For the past decade, a newsmagazine in India which has stood tall — speaking truth to power, challenging those who cynically misuse public office to amass private fortune, and those who sow hatred for electoral harvests — is TEHELKA. ‘Journalism of integrity, courage and compassion’ are lofty aspirations and claims made by many news-tellers, but the promise of these words have frayed, crumbled and sometimes been emptied out of meaning. But not for the newsmagazine TEHELKA, which has sustained through most of its rocky existence its independence, its vigilance, its secular convictions, its outrage, its thoughtfulness and its humanity.
I still remember when, sometime in 2004, Tarun Tejpal reached out to me, and indeed a great many others like me, urging each of us to contribute our own savings for a newsmagazine which, he promised, would be truly independent, unlike almost all its competitors that were owned by major business houses. His passion was infective, and the compelling dream of a publicly-owned paper quickly took shape as hundreds like me wrote out their cheques.
The newsvendor dropped my copy of TEHELKA at my door only sporadically over the years. But whenever I did get a copy, I consistently felt a keen sense of kinship of values and perspectives when I opened its pages. I was, by turns, stimulated, informed, provoked and moved. TEHELKA rarely disappointed the initial trust I placed in it. Its finest moments included Ashish Khaitan’s brave penetration into the ranks of militant Hindutva organisations in Gujarat to lay bare the planning and execution of brutal hate attacks earlier in 2002 and the subsequent cover-up; unflinching exposures of fake terror cases ranging from SIMI to the Ishrat Jehan killing; uncovering extrajudicial killings in Manipur, Kashmir and Gujarat; and many sordid revelations of bribery in high places.
I, therefore, feel an acute sense of deep personal loss with the turbulent events surrounding the magazine in recent months. My unease started with its unethical reliance on tainted big money to support its glamorous larger-than-life festival of ideas in Goa. The whole point of a news-venture supported primarily by many small donors — which is the promise that TEHELKA powerfully held out when it was founded — was of independence, even in times of pervasive and spectacular crony capitalism penetrating almost every major media enterprise. To reverse this proud accomplishment not even for the survival of the newsmagazine, but for a superfluous opulent side-event, seemed a betrayal. Matters, of course, fell down a steep precipice with grave charges of sexual assault by a young journalist against the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal.
I have long held Tarun in very high personal regard, not just for his wonderful prose, but for his consistently progressive public positions on social justice and equity. To watch him fall for the betrayal of the same shared ethics of which he was such an eloquent and influential champion was like a personal tragedy.
But an even greater tragedy is if Tarun’s fatal folly and precipitous fall would lead to the closure of the newsmagazine he dreamed of and founded. TEHELKA is infinitely larger than its founder. It is not — and was never intended to be — his personal property. Its achievements are not his alone. TEHELKA belongs most of all to its wonderful team of mostly young and exceptionally idealistic reporters. I love to read their reports, which are usually brave, independent, carefully investigated and researched, and informed by firm opposition to injustice, malfeasance and the politics of hatred. The law will doubtless punish Tarun for his acts. But what wrong has been done by the many reporters who joined TEHELKA for the idealism of its vision, and the space they found within it to remain true to their conscience?
TEHELKA belongs also to its many initial contributors, and I am proud to count myself in their ranks. It belongs to its loyal readers. It belongs to those who seek probity, fairness and compassion in the way their world is examined, interrogated and reported. Why should they, too, be punished?
This moment of grave crisis should be an opportunity for TEHELKA to reiterate and reclaim its original dream. It must find ways of participatory management, in which its idealistic reporters also own and run the enterprise in which they serve. It must resolve to continue to fight fiercely and uncompromisingly for independence from the influence of big money and powerful electoral politics. It must teach all who serve within it to try to live by the values they espouse and uphold. It must proudly reaffirm its credentials of commitment to probity and liberal, secular values, in public life as much as in the media.
I want to continue to anticipate each week my newsvendor dropping a copy of TEHELKA at my door, and to be informed, angered and touched by its reporting as I have been for years. In the troubled, turbulent, politically and morally confusing times we live in, I wish to continue to look to TEHELKA to flash even a small light of truth and hope.