As English-speaking businessmen, tourists and spiritual seekers would all agree, one of the special advantages of going to India is that you don’t need to learn one or more foreign languages because they “all” speak, write and communicate in perfect English, whether in the (predominantly Hindi) North or the Dravidian South. Some foreign journalists might agree, although it is likely that those whose reports are most valued overseas have learnt a relevant Indian language, especially Hindi or Tamil. (Like Mark Tully, Edward Luce, Kris Kremmer, Patrick French, etc.)
For English-speaking foreign journalists, one of the most valuable sources of information on life in contemporary India is the highly independent investigative magazine Tehelka, whose dramatic 12-year history of sensational début and (persecuted) decline, followed by a slow but determined and vigorous revival (now including a thriving website) is well documented.
According to several Hindi dictionaries, Tehelka ( तहलका Ta-hal-kaa ) carries semantic content involving sensation, commotion, hubbub or hullabaloo. Tehelka itself clarifies the matter for us by quoting Time Magazine’s absolutely admirable definition:
“Tehelka is a delightful Urdu word, difficult to translate. It refers to that special kind of tumult provoked by a daring act, or a sensational piece of writing.”
Although this forthright intention nearly caused its early demise, the magazine has certainly lived up to its name and orientation, both the inspired creations of Tarun J. Tejpal. The current Internet motto is: “Free. Fair. Fearless”.
On its website Tehelka describes itself thus:
“On January 31, 2004, after more than two years of persecution, Tehelka was reborn as a weekly newspaper committed to constructive, crusading journalism. As a people’s paper geared to take a stand, to follow the hard investigative story. A fearless paper ready to create opinion, and not just remain a passive vehicle of news.
Over the years, Tehelka has firmly established itself as a people’s media choice. With public interest journalism, serious opinion and analysis, Tehelka has earned unmatched credibility and brand recall.”
(More of Tehelka’s amazing inside story is available from its Editor-in-Chief, Shoma Chaudhury, on http://archive.tehelka.com)
Independent writers also confirm and flesh out the Tehelka saga.
Mira Kamdar presents the “Tehelka Tapes” story in Planet India. The Turbulent Rise of the World’s Largest Democracy (Simon and Schuster, 2007,pp. 93-94):
“In March 2001, the fledgling weekly Tehelka rocked the nation when it released tapes secretly made by two of its reporters, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel, showing bribes being taken in the ministry of defence at the highest level of the Indian Government.”
Kamdar also describes the retaliation by authorities intent on punishing Tehelka and its staff for the embarrassment caused and she notes the courageous resistance by the editors and reporters. As a result of government action, Tehelka’s staff was reduced from 120 to 4, and their main financial backer, Sharma Mehra, was prosecuted. Kamdar adds the encouraging happy ending by explaining that finally, through sheer determination, and backing from media personalities and others, the editor Tarun Tejpal [and his managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury] managed to reopen the paper in 2004. As a result, of strong support, the printed editions sell well and “The online edition reaches readers around the world. The paper continues to conduct sting operations, exposing corruption at every turn [ …].”
In his acclaimed 2011 study, India. An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People, (London Allen Lane, 2011), Patrick French offers more background on Tehelka as well as specific quotations from the original sensational “Tapes”. In his chapter on wealth, business, politics and corruption in contemporary India, French makes the point that since 2000 the transparency factor has played an increasingly important role in Indian journalism and life:
“One of the strongest weapons against corruption was transparency – or a fear of being caught. Taking bribes was now becoming annoyingly difficult for senior bureaucrats and politicians, such was the fear of spy cameras. The 2005 “Right to Information Act”, combined with the new media’s love of spying and bugging, appeared to be undermining certain types of graft.” The author goes on to give three pages of details about the hazardous Tehelka undercover sting of 2001, involving politicians, military officers and bureaucrats, claiming that this was the incident which “sparked this shift, catching and shaming people for the sort of behaviour that had always been rumoured but never so graphically demonstrated” (p. 217). Be that as it may, after a long quote from the secretly taped Tehelka investigation, Patrick French adds that although the Defence Minister was forced to resign, “the most outrageous thing about this exposé was not the corruption […] but the state’s response to the dishonesty. The prosecution of those involved was half-hearted, and much more effort was devoted to prosecuting Tehelka, which was nearly destroyed by repeated investigations and court cases […]” (p. 219).
So much for the “known knowns” about Tehelka. Less well known outside India, presumably because a (difficult) foreign language is involved, is the fact that since 2008, Tehelka has also published a Hindi version. However, unless you peruse the issues (or at least the Contents pages, you may not realise that Tehelka in Hindi contains much information not printed in its English version. Some of this extra information really needs to be more widely studied and reported on by foreign India watchers, because it is also the fruit of Tehelka’s ongoing commitment to revealing information which the public deserves to know. Another reason for foreign journalists to follow “Tehelka in Hindi” is that writing sensational reports in Hindi is likely to attract less official attention than writing them in English. Yet another positive factor is that India is not yet showing any signs of a decline in newspaper and magazine sales.
To justify my main assertion that a knowledge of Hindi is essential for foreign journalists, I propose to refer to 3 articles published in “Tehelka in Hindi” (www.tehelkahindi.com) in December 2012 and January and February 2013. I am grateful to my translator colleague Suyash Suprabh for supplying me with these valuable copies of Tehelka.
1. The cover of Tehelka (Hindi) for 31 December 2012 announces the 12-page updated investigation by Brijesh Singh of the decades-long and hitherto intractable question of refugees in Kashmir (pp. 42-53):
Kashmeer kee sautelee saantaaneN (Kashmir’s Step-children)
Jammoo: Refugee Capital
2 lakhs [200,000]
Refugees from West Pakistan
10 lakhs [1 million]
Refugees from Pakistan-administered Kashmir
2 lakhs [200,000]
Displaced by the war with Pakistan
3 lakhs [300,000]
Pundits from the Valley of Kashmir
(To my knowledge this article by Mr Singh has not appeared in the English version of Tehelka and although I am aware of an Internet translation, I am not willing to share the URL until I am satisfied it is duly authorised.)
Following the horrendous gang rape in Delhi, the Tehelka Hindi issue for 31 December 2012- 15 January 2013 was devoted to Women’s Issues, including a short article on the positive history of Women’s Movements in India by Priyanka Dubey, Hauslon kaa haasil (‘Courageous Achievements’), in which she makes the point that, in view of their involvement in the decades of struggle for Independence, they were well placed to continue the fight after Independence in 1947.
The cover of Tehelka Hindi for 28 February 2013 announces a long article, by a retired politician, Arif Mohammad Khan, on another sensitive subject. The title given there seems to be ‘Isn’t there any room for change or modernisation in Islam?’ (‘Kyaa islaam meN badlaav aur aadhuniktaa ke lie kaaee sthaan nahee hai?’) The article itself (pp. 36-41), however, has a revised title: ‘Is there any Scope for Change and Reform in Islam?’ Where sudhaaroN (reforms) and gunjaaish (scope) have replaced aadhuniktaa (modernisation) and sthaan (place / room) and the rhetorical negative has been deleted.
(For this article by Mr Khan there is an English translation available on the Tehelka website, dated 7 March.)
The latest Tehelka sting operation in December 2012-January 2013 involved taping conversations by senior Indian police officials. These contradicted official statements on tightening up on attitudes to reported rapes and the way of investigating them.