Tehelka (Hindi: Sensation) is an Indian news magazine known for its investigative journalism and sting operations. It was founded by Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal in 2000 as a website. It began circulating tabloid-format newspapers in 2004 and switched to magazine in 2007. Tehelka's first sting operation was on a cricket match fixing scandal in 2000 and the second, which was its most widely known, was "Operation West End" in 2001. In November 2013, Tejpal stepped aside as the editor with an apology after a woman colleague accused him of sexual assault.
Operation West End involved releasing footage of government officials accepting bribes in a fake arms deal. This caused the resignations of several officials including the then Defence Minister and two presidents of the ruling parties. Tehelka got press and public support for this sting, influenced the use of "sting journalism" in the country's mainstream media. It led to the debate about its ethics because of their use of prostitutes in the sting. Tehelka has been criticised mainly for its use of investigative journalism and siding with the Congress party.
In 2007, Tehelka published a report against members of the Bajrang Dal and for their role in the Naroda Patiya massacre during the 2002 Gujarat violence. The report, called "The Truth: Gujarat 2002", was based on a six-month sting operation with video footage of the members admitting their role in the violence. It won the International Press Institute (IPI) India Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2010 and 2011.
Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal started Tehelka (Hindi: "Sensational") as a website in 2000, after they quit their jobs from Outlook magazine. Its office was set up in south New Delhi. After conducting its main sting investigation, "Operation West End" in 2001, the government started an inquiry, which the staff saw as a direct attack on them. Its reporters and main financial backer were arrested, judicial investigations were conducted on various grounds and there were tax-related raids. In 2003, its staff decreased from 120 to 3 and the website shut down because of debts. Bahal left Tehelka in the same year, saying the government was "bogging us down with a lot of legal nonsense" and later founded Cobrapost.com.
In 2004, backed by more than 200 writers, lawyers, business people and activists, who donated money and supported it, Tehelka launched itself as a reader-financed weekly newspaper in tabloid format. Among the supporters were activist Arundhati Roy, politician Shashi Tharoor and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. It called itself the "People's Paper" and the reporters took a tour around the country promoting what they called "free, fair and fearless" journalism. After its Naroda Patiya sting operation in 2007, it sold around 75,000 to 90,000 copies per week. It still suffered financial losses, since it was not backed by any large media or business groups.
Tejpal changed Tehelka from tabloid to magazine in September 2007 to encourage more potential advertisers, but found it difficult because of their sting operations. Tejpal started the Hindi language website in 2007 and then Tehelka's Hindi News magazine. Sanjay Dubey was the executive editor of the Hindi magazine. Tarun Tejpal became Tehelka's largest shareholder, most of its capital is from his personal contacts and Agni Media, his company, was the owner of the magazine in 2008. "THiNK Fest" was started in 2011 as an annual literary festival and promoted as an event of Tehelka. The program was run by an organisation called Thinkworks Pvt Ltd, a company owned by Tejpal, his sister Neena and managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. It featured Bollywood actors, global thinkers and sessions on new technology. In November 2013, Tejpal stepped aside as editor after a female colleague accused him of sexual assault and Chaudhury resigned on 28 November because of the incident. As of 2014[update], Mathew Samuel was the managing editor. In March 2016, Charanjit Ahuja became the editor of the fortnightly.
Bahal and Tejpal convinced cricketer Manoj Prabhakar to record conversations with his colleagues, after the South Africa cricket match fixing scandal involving Hansie Cronje in March 2000. Prabhakar and Bahal went around the country and Prabhakar, wearing hidden recording equipment, attended meetings with important Indian cricket board officials (BCCI) and players. He recorded conversations where they talked about links between players and bookmakers, matches being thrown in return for money, deliberate run-outs and the names of players involved. They recorded more than 40 hours of taped conversations, which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) used as evidence for its own inquiry. The CBI implicated Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and Ajay Sharma as the cricketers involved. The documentary Fallen Heroes: The Betrayal of a Nation, which was released in May of the same year, showed Prabhakar's work and Bahal published his report on Tehelka.com.
In 2001, Tehelka did its first major sting investigation called "Operation West End". It involved Mathew Samuel and Bahal, filming how they bribed several defence officials and politicians from the then-ruling NDA-led (National Democratic Alliance) Indian government, posing as arms dealers. Charging a commission from defence deals is illegal in India. They started their investigation in August 2000 because of hearing rumours of middlemen getting rich in such deals in the 1980s. They created a fake British company based in Regent Street, London called "West End". Bahal and Samuel then found out that the Indian army would be interested in obtaining thermal imaging cameras. They printed business cards and photographs of particular camera models in Tehelka's office in suburban Delhi and Samuel did the main dealings.
They initially had to bribe junior officials in the defence ministry for amounts ranging from ₹10,000 (US$150) to ₹60,000 (US$920), to help them in securing deals with several middlemen. These middlemen said they "fixed" deals before involving jets and artillery; Samuel and Bahal recorded these conversations using hidden cameras. They dealt with Samata Party President Jaya Jaitley (The then Defence Minister George Fernandes belonged to this party), whom they paid ₹300,000 (US$4,600), and she agreed to tell Fernandes about them. After bribing other officials, they were introduced to the then Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) President Bangaru Laxman who accepted ₹150,000 (US$2,300) as a "small new year's gift". Laxman recommended they meet Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The operation took seven and a half months with Tejpal later saying that the total amount they paid in bribes was ₹1.5 million (US$23,000). The deals were in expensive hotels and few officials asked for branded whisky. By January 2001, their funds ran out and they began receiving phone calls from the people they had falsely promised more money to. In this whole operation, they recorded around 100 hours of video footage.
On 14 March, after working on their recordings for two months, Bahal and Samuel released their footage to the public. Laxman resigned the next day with four senior officials; he was sentenced to prison and bailed out later. Jaya Jaitley stepped down two days and Fernandes was forced to resign but was reinstated later. The government agreed on a judicial enquiry but no one was convicted. Tehelka posted on its website on that day that its reporters had successfully floated "a fictitious company flogging non-existent thermal imaging binoculars." Prime Minister Vajpayee's coalition government was on the verge of collapse because allied party leader Mamata Banerjee quit. However, they got majority support when the "no confidence" motion was passed by the opposition parties. Some of the evidence released later led to the Barak Missile scandal.
Six months after Tehelka had made public its investigations, The Indian Express acquired and published transcripts of the video tapes. It showed that as part of the investigations, the reporters hired prostitutes to serve the officials. This raised ethical questions about the methods used. Tejpal later issued a statement denying that any of its women staff were provided as prostitutes. Politicians of the ruling parties called for the journalist's arrests for supplying prostitutes and questioned their ethics. Tejpal called that part of the investigation as a "needed transgression". The public and majority of their competitors supported them; The Times of India concluded that the issue of ethics "pales before the sleaze their team has dug up", The Hindu called it a "turning point in Indian journalism" but The Indian Express criticised their methods. Tejpal received death threats and was given police protection. His reporters said that their "extraordinary methods" were for the larger public and national interest.
In 2003, the Tehelka reporters said that the government was trying to bring them down. The main investor was in jail for two and a half months; one journalist spent six months. Defamation and cases under the Official Secrets Act were filed against them. Their offices were searched and there were income tax investigations. V S Naipal held a news conference and met the then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. Naipal told the media, "This thing that has happened to Tehelka has been profoundly disappointing to me, It comes from another era. It serves no purpose. It seems to me it will profoundly damage the country." In 2004, the CBI registered cases against Jaitley, Laxman and others in the army and the Ministry of Defence. In 2012, Laxman was sentenced to four years in jail by additional sessions Judge Kanwal Jeet Arora for this case. Author and journalist Madhu Trehan wrote a non-fiction book in 2009 on this incident, called Tehelka as Metaphor.
In 2007, Tehelka released footage filmed over six months, showing several BJP politicians admitting they had a role in attacking the Muslim community during the 2002 Gujarat violence. The report, called "The Truth: Gujarat 2002", was published in its 7 November 2007 issue and the video footage was shown on Aaj Tak. It said that the violence was possible because of approval by the state police, as well as the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. The recordings were authenticated by India's Central Bureau of Investigation on 10 May 2009.
The report had factual inaccuracies when compared with official records concerning the location of Modi and a police superintendent. The timing of its release, a month before the election, led to partisan criticisms especially for bias against the BJP. Ashish Khaitan, the journalist who worked on the report, testified in court and submitted it as evidence. Among the 14 named were Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi and seven who were accused in the riot case.
In one video, Bajrangi said that a mob which he had led killed 91 Muslim men and women at Naroda Patiya; they then raped a pregnant women, slit open her womb and threw both the foetus and her into a fire. Bajrangi denied these charges and in 2010, the doctor who performed post mortem on the bodies at the time during the violence, testified before a special court. The court identified the deceased woman and found only evidence of 100 percent burns on her body during the post mortem.
Tehelka has been criticised mainly for its investigative journalism which led to the debate about its ethics. It has been accused of siding with the Congress party of India, these were denied by Tejpal. After Tehelka got financial backing for its relaunch as a magazine, it was further accused of favouring the companies which supported "THiNK Fest" in spite of the magazine's previous anti-corporate stance.
The sexual assault allegations against Tejpal in November 2013 received intense public attention and media scrutiny, because Tehelka had previously been involved in highlighting the issue of sexual violence in India, including in a special issue on the topic in February 2013. There were protests against Tejpal by supporters of the BJP and its allies. Shoma Chaudhury's handling of this case was also criticised, for possibly underplaying the issue. The details of ownership, board of directors and financials further came under scrutiny. From the Registrar of Companies in 2012, Tehelka was owned by Anant Media Private Limited whose major shareholder was from a company affiliated to Alchemist group, a business conglomerate which was investigated by the Serious Fraud Investigation Office. The industrialist and Trinamool Congress member KD Singh also owned a part of this company.
After "Operation West End", Tehelka's "sting journalism" influenced the country's media. In five years, Indian news channels began to regularly feature sting operations. Tejpal called it the "greatest tool of journalistic investigation and exposure" and that it was for public interest.
Authorities and politicians demanded a sort of legislation over such "stings". Journalists against this, questioned the difference between this type of reporting and entrapment, between public interest and voyeurism. The Indian Supreme Court expressed its concern over the cases of freelance reporters selling their sting reports, questioning whether their intent was for money or public interest. Bahal said, "There's no thriving freelance sting journalism industry in India as the judges seem to think. Stings are serious business and not everybody has the guts to do it or telecast it." Cases of sting operations where fake evidence were given increased the court's criticism. Tejpal said, "there may be bad, motivated and indifferent stings - but that is no different from the rest of journalism".