No One Killed Jessica is an opportunity to revisit one of TEHELKA’s most important investigations, says Nisha Susan
AT A MOMENT when faith in the Indian media is at a spectacular low tide, Rajkumar Gupta’s film No One Killed Jessica celebrates an episode of great public interest journalism. The film attributes the TEHELKA investigation that convicted Manu Sharma to an imaginary television journalist. Cinema, of course, has its own imperatives but before history is entirely rewritten TEHELKA would like to take a moment to remember its three-month long undercover investigation without which Jessica Lall’s murderer may still be free.
On 29 April 1999, Sharma had shot Lall in front of 200 witnesses at a Delhi restaurant, Tamarind Court. In February 2006, witness after witness went back on their original testimonies in court and Manu Sharma was acquitted. India, high on the fervour of Rang De Basanti, longed to ‘do something’. No One Killed Jessica has a thoughtful young woman (moved by Rang De Basanti), triggering off a huge protest. Few people know the protest was galvanised by TEHELKA. Editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal drafted the simply worded SMS that went viral, announcing a candlelight vigil for Jessica at India Gate. Having picked the time and date, he and the other editors Harinder Baweja, Sankarshan Thakur and Shoma Chaudhury agreed the message should be anonymous to avoid competition between media houses. They sent it out to everyone they knew. Would people come?
They did. In droves. On 4 March 2006, almost 2,500 people came to India Gate. Public outcry forced authorities to reopen the case and TEHELKA quietly began what would turn out to be among its biggest investigations yet. It was Tamarind Court owner Bina Ramani (very unlike the corresponding character Mallika Sehgal in No One Killed Jessica who merely eats cake) who began the process. She was facing tremendous flak for not being convincing in court while identifying Manu Sharma. Conversations with her got TEHELKA thinking about the role of Venod Sharma, Manu’s father, in the turning of witnesses. Sharma was a Congress MP and later a minister for power in the Haryana Cabinet.
TEHELKA had the previous year proved that Zaheera Sheikh, prime witness in the Best Bakery case had flip-flopped on her testimony because she’d been both threatened and hugely bribed. The witnesses who had turned hostile in the Jessica case cut across class from Shayan Munshi, an actor, to Shiv Das, an electrician. What would elicit the truth from each of them?
HARINDER BAWEJA, who was the Investigations Editor at the time, went to meet George Mailhot, Ramani’s husband. Mailhot led her to Jitendra Raj, the Tamarind Court manager whose uncle had been a key witness. At the TEHELKA office, Jitendra admitted his uncle Karan Rajput had been chronically drunk and broke. On the night of the murder, Rajput had arrived at Tamarind Court hoping to mooch money off his nephew. Rajput had a vantage position — he was sitting on a chair facing the bar where the celebrity bartenders Shayan Munshi and Jessica were mixing drinks. At first, Rajput had identified Manu Sharma as the murderer, signed a statement in the police station as well as a photograph of Manu. He changed his testimony later. At the time of the investigation, though, Rajput was dead from liver damage. Before the murder, he had had a small job in a bread factory. After the murder, Rajput never worked again but somehow always had money — for rent, bills, alcohol and gambling. He died in one of the city’s most expensive hospitals.
TEHELKA obtained the hospital bills and found that someone had cleared the Rs. 80,000 dues. Jitendra said the Sharmas had paid the bills and he knew how to get proof. He could arrange for TEHELKA to meet his uncle’s friends who had accompanied him on the money-minting trips to the Sharmas.
Jitendra introduced TEHELKA reporter Vineet Khare to his uncle’s friend Surinder. Posing as Jitendra’s close friend, Khare got Surinder to talk about what he had witnessed — Rajput receiving hush money from the Sharmas’ associates. With Jitendra’s help, Khare was able to record these conversations on his spycam. Young Khare was excited about the confessions he was getting on the spycam embedded in an innocuous-looking diary or button. Every evening, he would race to Harinder Baweja’s home, where he’d first try to coax her into making paranthas for him. Then they’d review the footage, panicking occasionally when the gadget showed temperament.
THE CONFESSION the team still wanted was one from the deceased Rajput’s landlord and drinking buddy Rajbir Singh. Jitendra was well-placed to introduce Khare to Rajbir but suddenly he balked. He would not help the investigation anymore unless TEHELKA bought him a spycam of his own. Having witnessed the operation, he had begun to imagine a Rs. 80,000 spycam would hold him in good stead. The investigators balked and the operation came to an uneasy halt. Over the next fortnight, the team tried of ways to insinuate themselves into the life of Rajbir Singh. Help came from a very unlikely source.
A socialite-turned-politician friend of Bina Ramani’s decided to get into the act. She knew the sulking Jitendra and somehow hoped to get him to talk on spycam about his uncle. She invited Jitendra to her home. This slightly hairbrained scheme backfired when Jitendra spotted that coveted spycam diary unsuccessfully hidden under her handbag. “You are spying on me!” he exclaimed. But it was now when the game was up that the socialite showed her true mettle. To hell with it, she said and called Khare, popped into her car and drove to Rajbir Singh’s home. Singh, overawed at the sudden arrival of this glamorous personage, sang like a canary. On Khare’s camera, he admitted to accompanying the deceased Rajput over the years as he went back again and again to the well — the Sharmas. He said they had gone to the Sharmas’ office in Piccadilly House in Delhi’s Okhla area and to Chandigarh to the Sharmas’ Piccadilly Hotel. They had even stayed there as they negotiated payments, he said. At first, it was anything they asked for —Rs. 20,000,Rs. 50,000 — but later it became fixed at Rs. 50, 000.
Not all of the investigation involved cloak-and-dagger tactics, though. When Baweja spoke to Sabrina Lall, Jessica’s sister, she recalled details right from the night of the murder, the rapport she developed in the early years with the investigating officer and of a bizarre incident involving Manu Sharma’s parents. It had convinced her the Sharmas were keeping a close eye on her house and she had never talked about it before. On a day when Sabrina was out of Delhi, Venod Sharma and his wife came to the Lalls’ home, bearing a bouquet of flowers. Sabrina’s baffled father, Ajit Lall, could think of doing nothing other than letting them in. The Sharmas placed a bouquet in front of a photograph of Jessica’s. The Lalls offered them tea. As the movie shows in a riveting scene, it was an act of ingrained politeness by the Lalls that shocked Sabrina when she found out later.
Sabrina also told Baweja about the deceased Karan Rajput. He had told Sabrina that he was taking money from the Sharmas but in court, he would tell the truth. He had ‘borrowed’ Rs. 50,000 from Sabrina at one point. When he changed his testimony in court, he defended himself to a shocked Sabrina by saying the Sharmas had kidnapped his mother as insurance. TEHELKA found no evidence to confirm or deny this.
Speaking to Shiv Das, the former Tamarind Court electrician and another key witness, was also a tricky proposition for TEHELKA. In the trial he said that no, he had not been a witness and had been on the terrace at the time of the murder. Far from wanting to confess, he was terrified of being drawn back into the case.
Harinder Baweja called him posing as an anguished Sabrina Lall. Over and over again, directly and indirectly she drew him back to the night of the murder. In a brief moment, he admitted that the first testimony he gave to the police was the right one. But for most part, he said he wanted no part of the money he was aware was available from the Sharmas. Almost exasperated, he asked ‘Sabrina’ how can she not know what would happen to his entire family in Uttar Pradesh if he got involved in the case? Don’t you know the situation in Uttar Pradesh, he asked again and again. In Shiv Das’ case, it seemed that intimidation, not money, had worked. When Vineet Khare went to him with his spycam hoping to get his confession on video to back the telephone recording, Shiv Das was deeply suspicious. When Khare began talking to him about the murder, Shiv Das immediately suspected a trap and asked whether he was being recorded.
Public outcry forced authorities to reopen the case and TEHELKA began what turned out to be among its biggest investigations
The investigation was drawing to a close but Shayan Munshi’s confession would be the icing on the cake, TEHELKA knew. Shayan had been a celebrity bartender for the night alongside Jessica and had identified Manu Sharma as the killer. Years later in the trial, Munshi denied the veracity of the FIR he had signed by claiming that he did not speak, read or understand Hindi. How could he have known what he was signing, he asked. Instead of stopping at mere ignorance, he also introduced the two-gunmen theory into the case.
And Uday Shankar, the then CEO of Star News, agreed about how important Munshi was to the story. Baweja called Uday, asking to meet him about airing a very important sting. Uday met her and Mintty Tejpal at the Taj Mansingh café. They spoke in whispers and chits of paper. A terribly excited Uday left to begin planning but not without tearing up the notes.
But how would they get model and actor Shayan Munshi? Designing a sting can sometimes be an exercise in wit.
TEHELKA’s iconic Operation Westend was one such exercise with its audaciously fake names. Only greed could have blinded the suspects. Munshi too needed an imaginative trap. After days of strategising in Delhi, they hit upon a plausible plan. Mintty Tejpal found a recent event that Munshi had attended in Delhi and checked the guestlist. He called up Munshi, pretending to be a production guy Munshi had met at the party. Mintty pretended to be the Indian agent for an Indo-Australian bilingual production, which had a great part for Munshi. It was the age of crossover films and for a plausible finishing touch, Mintty demanded a broker’s fee.
Munshi swallowed the bait. A meeting with the ‘producers’ was set up. Harinder Baweja, Vineet Khare and another TEHELKA reporter Jane Rankin-Reid, an Australian national who was to pose as Olivia, the producer, left for Mumbai.
As soon as they landed in Mumbai, Baweja and Khare went to the Sun n Sand (the Juhu hotel where they were to meet Munshi) for a recce. They picked the table and decided where they should be seated for maximum effect. Finally, they decided Jane would sit across the table from Shayan and Harinder besides him. Jane rehearsed the pitch and plot they had recreated for the fake film.
‘Everyone knows who did it, so why are they beating around the bush… They (the Sharmas) are powerful people,’ said Munshi
SHAYAN MUNSHI, eager beaver, walked in 10 minutes early. After the brief pleasantries, Jane began the conversation. The events that then ensued were dramatic enough for the No One Killed Jessica script to have used whole sections from the sting transcript. ‘Olivia’ asking Munshi to speak Hindi so that she can hear ‘the shape of his voice’, Munshi speaking the fluent, even flowery Hindi he had first learnt in school. Going the extra mile by giving ‘Olivia’ short lectures on different dialects of Hindi and the finer points of Hindi and Bangla grammar. It works well on screen. So imagine the delight of the reporters back in 2006. Here at last was proof of Munshi’s bare-faced lies. Khare who had walked in pretending to be Baweja’s flunkie, had whispered in her ear and sat down across from Munshi. The team had been extra-cautious. Two spycams, a button and a diary, had both been recording busily as Munshi continued in Hindi.
On the pretext of worrying whether Munshi would have visa issues, Baweja began probing Munshi about his involvement in the Lall case. Munshi was cagey and bitter in turns, “Everyone knows who did it, so why are they beating around the bush… They (the Sharmas) are very powerful people.” Conversation wound down and Munshi left.
The team could not bear to wait to go back to the guesthouse to check whether they had got Munshi’s face on camera and voice on record. Khare ran to the nearest loo. These were the tensest moments of the investigation — waiting for proof that Shayan Munshi — People Like Us — had lied in court. There is no going back to re-do a sting. But soon Khare emerged from the loo beaming. Baweja sent a three word SMS to Tarun Tejpal back in Delhi, pacing his living room furiously — yes, yes, yes. Having locked the recordings safely in the guesthouse, the team went to celebrate. Khare, new to Mumbai, went to the beach and amused the others by taking off his shirt to get into the water.
Meanwhile, Star News’ Uday Shankar was still excited and near-paranoid. He didn’t want the footage in Star office. He told his senior editors to work all weekend and, more scandalously, moved the mammoth editing machines to the Star guesthouse. For the next two days, both teams worked round the clock to prepare the footage for television.
On 9 September 2006, the sting footage went public. The fervour with which the year had begun was revived. TEHELKA and Star received thousands of messages and e-mails from across the country. In October, Venod Sharma was forced to resign from the Haryana Cabinet. On 15 December 2006, Manu Sharma was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The other accused, Vikas Yadav and Amardeep Singh Gill, were awarded four years of imprisonment for destroying evidence. Thirty-two witnesses who turned hostile have been asked to appear before the court to explain why they should not be tried for perjury.