Posted tagged ‘Tehelka’

On Professor Wendy Doniger’s Professional Reputation as a Scholar of Hinduism

14 February 2014

14 February 2014

As the world’s publishers gather in New Delhi for the beginning of the 41st International Book Fair tomorrow (and until 23 February) at the Pragati Maidaan, many will already be discussing this week’s publishing bombshell news that, under an arcane Indian criminal law, Penguin India has finally acceded to the demands of a powerful group of right-wing Hindu activists in an agreement to recall and pulp all Indian copies of Professor Wendy Doniger’s highly acclaimed 2009 academic work: The Hindus: An Alternative History. (Also published in paperback by Oxford University Press, 2010.)

Media and individual comment is flowing in fast. One useful early comment noted is by G. Vishnu: ‘Pulped, Though Not Fiction’ (Tehelka, 22 February 2014).

At the Book Fair, many fellow publishers from India and overseas will doubtless express their sympathy with Penguin India, who, having lost or given up this long battle, have now expressed their grave concern for the health and continued progress of Indian publishing in the face of such restrictive laws.

With a general Indian election already in virtual full swing, it is to be hoped that this publishing issue, and the principles of freedom of expression, will gain renewed attention during the political debates and that, when the new government coalition is chosen, especially if, as is generally expected, it contains a strong right-wing component or majority, such issues will be fairly considered along with the many other initiatives which need to be put in place to provide India with more efficient and equitable governance and administration.

As a background contribution for new followers of these issues, and for those who may be perplexed in view of the serious charges laid against the author in India, I offer a list of opinions of Professor Wendy Doniger’s work by a distinguished group of reviewers. In my opinion, these amply demonstrate the quality and originality of her edifying (and engagingly written) 700 pages of research, which some have dismissed so lightly – along with her two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, from Harvard and Oxford, and her distinguished academic career dedicated to Hinduism and Indian studies.)


On the back cover of the paperback (2010) (Copyright Oxford University Press)

‘Courageous and scholarly … Doniger exudes an infectious enthusiasm for her subject and ranges with confidence well beyond the Sanskrit corpus at the core of her analysis … The Hindus is a celebration not just of a personal way of seeing Hinduism, but of the boldness and vitality of a textual tradition.’

David Arnold, Times Literary Supplement

‘This is history as great entertainment! Unlike the usual, arid accounts of dynasties. Wendy Doniger’s double vision of Hinduism is about women, merchants, lower castes, animals, spirits and, of course, Dead Male Brahmins. This lively, earthy account explains why ancient India is the world’s richest storytelling culture.’

Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound

‘Wendy Doniger’s enthralling and encyclopaedic book reveals her vision of a Hindu culture that is plural, varied, generous, and inclusive. Hinduism, in her view, is an intricate weave of the diverse localities and communities of Indian culture. This is a rich text that will encourage dialogue and conversation among a wide range of scholars.’

Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

‘With her vast erudition, insight, and graceful writing laced with gentle wit, there is no one better than Wendy Doniger to convey the richness, depth and diversity of Hindu texts and traditions to international audiences. The Hindus is destined to become a classic that will be discussed and debated for many years to come.’

Sudhir Kakar, author of Indian Identity

‘She is the most eminent scholar in the field… I have read her and found her writing an invaluable source.’  Salman Rushdie, India Today


The above are, on their own, quite overwhelming evidence of a very special scholarly (and easily readable) work, but in view of the extraordinary treatment meted out to Doniger’s  chef d’oeuvre in India this week, I feel obliged to add most of the brief comments printed inside the front cover of the 2010 OUP edition of the work, mainly in the hope that some who have misjudged – or may misjudge – her without reading any of her work, will pay a little closer attention to the topic.


Staggeringly comprehensive book.

Pankaj Mishra in New York Times

This tremendously spirited, agile and learned book should be the standard history of Hinduism for many years to come.

Chandrahas Chowdury in Mint

Without doubt a monumental work that is awe-inspiring and humbling in its scale.

Devdutt Pattanaik in Mid-Day

[An] erudite ‘alternative history’… don’t miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher.

Michael Dirda in Washintgon Post

Wendy Doniger … serves us a feast of tasty historical events and interpretative myths.

Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring in Feminist Review

Doniger is an unstoppable teller of tales and a briloant interprewter of them.

Sunil Khilnani in Outlook  [and author of The Idea of India]

Doniger’s is an amazingly breathtaking book in its sweep. Indeed, before this, one would have thought such a book could never be written.

Bibek Debroy in Indian Express

The narrative sweep is epic… Wendy Doniger, with exceptional brio, tells us how the story of Hinduism continues to multiply.

S. Prasannarajan in India Today

At last, there is a witty, elegant and academically rigorous volume presenting this multi-everything faith in an accessible form.

Salil Tripathi in Tehelka

There is no book like Doniger’s which so meticulously and faithfully interprets the Hindu spirit, which clearly distinguishes itself for its catholicity and comprehensiveness of approach.

A.K Bhattacharya in Business Standard

Doniger’s delightful style makes light work of a substantial subject and weighty ideas.


Doniger’s work, vast in scope, wide in its range, so captures the mind that it is difficult to put it down once one starts reading it.

M. V. Kamath in Sentinel

Masterful study of the evolution of Hinduism

Time Out

Anyone seriously concerned with Hinduism in the contemporary world will be well advised to read, enjoy, engage, and even argue with the book.

A.R Venkatachalapathy in Hindu


The Indian Investigative Magazine Tehelka and its Hindi Version

31 March 2013

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

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” ( 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)

Tehelka Kashmir Cover

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.