As Tejpal faces charges of sexually assaulting one of his staff, the man and his magazine seem synonymous to the extent that few see a future for Tehelka without Tejpal
New Delhi: On a summer afternoon in London in 2007, the rooms of the Royal Society of Arts were packed with people attending the second day of a summit called The Challenge of India.
Among the speakers and guests, a tall, bearded man in an open shirt and a casual jacket strolled with confidence, his long hair pulled into a pony tail. Tarun Tejpal, the summit’s organizer, had been one of the biggest names in Indian journalism for around six years, ever since he’d started a website called Tehelka.com that had shaken the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with its investigative sting operations.
The opening speech he’d made about the economic, social and cultural position of India was mostly upbeat but carried a note of caution. “The wonder story of India, by turns, skates on thick and thin ice," Tejpal had said. “There are any number of factors from people to the environment that can derail it completely."
Tejpal was skating on thick ice on that day, or so it seemed. The event offered an unusually rich crop of speakers, a heady mixture of Indian and international celebrities, intellectuals, businessmen and politicians. The previous day, visitors had heard Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, J. J. Irani, a director of Tata Sons Ltd, and Arun Maira, who was the chairman of Boston Consultancy Group India.
More than 1,500 people had attended an accompanying art auction at Bonhams the night before, where Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan and artist M.F. Husain unveiled a painting they’d made in collaboration.
“The halls are still packed and overflowing," the magazine’s then executive editor Sankarshan Thakur wrote in his report from the summit. “There are people in a separate vault, having to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV because there isn’t enough room in the main auditorium. ‘Rare,’ remarked the lady at the RSA front desk. ‘Very rare to have a full house on a Friday afternoon. You’re obviously doing something right.’"
The proceeds of the Art for Freedom auction would go towards Tehelka, “in support of independent media", the website said. One of Thakur’s own paintings was sold and he received 40% of the sale price, he said. “It was Tarun’s brainchild," said Thakur. “He’s a great advertiser of his own causes."
Back at Tehelka’s offices in Delhi, things weren’t looking as rosy. Tehelka’s staff had begun to sense a mismatch between the stories they were hearing about the grand successes happening in London and the realities they were facing.
“The summit was a test of their reception in London," said Jane Rankin-Reid, an Australian journalist who worked at Tehelka from 2005 to 2008. “I was quite shocked that it was so blatantly not what Tehelka was about. Everyone in Tarun’s family was off to London for this great shindig, a mass of them travelled, and while they were away, the staff salaries bounced. Then Shoma (Chaudhury, Tehelka’s former managing editor) was back in Delhi giving us all a briefing on how fabulous we were. I was astonished that Shoma didn’t even acknowledge it, let alone apologize."
Today, as Tejpal faces charges of sexually assaulting one of his employees, and the Indian media watches with a mixture of schadenfreude and genuine shock, the man and his magazine seem synonymous to the extent that few see a future for Tehelka without Tejpal.
Chaudhury has resigned and several members of staff have quit in protest against Tejpal’s actions and his reactions to the allegations (he has publicly admitted to what he describes as “misconduct" and “light-hearted bantering"). Tejpal is now in police custody.
From a lowly beginning as a little-known website, to the days of the London summit’s successor, the annual THiNK festival in Goa, during which the alleged sexual assault took place, Tehelka and Tejpal have suffered similar fates. “Tehelka is 99.95% identified with Tarun and the other .05% is Shoma," said Thakur, “In the public mind, Tarun and Tehlka are doppelgangers."
If that is so, it is an eventuality to which Tejpal always aspired, said Thakur. “Tarun had this burning ambition to be a rock star, he wanted to become bigger than the biggest media barons, he would talk about it. His bail application reeks of hubris and pomposity," he said. “I think he has been living with this mind-set so long that he genuinely believes he is untouchable. I think that when he looks in the mirror every morning, he thinks, ‘I am God.’ He was tempting fate."
Tejpal’s background was fairly modest. An army child, his family moved around during his youth and he attended DAV College and Panjab Univeristy in Chandigarh before getting his first job at The Indian Express newspaper, according to a contemporary of his from college, who didn’t want to be named. His friends agreed that he was driven by a desire to prove himself among the more privileged and the sense that he was an outsider.
“There was an element of a small town boy wanting to make it big, the rank outsider minus the Ivy League badge," said Sunil Mehra, a long-term colleague of Tejpal’s over several publications. “He didn’t go to Oxford, he didn’t go to Stephen’s but he had passion, flair and intellect."
Although Tejpal would tell his friends and colleagues that he dropped out of college, his batchmate thought the story was unlikely. “He always claimed so, but he at least gave his exams, more likely he never went to collect his degree," the batchmate said.
“His rise has been dizzying from where he started to now rubbing shoulders with (V.S.) Naipaul and (Robert) De Niro, I knew a very different Tarun," said Sagarika Ghose, another former colleague who is deputy editor at CNN-IBN. “I remember he was bright eyed about conquering Delhi. We all used to tease him about his social hangups. He was the boy from Jalandhar who wanted to take revenge on the Delhi elite."
Later, however, Tejpal would come to speak about himself as a member of that elite.
In an interview he gave to the in-flight magazine of Kingfisher Airlines Hi! Blitz in 2010, he talked about himself in regard to India’s great thinkers and freedom fighters.
“Gandhi, Nehru and Azad came from elite backgrounds, but they understood that the soul of India was a deeply damaged and impoverished soul," Tejpal told the magazine. “That’s something I try to convey through journalism and writing to my own class...the more elite you are, the more you have to give back for the greater good, but that also doesn’t mean that we don’t lead a good life."
In the same interview, Tejpal spoke on his father’s influence. “He gave us an idea of the big world. It was routine to discuss world history and affairs at the dinner table. When I was seven, I knew the names of secretary-generals of the United Nations," and also his disinterest in a political career: “I was offered a ticket in the 2004 elections (I will not tell you which party). I thought about it for a very long time. I decided against it largely because I am an extremely idiosyncratic person. I like to live life on my own terms."
Mehra also spotted that trait in his friend. “He won the war on his own terms, but the problem with success too soon is that hubris takes over," Mehra said. “It makes me ineffably sad. He’d done it all: lived in a garret, in a flat, moved from one sphere to another. It’s tragic."
Tejpal married young (when he was 21, according to Mehra), to a woman he had met while working on the copy desk of TheIndian Express in Chandigarh. After working as the Punjab correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper in Chandigarh, he and his family moved to Delhi, where he had a brief stint at a magazine called India 2000 (his batchmate says he clinched an interview with the separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, which earned him some acclaim) before joining India Today in 1988.
Tejpal seems to have been popular at India Today. In his editorial in this week’s issue, the editor and Tejpal’s former boss Aroon Purie (who declined to be interviewed for this story) wrote, “Dare I say, I liked him. He was a talented writer and he knew it. In today’s terms a ‘real dude’. Even at the age of 25 when I interviewed him for a job of a senior sub-editor he had an intellectual swagger about him and unabashed literary ambitions." Years later, Purie would describe this bullish newcomer as “the Che Guevara of Indian journalism," he wrote, “a kind of Indian Julian Assange". Others have described him more recently, as “Icarus" and “Julius Caesar", so rapidly has Tejpal’s reputation grown.
In 1994, Tejpal moved to TheFinancial Express and then, the following year, to Outlook magazine, as managing editor. Mehra, who worked with him at all three publications, remembered his ability as an editor, “To date, I maintain that the kind of surgical intervention he could make would make a line sing. I don’t know many professional editors that could do that. Tarun could ignite you. He’d talk dirty just for the shock factor. He didn’t give a damn, he was devil may care."
After publishing Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize-winning novel The God Of Small Things in 1997, through India Ink, a publishing house he’d started with a friend, the 34-year-old Tejpal’s literary reputation began to grow, said Rankin-Reid. “I met him through Sunil Khilnani, it was the night before the Booker ceremony in 1997 in a restaurant in London. What struck me was that he was not interested in imitating the ways of the West but simply in impacting it."
Not everyone was impressed by Tejpal’s literary credentials. “He was a good Punjabi salesman with an astonishing felicity with words and language skills," said a colleague from his Outlook days who did not want to be named. “When Vinod Mehta gave him the permission to start his own publishing venture, Tejpal misused it in a way. The money that came from Arundhati’s book was used to buy a haveli in Nainital. Three days a week he used to be in Nainital, Mehta sacked him from Outlook for non-performance. He simply stopped working and the editor got fed up."
Mehta declined to comment for this story.
By 2000, Tejpal had started working on investigative stories with his colleague at Outlook, Aniruddha Bahal, who he’d worked with since India Today. After a successful expose on dodgy betting in cricket, the two men started an online site to continue their work. Tehelka.com was born in 2000 and its early dotcom days have become something of a legend among Indian journalists. The original venture was funded by Shankar Sharma and his wife Devina Mehra through their company First Global, a brokerage.
“It was fantastic, the best office I have ever worked in," said Arnab Dutta, who joined as a trainee in 2000. At the time Bahal was at work on the investigation that would make both he and Tejpal famous, in unequal measure: Operation West End, a sting that exposed then Bharatiya Janata Party president Bangaru Laxman accepting a bribe for a defence deal from a reporter disguised as an arms dealer, and would lead to his resignation and that of then defence minister George Fernandes.
Dutta was put to work initially on the team transcribing the tapes that had been made by the undercover reporters. “We were cut off from the rest of the organization in a place with windows covered in black paper and we were told not to talk about the content of the tapes," he said.
Dutta was being paid a tiny salary, he said, but he didn’t mind; the romance of working for Tejpal’s outfit kept him going. “Tarun was a fantastic boss. He’d allow us to chase any story we wanted. We all looked up to him because he was such a great writer, he was approachable. When he gives a speech you want to stand still and listen to him. He was a personal hero."
All went well until the story was published in March 2001. “Within about four months of the story breaking, the office closed down, they stopped paying salaries," Dutta said. “Officially I quit in July 2001 but a couple of us hung around and worked for them at nights. We couldn’t let Tehelka die." Dutta also continued to do legal work for the brand.
Tejpal had his own share of troubles. He was told by the government that a group of assassins have been hired to kill him. “For about six years there were 24 armed policemen guarding me around the clock," Tejpal would tell the GQ magazine in 2012. “Anywhere I travelled in India, I would be met at the airport by armed cops. I would be escorted day and night. My house was sandbagged. My office was sandbagged. It was a bit hysterical." The experience inspired his second novel, The Story of My Assassins, published in 2009, but it also gave Tarun a reputation boost, said Thakur.
“When West End happened, I mean the vicious manner in which BJP responded, the hounding of Tarun Tejpal was what made him," Thakur said. “He seized upon this opportunity and turned adversity into something."
By 2004, Tejpal had become something of a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, according to Amit Sengupta, who joined him in the relaunch of Tehelka that year, in its second avatar: as a tabloid.
“We’d all followed the case," he said, “we’d protested on the streets, journalists had marched from the press club, including me. I had a long discussion with Tarun on one of those marches and later he came to me and said, ‘We are starting a paper, come along.’" He did, along with a handful of other journalists, including Thakur and Hartosh Singh Bal.
“In those days, we were tired of big business journalism," Sengupta said. “The idea was that this will be an independent, journalist’s paper, a non-profit sustainable idea. At the beginning there was no money, no salary was given to me for three months, then they had this idea of founder subscribers, who would donate money."
Tehelka raised 2 crore in 220 individual donations of ₹ 100,000 each from Tejpal’s contacts in the business, political, art and literary worlds.
“We were full-timers," said Sengupta of the early staff, “I mean, sometimes we would sleep on the floor of the office on newspapers, we ate from dhabas because GK-II was expensive. We worked like dogs. It was very heady, Tarun was open, dogmatic, sharp. We felt like we could fly on the wings of these great suppressed desires we’d had. We’d do stories on the rights of cyclists week after week, how street hawkers were having problems. We weren’t doing the subjects that the rest of the media assumed the public wanted. We were not doing it to become saints, we were doing it for public interest."
Money was a constant bugbear for Tejpal, according to the members of the start-up team. “A lot of people used to contribute from the outside, and there was a big issue that came about not paying them, there was just no money for a time," said Thakur.
Shivam Vij, who worked for the magazine in 2006 and 2007, agreed. “We’d call people to say, ‘Please write for us,’ and they’d say, ‘Tehelka hasn’t paid me for months.’ I went to the accounts department and they showed me a bunch of cheques that were made out but hadn’t been sent."
After a while, according to Vij and Shantanu Guha Ray, who worked at Tehelka from 2008-10, advertising began to help matters. “DLF booked the back page for a year," said Ray. “We got Coca-Cola and Seagram’s and Hero too."
Then the branding events began, starting in 2006 with the Summit of the Powerless, held at Jamia Millia Islamia university. “They became obsessed with access to power," Vij said of Chaudhury and Tejpal. “The annual summits became a very important part of that. The Summit of the Powerless was meant to be a marketing event. The idea was to give visibility to the Tehelka brand as the weekly paper wasn’t even easily available on newsstands."
“He wanted to make the idea of public interest journalism into a marketable brand, that was the problem," Sengupta said. “It had become like a commodity. He’d said publicly that it would be like a public trust but it was run like a family fiefdom. It must have been tough for him, I can understand that you need money, but something really went wrong."
In the days that have followed the rape allegations, another unsettling story came to light in the form of an article written by a former Tehelka employee Raman Kirpal.
Kirpal made some startling allegations that Tejpal and his family as well as Chaudhury had been offloading shares at varying and inflated prices from 2006 onwards.
“The Tejpal family and Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury made a killing through a series of doubtful transactions. They sold some of their shares in one of their companies at mindboggling premiums to a nondescript company, pocketing large gains," the story, published on Firstpost.com, said.
Kirpal declined to comment but his article came as a particular blow to the members of the founding team.
“We were getting lectures every day about the difficulties of doing good journalism on a budget and to think this was going on in the background is really shocking," said Hartosh Singh Bal, who worked for Tehelka in 2004-06. “Now I look back and think about it, those two crore were raised from people who put up one lakh each, and that led to the foundation of a private limited company, now that sounds a bit bizarre to me. I think it should have struck us then that it was problematic."
In 2010, rumours of a new investor, who would ease Tejpal’s money woes somewhat, reached Tehelka’s employees. K.D. Singh, who till 31 March 2013 owned a majority stake in Tehelka’s publishers Anant Media, is a Trinamool Rajya Sabha member.
“We had around 65% stake in Tehelka to begin with. We are going to exit the venture completely," Singh told The Indian Express. “In the past one year, we have divested around 20% of it."
Singh, who is from Chandigarh, is also known as India’s Chicken King after his restaurant franchise Republic of Chicken, part of his Alchemist Group of companies that have interests in real estate, pharmaceuticals, education, steel, tea and road technologies.
Guha Ray remembers Singh’s entrance into Tehelka. “We’d see K.D. Singh at events. Tarun would meet him at his farmhouse but he would never come to the office," he said. “Tehelka did a series of conferences and at the opening of one K.D. Singh came in a Rolls Royce and Tarun made a speech saying, ‘All those who thought Tehelka was dead, this is to tell them that we are on.’"
In the GQ interview last year, Tejpal expounded his theory of how to attract money from the wealthy patrons that Tehelka claimed to disdain. “There is so much bigotry, injustice, inequality and corruption to fight. You need the sort of hard journalism that we do at Tehelka, but nobody wants to pay for it. Sustaining it costs a lot of money. You have to be very smart and use a lot of sleight of hand. You have to be very seductive. You have to convince men of means that you’re a worthy cause and that they should back you. A lot of my work goes into that: ensuring that rich men fund the journalism which will finally hurt them!"
According to ex-employees, however, increasingly the kind of journalism Tehelka was doing was not hurting the rich men who funded them. Kirpal had originally quit Tehelka after a dispute in which he claimed a story on Goa mining companies was held by the management while crucial permits were approved by the Goa government for the inaugural ThiNK festival in 2011. Tejpal publicly denied the accusation.
“Eventually compromises started happening because you need a lot of money, said Sevanti Ninan, editor of media website thehoot.org and a Mint columnist. “Whenever there was a sponsor involved for Think Fest, things would get murky for Tehelka and stories would be killed."
Mint could not independently verify the accusations. Phone calls and messages to Ramesh Sharma, Tehelka’s interim editor, remained unanswered. Tejpal could not be contacted because he is in police custody. Tejpal was remanded in custody on Sunday after appearing in court on allegations of sexually assaulting a colleague in a hotel in Goa, the AFP news agency reported.
Tejpal’s lofty comment to GQ on funding issues, explains why much of the media has turned so venomously on him since the rape charge was made. “The problem with him has always been that he always seemed to be the exact opposite of whatever he railed against—venality, social climbing, being material, using money and power, everything that he ever disdained is what you see him obliquely going for. It made you wary," said Thakur.
Mehra agreed. “The lynch mobs are out for him and part of the reason is that he held up a mirror to the media houses earlier," he said. “He made them feel venal and dirty and sold out, which is what he became. The financial shenanigans are surfacing now and this is the media’s moment to turn on its free radical creature."
As Tejpal battles sexual assault charges, filings made by Tehelka’s holding company shows a negative networth with liabilities far exceeding assets. The corporate affairs ministry is yet to decide on whether to look into the issues regarding Tehelka and its related companies, the PTI news agency reported, citing unnamed people.
So far, the ministry has not taken any action on its own in regard to Tehelka companies, the people told PTI.
Anant Media Pvt. Ltd, which publishes Tehelka, has a negative net worth of nearly ₹ 13 crore, according to the firm’s latest filings with the ministry, PTI reported.
Mint’s Aman Malik and Shauvik Ghosh, and PTI and AFP contributed to this story.
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