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We, at Tehelka, will carry on our sting operations: Tarun Tejpal

For Tarun Tejpal being a celebrity is incidental. Be it Tehelka's sting operations which exposed the corruption within the Indian political system, his friendship with Sir Vidia or simply his bearded good looks, he is always in the limelight. But he is driven 'moral journalism'. Read transcript of a chat on September 4.

india Updated: Aug 06, 2004 13:16 IST

laughingbuddha: Would you continue with your sting operations in your soon-to-be-launched newspaper?
Tarun_Tejpal: Yes, we will. We will carry on with investigative journalism.

scandium: What cover story are you planning for the first Tehelka print issue?
Tarun_Tejpal: You will have to wait to see it. But the truth is, most of the energies at the moment, are going in trying to raise the subscriptions to make the paper possible. Only once we have the resources to make the paper can we do the journalism.

laughingbuddha: What kind of readership are you looking for Tehelka, the newspaper (if that's what it's called)? Will it be subscription-based or a mass readership based paper?
Tarun_Tejpal: We expect all concerned citizens to be interested and engaged with the Tehelka paper. Yes, it will be called Tehelka and its tagline will be: The people's paper. We need advance subscriptions to help fund the creation of the paper. But, the paper by the very nature of Tehelka's connect with the people, will be a mass-based paper.

monchandy: My question is with what objective did you target corruption and have you achieved anything?
Tarun_Tejpal: One of the most important functions of good journalism is to keep a watch on the abuse of public office and public money. Tehelka in it's own modest way, tried to do the same. As journalist, we can only focus on what our job is, all the results are, obviously not in our hand, and only public pressure and public engagement can get true results.

scandium: How will Tehelka be different from other magazines?
Tarun_Tejpal: For one, we will be vigorously aligned only to public interest journalism. We will not alignments with any political party or business house. Tehelka, though it will cover everything, will operate from a strong moral centre.

ashshar: I think Tarun Tejpal is an honest journalist working in a wrong country. His methods are applied daily in western countries. They are appreciated, applauded, supported and even rewarded by the authorities. Why don't Indian journalists support him in the open?
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, I think the large number of Indian journalists do support us and back us. There are only small sections of motivated and envious journalists who may not do so. I think India needs more and more aggressive public interest journalism, and we should all hope that we get to see more of it.

monchandy: Is this sting operation just a take of for your paper?
Tarun_Tejpal: Actually sting journalism is a desperate measure for public accountability in an era of great brazenness and shameful conduct on the part of those who hold public office and misuse public money.

ashshar: What are the possible legal implications in the methodology that you adopted? Did you expect people to take you to courts?
Tarun_Tejpal: As far as we know, there are no legal implications of exposing corruption. The methodology is defined by the motive and the motive, as far we are concerned, was the highest call of public interest. No, we did not expect the kind of extra-constitutional assault from the establishment that we have suffered fortwo and a half years.

monchandy1: What about the economic viability of your paper? Any paper depends on the government for support.
Tarun_Tejpal: That's not right. The best papers depend upon their readers and public support for their survival and health. We hope to do the same.

ashshar: Why did you abandon Manoj Prabhakar mid-way?
Tarun_Tejpal: We did not abandon him nor did we patronize him. We just went to him to ask for his help in uncovering the scourge of match fixing and he helped us in our story. And the story had a great impact, and in some small way, helped in the global cleanup in cricket that has happened since.

laughingbuddha: One of your sting operations had major cricketing heroes of the country accusing Kapil Dev and Azhar of match fixing. And then, these very players vote him the Wisden cricketer of the century. How do you react to that?
Tarun_Tejpal: You must remember that great talent, great skill and great achievement need not necessarily always go hand in hand with integrity and morality.

laughingbuddha: But many who have played some form of cricket or the other say it is difficult to inspire the way Kapil did if one is not honest about what he or she does. And Kapil inspired an entire generation to become fast bowlers. Your comments.
Tarun_Tejpal: I really have no comments, apart from the fact that I admire Kapil greatly as a cricketer but at the same time, reserve my judgment on any unsavory role he may have played during the course of his career.

monchandy1: But do you think you have achieved anything by this sting operation other than your legal battles with the government?
Tarun_Tejpal: I think Tehelka brought the issue of corruption in governance centre-stage again and that is really the need of the hour because we all know very scarce and valuable resource of the country are being constantly siphened off and misused.

mick1985: You look very good on TV. Why don't your run your own talk shows?
Tarun_Tejpal: LOL. It's not what I seek to do. And it's not what really interests me.

mick1985: What is your opinion on David Kelly, BBC and UK Government crisis?
Tarun_Tejpal: I think it's one more grim reminder of how power can be misused even in the finest of democracies. It tells us that citizens in democracies can never afford to slack off and go to sleep.

monchandy: Can you fight the system which involves many layers of people both in government and business.
Tarun_Tejpal: I don't wish to fight the system, I just want Tehelka to be the kind of media organization that crusades for reform in the system and stands for all the fundamental founding principles of this country.

mick1985: If you were not heading Tehelka, what would you have been doing?
Tarun_Tejpal: I guess I would have been an editor with another publication, just as I was the managing editor of Outlook, before I started Tehelka. I would also like to be doing more writing.

Tehelka_2000: Why isn't a single politician been punished, even after being proven guilty and caught red handed by you?
Tarun_Tejpal: That just shows us how brazen our system and our politicians have become. It is almost impossible to make them accountable for any of their misdeeds.

Tehelka_2000: Why did you limit your activities just against NDA and not the Congress? Was there an ulterior motive?
Tarun_Tejpal: It just so happens that the NDA was in power. I assure you, Tehelka will not refrain from writing about or against anybody - party or connections notwithstanding.

parikhmunir: Why have you not come out with any more revelations after your sting operation on defence deals. We need more of those.
Tarun_Tejpal: Well the sad truth is that we have spent the last two and a half years struggling to survive the venal onslaught of the establishment. Our offices were closed nine months back and most of our staff of 120 people was disbanded more than a year and a half ago. We are deeply in debt but determined to fight on, come back, and do more of the same good work.

mick1985: I think you dug your own grave with the sting operation. The people you have accused have become fatter and roaming around the streets of Delhi while you are mired in one problem after another.
Tarun_Tejpal: I don't agree with you. I believe there is the code of Dharma that is right conduct. And everything else falls into place eventually. We did what we should have done as journalists and I think time and history will vindicate us in great measure.

monchandy: What do you think is different between China and India - China seems to progressing faster?
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, they could be any number of reasons and sometimes, we may overestimate China's success, because it often comes at great human cost. As for ourselves, we just need to develop a sense of the greater good and be less selfish in our professional and societal lives, and I think that will make a great difference to India's rate of progress.

Tehelka_2000: do you justify use of sex workers in the Tehelka and do you justify that to do some good one should use bad means?
Tarun_Tejpal: I have already, in the past, apologized for the ethical transgression by the reporters but at the same time, we must keep in mind the fact that they were then posing as arms dealers, and not reporters. And these kind of demands were routinely made from arms dealers. We must also remember that what they uncovered was of such importance that the transgression is a very small one in comparison. Tehelka may have done three things wrong and 97 things right. I think all of us need to focus on how much we got right and the face of great risk and danger.

I would also like to tell you that Tehelka behaved most honorably with the tapes. If we had any bad intent, we could have easily thrown away those two tapes and no one would have ever known. But it was Tehelka that gave those tapes to the army court of inquiry and the Venkatswami commission of enquiry.
In other words, we behaved with full honor - we did not exploit the tapes, nor did we suppress them. We gave them to the rightful authorities because we saw their value in the judicial process.

gnandini: Didn't you get support from organisations outside India?
Tarun_Tejpal: Lots of individuals and organizations have given us all kinds of support and it has helped us to somehow survive the last few years.

laughingbuddha: You are special friend of Sir VS Naipaul. You are known of have a very sound understanding of his writings. Some accuse him of indulging in Muslim bashing. Your comments.
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, Naipaul's writings are very complex and do not lend themselves to easy summary. The problem is, instead of reading his books, people read some précis of his thoughts and get half-baked picture of his ideas. Whatever he writes, he writes after deep thought and first-hand experience. If he is critical of some of the Muslim dogma or conduct, he presents his sounds reasons for it.

laughingbuddha: Then, how is it that the BJP is so fond of Naipaul? Clearly they see a meeting point.
Tarun_Tejpal: I think they just try to extrapolate some stuff from his writings that suits them. I don't think they necessarily have a deep understanding of his work or his ideas.

gnandini: I think you deserve a pat on your back for shaking the NDA Govt out of its stupor!
Tarun_Tejpal: Thank you! Now please take an advance subscription to the paper, and ask all your friends to do the same. The simplest way to do it is to SMS "YES" to the number 3636 or you can call 9622001001. We need all the support we can get to create the Tehelka paper.

parikhmunir: It is sad to know that no one from big media houses came to your rescue! This is the first time I heard of your problems. What do you think is the reason that nobody came forward to support you?
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, we did get support. Perhaps not as much we would have liked. But some of it can be put down to the fact that media houses also succumb to pressures from the government. And also, they may have been some issues of envy at the kind of recognition and goodwill Tehelka received from the Indian people.

sunandakumar: Do you really think people are going pay money for your proposed publication?
Tarun_Tejpal: I absolutely do! I believe unless citizens start coming forward to engage in creating citizens' institutions, Indian democracy has no future. And I personally believe that there are enough well meaning and frustrated Indians who wish to change their country for the better.

sunandakumar: I bring up the money issue because Indians usually are quite skeptical about paying for intangibles, in this case, THE TRUTH.
Tarun_Tejpal: All I can say is that we are about to test it and if we are not willing to put ourselves out for the truth, then God help all of us!

gnandini: What do you think the legal standing of the Tehelka case is since people have been saying that a sting operation carried out by the CIA against a person of Indian origin (the Lakhani case) in the UK is not legally tenable?
Tarun_Tejpal: I have been told that the legal standing of the Tehelka case has been very sound.

decosta: Do you think politicians are better or parasites?
Tarun_Tejpal: As with all of the sections of society, you have the good and the bad. The fear really is that their power over our lives is disproportionate and unless we learn to work at making them honest and responsive, we will continue to suffer.

gnandini: Can you explain why Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was at the press conference where you revealed the findings of the sting operation? His presence was seen as proof of the Congress' complicity in the operation.
Tarun_Tejpal: There were many people there who were at the press conference, nearly 200 people including retired generals, media and others. We did not invite anyone except the media.

parikhmunir: What are your thoughts on communalism in the country. I am talking about what BJP's Hinduvad and Congress' Muslim appeasement.
Tarun_Tejpal: I think communalism is the greatest danger facing India today. If anything has the potential to tear India apart, it is fundamentalism of all kinds. The liberal secular space must, therefore, be protected and widened.

gnandini: Are you launching a newspaper now? Give us the details. Congrats and best wishes on your venture.
Tarun_Tejpal: Yes, we are. The unique thing about the paper is that we are going directly to the people asking them to take advance subscriptions to fund the creation of the paper. It will be called Tehelka - the people's paper. You can subscribe by SMSing YES to 3636 or calling 9622001001. Please spread the word to all your friends and family.

gnandini: It'll be a pleasure to read your pieces after such a long time. Those in Outlook were excellent.
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, I too look forward to have some time to write -) Thanks for the kind words.

laughingbuddha: Political parties have always taken money. Tell us, how different is this NDA government compared to the rest?
Tarun_Tejpal: Actually it is not, and I said so even on the day we broke the story. I said it was the system that was so corroded that it was undermining everyone and everything. And I feel it needs to be fought at all levels.

gnandini: By the way, where do you buy your exquisite kurtas? Incidentally, you are one of those very few journalists who are suave and sophisticated.
Tarun_Tejpal: They are standard issue Fabindia kurtas. Thanks for being nice.

decosta: Tarun... what makes you tick? India needs you.
Tarun_Tejpal: At the moment, moral outrage that the system should be so corrupted that it targets the right doer and protects the wrongdoer. I think all those who enjoy privilege in the Indian system need to step forward to help reform it.

gnandini: Are you looking forward to returning to the print media?
Tarun_Tejpal: Yes, very much.

monchandy: If you really are concerned about fighting corruption you need to be in the system and not outside.
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, you need two kinds of people fighting it - some within the system and some outside. I prefer to be outside.

gnandini: Before you launched the sting operation, did you have any doubts, fears and misgivings, especially since you knew you'd have to face the establishment's backlash?
Tarun_Tejpal: We tried to not think about it because we knew if we thought too hard about it, we would never be able to finish the story.

decosta: Can we ever get rid of these self-seeking politicians? I think we should just work on getting more accountability from them.
Tarun_Tejpal: I think we should just work on getting more accountability from them.

laughingbuddha: Barring Nehru, under whom, do you think, has India been best governed?
Tarun_Tejpal: Difficult to say. But everyone including Vajpayee, have had good and bad patches. Our problem is that we have failed to build our institutions that would ensure minimum standards of consistent governance.

laughingbuddha: Which nation, to your mind, has been able to "build institutions that would ensure minimum standards of consistent governance" as you put it?
Tarun_Tejpal: Several European countries I would say and even others like the US.

laughingbuddha: But how would you explain Chomsky's criticism of the US?
Tarun_Tejpal: It is valid. The US has also a lot of correctives to still put in place. Good societies need professionals dissenters like Chomsky to keep them on their toes.

sunandakumar: What sort of a reaction are you expecting from the government once the People's Paper is out?
Tarun_Tejpal: I expect it to quickly realize that we are not against them or for them. We are only batting for the people's interest.

decosta: Do you think India has a conscience or is it Naipaul's area of darkness?
Tarun_Tejpal: I fear that though we do have one, we very successfully keep it buried quite often. We need to have it speaking to us everyday because we are a country of great inequalities and disparities. We need a conscience to keep us reminded of our responsibilities.

parikhmunir: But where is the liberal secular space? If BJP is engaged in Muslim bashing, all others are engaged in unnecessary minority appeasement, which makes Hindus, including me, feel insecure!
Tarun_Tejpal: As a Hindu myself, I can assert that you have absolutely no reason to feel insecure. Hinduism is such a grand and wise religion that it doesn't need violent proponents or sad insecurities to surround it.

sunandakumar: Have you considered joining hands with other websites across the globe that have suffered at the hands of governments who prefer to keep things under wraps? I can cite the case of
Tarun_Tejpal: Actually the editor of is a sort of friend of mine because I often run into him at international seminars on the victimization of journalists. He seems to be doing good work.

decosta: Did you ever think of giving up and get a cushy job of a newspaper editor and propound homilies to the unsuspecting public?
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, I have done some of that in the past but my experiences of the last few years have brought me brutally face to face with the true nature of the Indian establishment and made me more determined to run a journalistic platform that has more teeth than platitudes.

sunandakumar: Perhaps that is the only way to assert freedom of the press.
Tarun_Tejpal: Actually I believe that any and every kind of media can do good and outstanding work. It all depends solely on intent.

laughingbuddha: You are an army officer's son. How much did that help in understanding the workings of the Indian Defence Ministry?
Tarun_Tejpal: Actually you have to remember that I did not do the story. It was done by two very brave reporters. I only created the space for them to do it. So my understanding of the army had no role to play in it.

decosta: What do you think of that sadist called Modi?
Tarun_Tejpal: It distresses me that the kind of venomous rhetoric and false propaganda that he exemplifies has come to roost at the highest levels in India.

decosta: Do you think you would get 200 founder subscribers?
Tarun_Tejpal: We are still hoping we will. It is a slow, tiring and tedious process, but we believe it is the right way to fund a people's paper.

parikhmunir: Don't you think today's media focuses more on sensationalization, that they have less substance in their stories. Commercialization has even taken a toll of quality journalism today.
Tarun_Tejpal: There is good and bad media and we have a bit of both in India. But what we need clearly is a lot more of good, hard, aggressive media because our problems are many and daunting.

decosta: Most Indian journalists are buyable these days. Your thoughts.
Tarun_Tejpal: I don't think so. There may be some bad eggs but the overall basket is not all bad.

parikhmunir: What is your personal opinion about Mrs Sonia Gandhi's capabilities since she is not a good politician, a good speaker, nor is she very much educated. She hardly knows India?
Tarun_Tejpal: I think she is well meaning but has a long and difficult road to travel to become fully cognoscent of the many subtleties of a country like India. As for her experience, I suppose she does have the advantage of having spent nearly 15 years in the prime minister's house in close proximity with the prime ministers.

parikhmunir: What is your favourite cuisine?
Tarun_Tejpal: Indian

abhijeetshekhar: Hi Tarun. After going through all these ordeals, how fair do you think you will be in reporting news?
Tarun_Tejpal: Completely! It will be my personal failure if I allow any untoward prejudices to creep into Tehelka's journalism.

guruprasadcl: Hello Mr. Tarun, We all feel as much a victim as you do, and we also know how much of a problem it is to find the right kind of journalism. But where do you see your brand of journalism taking India? Aur Tarun ko gussa kyon aata hai?
Tarun_Tejpal: I hope it leads to greater moral journalism. Mujhe gussa sirf tab aata hai when people question our motives and work even though we have suffered everyday for the last two and a half years and lost everything, including our company.

ashshar: How do you counter Jaya Jaitley's allegations that the Tehelka tapes were doctored?
Tarun_Tejpal: She has taken the easiest tack to wriggle out of the situation she found herself in. And let me tell you, she will not stop till she can engineer some kind of hokum report to clear herself. The fact of the matter is that not only are the tapes 100% genuine, but have been declared so by several times by different authorities. And even in the commission of inquiry everyone has owned up to what they are shown doing in the tapes. It's tragic that Jaya Jaitley, instead of admitting that she took the money for the party, has insisted on derailing what could have become a debate on reform in political funding. It only goes to show how power and proximity to power can deform even the best of people.

vijayritajoneja: Congratulations on the past performance despite heavy odds. Any plans to work on Mayawati's Taj Corridor project?
Tarun_Tejpal: Well, at the moment, we don't have the resources or people to work on anything. But once the paper has been put together, we will try and cover whatever we possibly can.

scandium: A lot of people appreciate you for the kind of investigative journalism you did. How do you maintain a balance between ethics and investigative journalism?
Tarun_Tejpal: That has to be done at every moment. And good editors know where to draw the line. In the case of Tehelka, we draw the line at the private lives of people. Tehelka is not interested in the private lives of anybody. We are only interested in exposing the abuse of public office and public money by those who control it. And that, as far as we are concerned, is the core function of journalism.

Thanks to everyone for being here. Please come forward to support the Tehelka paper.

First Published: Sep 04, 2003 22:26 IST