Much like the death sentence, I believe, hidden cameras should be used in the “rarest of rare” cases. Braving bullets, slipping past security cordons, jumping walls, stopping traffic, going without food and water — these are all occupational hazards for any passionate television journalist. But readers of this column know how circumspect I am about the controversial new-age phenomenon called the sting operation. A hidden camera must never become a lazy substitute for the rigours of old-style reporting. If your bow tie is really a camera (with apologies to Paul Simon), you better have a damned good reason for the sartorial disguise. A hidden camera can only be a good journalist’s last resort.
But sometimes, it’s the only option.
By now, many of you may have seen the NDTV broadcast on the BMW case. It’s been eight years since six people including three policemen, were killed in the drunken darkness of a winter night. The car, a black BMW, was allegedly driven by Sanjeev Nanda, the son of an arms dealer and the grandson of a former naval chief. First, the car ran over three poor pavement dwellers, killing them instantly. Then it raced ahead, perhaps in panic, knocking down three policemen standing guard at a security picket. Before the sun could rise, the car had been scrubbed clean of all blood and flesh. And since then, as witness after witness turned hostile and recoiled from testifying to the truth, the case has simply dragged its long feet in court.
It was obvious to anyone who was anything in legal circles that fear or favour had been used to manipulate the case. But there was just no evidence to prove this.
Now for the first time, the NDTV report raises several alarming questions that are impossible to ignore. Did the lawyers for the prosecution and the defence collude to circumvent the truth? Did both sides use money to lure a key witness? Was the witness a victim of the vipers in India’s legal system or a scheming opportunist who must carry his own burden of guilt? How deep does the rot run within? These are questions that demand honest answers. And there was no way of dragging any of these questions into the public domain without the use of a hidden camera.
It all began two months ago, when the only witness to not have turned hostile, approached NDTV after watching a news report on the seedy twists and turns of the BMW case. Sunil Kulkarni, a small-time businessman from Mumbai, says he happened to be passing by when he saw the BMW crash. The prosecution had branded him “unreliable” and dropped him as witness, till the court ordered that he be reinstated. Kulkarni tried to position himself initially as a fearful and heroic whistleblower whose only interest was the pursuit of truth. He claimed to us that he was being pressured by both sides to alter his testimony on court. He said he could prove this on hidden camera.
The lawyers involved in the case are no ordinary men. IU Khan and RK. Anand are the big daddies of India’s criminal justice regime. They are ingenious, influential, notoriously aggressive and famously successful. From former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to former Union Minister HKL Bhagat to the tandoor killer, Sushil Sharma, together and separately, the two men have been at the helm of the biggest cases of the past two decades. Anand had been an MP and is still a primary member of the Congress. If the two were indeed putting pressure on a witness to add and subtract from his testimony, conventional methods would have been impossibly feeble to uncover this.
And so, Kulkarni and NDTV’s journalists agreed to work together to ascertain whether there was any truth to his allegations. For obvious reasons it was not possible for our representatives to be present during every conversation that was recorded with the key players on hidden camera. But, wherever possible, the NDTV reporter trailed Kulkarni to his meetings and would take possession of the tapes immediately after every recording, to ensure that they remained within our jurisdiction.
A whisper campaign now suggests that Kulkarni offered his services only for money, and was propositioning other channels as well. While I cannot speak for other news organisations, I can happily assert that no money was ever given by NDTV or asked for by Kulkarni. And it was made clear to him that only we, not him, could determine what the editorial content of the story would be.
The tapes told an astonishing tale. Kulkarni was able to meet the defence lawyer (R.K. Anand) on two separate occasions. They had nudge-nudge, wink-wink exchanges about money, among other things (Anand now says this was a “joke”). The public prosecutor, on his part, questions the court’s very decision to call Kulkarni as a witness (Khan now says this was merely a rhetorical way of calming down a panic-stricken Kulkarni).
Then, just on the eve of his testimony in court, Kulkarni did a turnaround — he asked us not to air the tapes, but would not offer any coherent explanation for the change of heart. And, inside court, he seemed somewhat ambiguous. Yes, he had seen a black BMW, but he didn’t think Sanjeev Nanda had been in the driver’s seat. Yes, he had heard someone call out to a “Sanj,” but he couldn’t be sure he had heard the name Sanjeev. He continued to ask NDTV not to broadcast what our cameras had captured. By now, we knew that we could not verify the integrity or reliability of Kulkarni as a witness. But there were enough questions that the tapes threw up irrespective. With legal opinion backing us, we knew we had to move ahead, in public interest.
The unedited footage has now been handed over and already viewed by Judge Vinod Kumar, who is trying the BMW case. The tapes are also on their way to the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. As expected, legal suits have been slapped against NDTV and we are getting ready for a long-and-dreary battle.
But, perhaps in the process, the legal fraternity will be forced to answer some awkward questions. And, the truth behind an eight-year-old case may finally see the light of day.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 email@example.com