Tehelka: up and running

BY Vij| IN Media Practice | 16/02/2004
Tehelka: up and running


The phoenix has risen from the ashes, but will the Times of India-reading masses buy it?


Shivam Vij

 Those who used to regularly read tehelka.com agree that the Tehelka weekly, launched in the first week of February 2004, is a lot like the website. And one has to admit: It is a very good feeling to be able to hold Tehelka in one`s hands. 

The response in terms of subscriptions and news stand sales has been phenomenal, says editor-in chief Tarun J. Tejpal. One hundred and seventy two ‘founder subscribers’ of the paper helped raise the capital by writing up cheques of one lakh rupees each. The list of their names reads like a collection of India’s who’s who; conspicuous by their presence are a number of Mumbai filmstars. 

The weekly paper shall be a competitor in the market with the established newsmagazines such as India Today and Outlook. Why then did Tejpal prefer the format of a Sunday paper to a glossy weekend magazine? "Because," he explains, "we are neither into writing about five-star culture nor recapping the week’s stories. We are doing a very pro-active kind of journalism." 

But there is one constituency that Tehelka surely disappoints: netizens. It is ironic that Tehelka, which began as a website, now offers its online content only to the subscribers of the print edition. But Tejpal doesn’t think this is bad news for the Indian new media: "People must get over the habit of free content on the internet. Our journalism costs money and it’s a very small price to pay." 

Turn the pages of the paper and you will realise that it is endless! The forty pages that you hold in your hands are full of reporting that has required tremendous time and effort. Tehelka is the direct opposite of what is known as armchair journalism. If they have to do a story on the hollowness of the Congress party (21 February 2004), they speak extensively with forty top Congress leaders, "to find out what the party thinks of itself."  

The 14 February issue, which thankfully has nothing on Valentine’s Day, has "the first ever survey of the Indian army" (conducted by one Sky Rise Consultants). "What is the mood of our jawans and officers? Are their wives happy? Do they trust their political leaders?" 

The cover story on American evangelists in the first issue (see ‘The first Tehelka’ below) can be ammunition for the Hindu right. In what appears to be a conscious attempt to not appear as leaning towards the Hindu right, the same issue also has a story on the syncretic cultural history of Ayodhya, going into minute details of which Muslim ruler donated money to which Hindu temple in which century. 

Tehelka is an example of serious journalism that is not market-driven, and hence not frivolous. It calls itself ‘The People`s Paper’, but will the masses that make the Times of India the largest selling English daily, read Tehelka? "Time will tell," says Tejpal, "We must be the only publication in the world to receive advance subscriptions. A lot of people are obviously able to connect with Tehelka." 

But how many people? A paper whose identity depends on being anti-establishment, also limits its appeal.

A story on scavengers in Lucknow, which we are promptly reminded is the Prime Minister`s constituency, is accompanied with two more stories on scavengers. (The Prime Minister’s Office replies in the next issue.) A New York University-trained psychiatrist is sent to "probe the mindscapes of suicidal farmers in Karnataka". There are stories about feudal lords wreaking havoc in villages and about the corruption in the Mumbai police. Very few reports are optimistic. This tone certainly doesn’t help the Vajpayee government’s "India Shining" campaign, aimed at the coming general elections.

 Reading the paper you might be forgiven to believe that you live in the India of the ‘Seventies, where Amitabh Bachchan’s angry-young-man persona is on everyone’s minds. Page after page of the paper has stories that are pessimistic and reading about everything going wrong with your country, can be very depressing for some.

"That’s one way of seeing it," Tejpal counters. This is the other side, the balancing act, he says, of all the trivia that the mainstream papers present as news. Indeed, Tehelka’s future is an acid test for quality journalism in India. 

A lot of the political commentary and analysis come from senior journalists in local areas, and thus has an in-depth character. So Rajendra Yadav, editor of Hans is predicting that if the BJP gets a majority hate politics will replace "Shining India". Kumar Ketkar, the Loksatta Chief Editor in Mumbai, is commenting on the Shiv Sena`s identity crisis; Tehelka’s "Editor-at-Large" Sankarshan Thakur, author of a book on Bihar, is writing a column on the state. Former Jansatta editor Prabhash Joshi is writing on George Fernandes’ "betrayal of JP". Eminent Marathi litterateur Dilip Chitre is writing on the insensitivity of the young Indian voter. 

Excellent features and opinion columns are the icing on the cake. A random look at the kind of names writing/ being interviewed in the paper will be enough: Pico Iyer, Hari Kunzru, Pankaj Mishra, Farrukh Dhondy, Suketu Mehta, Ashis Nandy, Bipan Chandra — they are all there. And can Tejpal’s friend VS Naipaul be absent? To find such content you earlier had to buy expensive magazines or look up the Net. Tehelka makes them accessible in a weekly paper priced at ten rupees. 

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot is saying that "Mass trivia has become news" and an American correspondent in Delhi is criticising India’s Sunday papers for lack of quality content. While Tehelka is clearly the antithesis of such journalism, is it completely untouched? A three-column report in the first issue says author William Dalrymple is having an affair with a London editor, Farah Damji: "Dalrymple has strongly denied he ever slept with Damji." Serious journalism? 

Tejpal says he wouldn’t publish something like this, "I don’t know how it slipped in." The next issue had to carry an apology (tucked away on the second last page): "Our story on William Dalrymple was reported off the net and was both inappropriate and factually incorrect. We regret any distress caused to Olivia and William." 

"Everyone makes mistakes," says Tejpal.


The first Tehelka

The first issue had a contentious cover story with tremendous shock value. You expect Tehelka to expose some wrongdoing of the state, but you don’t expect it to beam: "George Bush has a Big Conversion Agenda for India". 

The results of the three months-long investigation are revealed in a series of articles and countless box items over some eleven pages in the first issue, and the ripples are still being seen in successive issues. VK Shashikumar and Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, assumed Christian identities to write a story that establishes, successfully and plausibly, the inter-connection between the Christian Far Right in America, their support of George W. Bush’s administration, the President’s establishment of "faith-based" social service organisations, and the US President’s foreign policy.  

It goes into the details of the corporate-like functioning of "huge transnational missionary organisations (TMO’s)" and talks of a system that they have put in place, by which the US government "can access any ethnographic information on any location virtually at the click of mouse." It also explains the links between American evangelical organisations and the CIA. 

No problem, we trust these are facts. The problem begins when the story comes to be peppered with a lot of commentary, clearly calling it `disturbing’ Christian fundamentalism. Although it also shows how conversion is "an unabashed exercise about exploiting legal loopholes", preaching a faith and seeking to proselytize are very much legal In India, allowed by the Constitution, and whether doing so is religious fundamentalism is still a matter of debate. 

You could see the story as a courageous act of calling a spade a spade; or you could see it as fundamentalist in itself. You could even see it as a confirmation of what the Sangh Parivar always told you, if you are a rightist. It all depends on your political inclinations. As for Tehelka, the message is clear: we have no soft corners; we won’t hesitate in making anyone uncomfortable. If reality bites, so be it. 

But the cover story also lends itself to the charge that Tehelka`s eponymous task is sensationalism as an end in itself. But Tejpal disagrees: "As journalists we are only concerned in covering a phenomenon." 

A letter (from Prof Kamal Jadhav of Mumbai) in the next issue says what a lot of people must have thought: "You hope to score brownie points with the BJP, obviously so your relationship this time round will be sweet." Tehelka must surely have anticipated this sort of a response, and Tejpal says he finds it amusing. "If we had to make up with them," he says in his trademark persuasive voice, "we would have done it long ago instead of suffering for three long years. We toned it down and have taken care that the right wing is not able to hijack it. As I wrote in my editorial, we oppose all religious fundamentalisms. 

"I can count more than a dozen stories so far that are critical of the Hindu right. I think this kind of a response is facile and as dangerous as the right-wing." 

But there is one aspect where Tehelka can’t deny it was at fault. The press attaché at the American Embassy in Delhi wrote in a tongue-in-cheek letter: "Regrettably, prior to publishing these articles, no one from Tehelka contacted the US Embassy to check facts or to offer an opportunity to comment. If they had, an objective report might have resulted. …I hope that in future issues Tehelka will take time to ensure that its material is not only ‘free and fairless’ but also responsible and objective."





Shivam Vij runs the Zest Reading Group. Contact: shivamvij@hotmail.com




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