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The perils of independent media taking on the government in India

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Friday, 1 August 2003

If you believe in truth, democracy and good cricket and hold fair play and ethics above national prowess, this might be the best time of all to lend your support to the online Delhi based news site

This independent news and current affairs website was established three years ago in Delhi by the dynamic team of journalists who first revealed the insidious extent of Indian cricket match fixing, leading in turn to a world wide investigation of what turned out to be an institutionalized depth of corruption in the sport. Since Tehelka's founding editor Tarun Tejpal and his colleagues splashed the story to the world, the widely publicized international probe into cricket's seamier under side of gambling greed and intimidation forced a massive international clean up campaign. Indeed, the International Cricket Board assures us that its now business as usual and that any whiff of controversy the global scandal revealed had nothing to do them, let alone a single Australian player.

As Tehleka's website grew, so too did the team of investigative journalists, editors and technicians, all dedicated to presenting the world with professionally reliable alternative viewpoints into the sub-continent's political realities and methods of government. After years of breaking controversial stories for mainstream terrestrial Indian papers and journals, Tejpal knew that without capturing incidents of his society's endemic corruption on tape and film, no one would believe just how rancid things were. Unsurprisingly, Tehelka's exercise in the ransom of modern democratic India's morality didn't just end with a few red-faced batsmen. Their under cover information gathering style borrows heavily from spy thrillers. But apparently, it's working.


To get to the bottom of widespread international rumors of high-level government corruption, Tejpal led a team of professional into another intricately planned sting nicknamed Operation West End where journalists posed as dealers in military night vision equipment. Hidden video cameras recorded four and a half hours of statements, financial transactions and drunken promises between elected Indian cabinet ministers, politicians and high-level government officials while they romped with London prostitutes and other notoriously shady arms traders. Tejpal's sting revealed the identities of members of the Indian government involved in an international arms trading and bribery scandal that shook the nation in 2001. Indian Minister for Finance George Fernandes resigned and the then president of the ruling BJP party, Bangaru Laxman was observed stuffing bribes into his desk. Others were also implicated. And for a while during the ensuing outcry, it looked like justice would prevail.

But much to the horror and disappointment of Tejpal and Tehleka's many national and international fans, instead of welcoming truth as a necessary element in the preservation of democracy, the Indian government has embarked upon a systematic campaign of harassment and censor of the organization. Tehleka's original backers have spent months in jail, as has Kumar Badal, one of the site's leading journalists. Earlier this year, New York Times writer Amy Waldman reported that defamation cases are pending against Tehelka editors and writers and in a bizarre twist of history, when another former editor Aniruhdha Bahal sold a spy novel "Bunker 13", to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Faber and Faber in the UK, an Indian Government lawyer claimed the author was receiving illegal earnings.

That truth is stranger than fiction is an understatement in the case of Tarun Tejpal. Surely there are times when it seems as if his life could not be more bizarre. A curious blend between righteous activist and literary entrepreneur, Tejpal is also the founder of India Ink, the publishing company that first brought us Arandathi Roy's The God of Small Things, winner of the 1995 Booker prize. Roy refused to publish her novel in the West until it had appeared in India and Tejpal's fledgling company was the natural beneficiary of sales of a million copies on the sub-continent, long before Harper and Collins got their hands on it.

Tejpal is no stranger to political controversy. But his site's current woes are exhausting. These days he's accompanied by bodyguards wherever he goes and must spend two thirds of his time fighting government led legal actions against Tehelka and his journalists.

Recently an international brigade of literary heavyweights and prominent journalists has sprung to his defense adding luster to his urgent appeal to re launch Tehelka. They include Sir V.S. Naipaul and the BBC's much loved long time Indian correspondent Mark Tully, Guardian columnist Ian Buruma, Anna Hazare, Kuldip Nayyar, Ram Jethmalani, Swami Agnivesh, Alyque Padamsee, Mahesh Bhatt, Shyam Benegal, Kapil Sibal and Julio Ribeiro among many others.

A fortnight ago, British forensic experts began examining the Tehelka video tapes of the alleged arms trading deals, to verify whether the recordings have been tampered with as the Indian government's defense counsel has claimed. A mutual friend, John Hopkins University's Professor of South Asian Studies Sunil Khilnani reports after a recent visit to New Dehli that Tejpal's spirits are not dampened but he too urges us to put our hands in our pockets and pledge to help get Tehelka up and running again.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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