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Kafkaesque grotesquery of power play: 
government vendetta grinds news portal to dust
By Md. Zeyaul Haque

India’s most high profile news portal tehelka.com is gasping for breath, gagged and strangulated by a vengeful government that, instead of doing something about monumental corruption the portal exposed, is ferociously hounding the journalists.

Set up two and a half years ago, tehelka.com had a staff of 105 that included some of the best investigative reporters, most articulate writers, and competent editors. The 105-strong team of bubbling, zestful young men and women has pared down to a brooding band of 15, unpaid for months, caught in an endless legal wrangle, framed up on charges that look alternately ridiculous and bizarre.

Every afternoon, this motley band of 15 or so tehelka.com employees gathers at what was once a beehive of journalistic activity, its office in South Delhi, to exchange notes over cups of tea, to plan coping strategies, to talk about the next date in the court. 

These talented young men and women waste their energies on how to face a battery of 40 odd lawyers fielded against them by well-heeled people, whose corruption they exposed. Arrayed against them at Venkatswami Commission examining the "tehelka case" are the highest law officers of the country, the attorney general of India and the solicitor general of India, assisted by a battery of other government lawyers.

The Davids of tehelka.com have at best one or two modest lawyers to defend them against the formidable Goliath of the Indian state. The self-deprecating tehelka.com team soldiers on nonetheless, wondering about how a supposedly democratic state uses its gargantuan might and financial resources (all given by ordinary citizens like the tehelka.com folk) to grind hapless citizens to dust.

Tehelka.com is being persecuted for "Operation West-End," its sting operation that exposed corruption in defence deals. High officials were caught with their pants down, some literally (romping with prostitutes), others metaphorically (accepting wads of currency notes in bribe).

Enterprising tehelka.com journalists photographed powerful people, including the ruling BJP president Bangaru Laxman, high military officials and the lady companion of defence minister of India. The photographs were taken with hidden miniature cameras and the voices recorded on very small, concealed tape recorders.

Corruption in defence deals is no great news in the Third World. But this one was too brazen-faced. The BJP president was booted out following the exposure, to be surreptitiously reinstalled later in an important position.

Opposition ruckus saw to it that the defence minister was shown the door. However, he was soon reinducted in the cabinet in the same position ignoring opposition protests and trenchant editorials in national dailies. However, the opposition to date refuses to accept him as defence minister and walks out whenever he speaks in Parliament.

As the minister and party chief went scot free, military brass and sundry influence pedlars were virtually untouched. However, the news portal was not so lucky. Government agencies launched an all-out attack. Within the next few months, one of its financiers, Shankar Sharma of the First Global finance company was summoned more than 200 times by a dozen government agencies.

Repeated intelligence raids and fabricated court cases completely destroyed First Global, ruining the careers of some of the brightest young people. The journalists too did not fare any better as they were framed up in an endless number of cases.

As tehelka.com was drained of its financial resources, the portal offices had to shift to a basement, from where they would be evicted next month. Unable to pay their bills, they watch in amusement (alternating with horror) the Kafkaesque grotesquery of power play. And they laugh at all this.

A grim sense of humour – gallows humour– marks tehelka.com journalists’ description of their situation. "We laugh at the witch-hunt. Those who would scare us with menacing faces, look funny and harmless"‚ wrote tehelka.com editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal last week in the mass-circulated Hindustan Times.

Describing the horror of being at the receiving end of political power play, Tejpal wrote: "I read all of Franz Kafka when I was 19, but I only understand him now."

Politicians generally don’t understand the immorality and illegality of their acts, till they are booted out of power. Lal Krishna Advani, the deputy prime minister, was similarly treated in mid seventies when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency and jailed opposition leaders, including Advani and quite a few of his colleagues.

Ironically, Advani as the home minister and deputy prime minister, today sits atop the machinery that persecuted him during Emergency and is hounding tehelka.com (and quite a few other) journalists.

Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar wonders as to how easily Advani had forgotten his experiences of Emergency days. Recently Advani released a book on reminiscences of his prison days. Advani was petitioned about the official harassment of journalists, but he has yet to act on that. 

The prime minister, himself a BJP man, is a poet and writes about high ideals. However, that does not prevent the system he presides over from crushing the freedom of the press.
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