While two decades of Lagaan trended for days on social media a couple of months ago, and reams of airtime was devoted to it on prime time, a landmark — some might call it defining — moment in politics and in Indian journalism also hit its 20 year anniversary recently.
You might remember it as Operation West End. Or you might remember it as the massive defence deals scam unearthed by Tarun Tejpal's magazine Tehelka in its now legendary first sting operation, something for which the magazine and Tejpal were placed firmly in the crosshairs of the BJP for times to come.
As conversations about the Rafaele deal — a global web of secrecy, contradictory statements from different governments, and an incomprehensible amount of citizen money — bubble and fade under the watch of a compromised press and an indifferent, even reverent public, one thing is clear. To anyone who has been paying attention, or who can trace the arc from journalists Tarun J Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal's shape-shifting investigation into the BJPs defence deal in 2001, the writing is on the wall.
Defence scams in India aren't new, nor are they limited to the BJP; Bofors casts a long shadow even today. What is astonishing, though, is the BJP's ability to have resurrected itself not only as the ruling dispensation but with an image they brazenly claim as uncorrupt and entirely clean, despite the catastrophic episode in which the then leader of the party was caught on camera accepting a bribe for his role in a massive defence deal. If the details are hazy, here's a quick primer on what went down.
The year was 2001. Tehelka.com was a newsmagazine founded by journalist and editor Tarun Tejpal, that conducted its first of many sting operations in the country, each revealing not just episodes of horrific corruption or genocidal violence — Gujarat 2002 — but also pioneered an absolutely new form of gonzo public-interest journalism to India. It's only fealty? To the facts, and to the reader.
Over the course of seven months, tracing a complex and nefarious web of fixers and arms dealers, politicians and influential middle men, Tehelka conducted a quiet, thorough and sustained investigation into a massive defence arms deal underway, one that led them to the late Bangaru Laxman, the then President of the BJP. In the sting operation, that later came to be known as Operation West End, Bangaru was caught on camera taking a bribe from a fake arms dealer to recommend to the defence ministry for the awarding of a contract to supply thermal binoculars to the Army.
In speaking of their strategy later, Tarun J Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal highlighted that they decided to start with the person who was at the lowest point in the defence chain and then move upwards to higher officials of the network, to see how high the chain of corruption would go. As history was made and showed that it went right to the top, to the sitting President of the ruling party in government, it shook the very foundations of both politics and journalism in India. Bangaru Laxman went on to be convicted by a special CBI court under the Prevention of Corruption Act in 2012 and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment, but went on to receive bail very soon and two years later, in 2014, passed away of a respiratory illness.
The investigative team started its operation by forming a fictitious Arms Manufacturing Company that was based in London and named it West End International. They then patiently seeded their operation with senior section officer P. Sashi, who was posted in the Ministry of Defence. Using P. Sashi's desire to make money from dealers as bait, they offered him a monetary incentive to lead them to the more senior members of this corruption network up the chain. P. Sashi then took the fake arms dealers — the investigative journalists — to the home of the then DOGS, Anil Sehgal. Having acquired all necessary information from the two of them about what products are required by the Indian Army and how they can enter the reckoning, they set in motion the next part of their plan.
After taking a bribe of Rs 2 lakh, Sehgal agreed to share the documents required to sell armaments etc to the Indian Army to the Investigative officers. On 26th November 2000, the sting operation team was introduced to Deepak Gupta who was the son of RSS trustee RK Gupta. Deepak gave an assurance to the team for bagging their project and told the team that he wielded some influence in the government and that he worked from the PMO.
When the team later met RK Gupta, he claimed that everything had been sorted out for them and that they could easily get the commission. He also openly talked about his relationship with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. On 1 January 2001, Laxman took the bribe of Rs 1,00,000 to pursue the proposal by the fictitious company. The final meeting was held on 7th January 2001 to close the deal.
In the entire sting operation, almost 15 people were found to have taken bribes from the representatives of the fake company. The final CDs of the Operation were released on 13th March 2001. The report created political havoc in the country, with a host of political leaders having to resign. Operation West End, Aniruddh Bahal and Tarun Tejpal, in that moment, accomplished the unheard of in Indian media — the capacity for a small, unknown media platform breaking the most significant political and corruption story at the very top of the political food chain, with hard evidence in the form of tapes and a recorded admission of guilt by Laxman himself. In doing so, they demonstrated both the audacity that journalism demands if it is to ever unearth the truth, and demolished the BJPs claim of being the clean, uncorrupt antidote to the legacy-leadership of the Congress.
Now, with Rafaele being suppressed with the governments full political might, it is more important than ever to recall the revolution started by Tarun J Tejpal and Aniruddh Bahal, and demand that journalists, public watchdogs and institutions like the CBI conduct a thorough probe into the disquieting facts. At stake is not only an instance of unprecedented corruption but the very safety and security of our armed forces as well as the country itself. And given the scale of the deal, it is, in the words of veteran advocate Prashant Bhushan, even more serious than Bofors in the '80s. "This is not merely a matter of securing the commission for a particular company, as was the case in Bofors. This is the largest defence scam that the country has seen."
As Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddh Bahal can attest decades later, the price for pursuing the truth runs deep; the government booked Tehelka under many arbitrary accusations over the course of the next few years, cut off all avenues for financial growth for the company and virtually forced it to close; it was a while before the magazine could be resurrected, and the persecution in faux court cases continued for the next decade and more. 20 years from then, the journalist Aniruddha Bahal, who was part of this sting operation still believes that greed doesn't disappear. It simply gets more clever with time.
At a time when the traditional press largely operates as the PR department of the state, India needs more journalists like Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal who follow a story to wherever and whoever it will lead, and whose lives live to tell the story of the price of truth.