the girls. Two Congressmen arrested, but later acquitted for lack of evidence.

1978. Suresh Ram, The 46-year-old son of the then defence minister Jagjivan Ram shown in a series of explicit photos with a Delhi University student, Sushma Chowdhary, in monthly magazine Surya, edited by Indira’s daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi. Costs the senior leader a chance to become the first Dalit PM. Ram later said to have married Sushma.

By Prarthna Gahilote with Chandrani Banerjee, Smruti Koppikar, Pushpa Iyengar, Minu Ittyipe and Sharat Pradhan

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