Tehelka’s election-time tinderbox

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 25/10/2007
Headlines Today assumes the totally out-of-character role of a platform for politically charged investigation.
SEVANTI NINAN’S take on the TV version of Tehlka’s latest expose.

Idiot Box

Sevanti Ninan


The  tepid issues of Tehelka which came out after it changed format and became a magazine, evidently constituted  the lull before the storm. Earlier today  India¿s most celebrated investigative brand since the early 1980s Arun Shourie,  regained some of its fire power and unveiled  some potent election-eve ammunition, swearing all the while that the timing was just a coincidence. The magazine will come tomorrow, today Tehelka organised a TV trailer on Aaj Tak and Headlines Today. The latter took a break from being a movie and cricket channel to get serious, as well as it could.


A few days after Narendra Modi abandoned a TV interview with Karan Thapar  after being asked if he had an image problem since he was being called a mass murderer,  recorded images went on air showing Modi confidantes and allies in Gujarat confirming his direct complicity in the murder of Muslims in the riots following the Godhra fire. He had told people to do what they had to do in three days, he visited Naroda Patiya 2 days after the massacre there and garlanded those who had killed 91 Muslims in one day, he shielded the guilty, in one case in Gujarat Bhavan at Mount Abu.


To the ¿why now¿ questions different people from Tehelka went on the box to explain that the story happened by chance: the reporter who had gone to do a story on attacks on artists in MS University in Baroda  heard some of those working there talking about how they had burnt houses during the riots in 2002 and realised that  a  number of rioters had been appointed to key positions in this university. It was, as the reporter Ashish Khetan, and Tehelka¿s editor of investigations Harinder Baweja suggested, hardly a story you would turn away from if you were a reporter with any gumption. True, but the nagging suspicion about the timing remained for those who watched the first telecasts.


Khetan then went on to spend the next five months infiltrating  the Bajrang  Dal in Gujarat and taping several conversations with men who bragged about the pivotal role they played in setting Gujarat aflame. The clincher of course is BJP MLA  Haresh Bhatt describing how Modi told him and others that they had three days to  to do what they wanted, meaning, get even with the Muslims as revenge for Godhra.  Tehelka calls its story culled from more than 40 hours of footage filmed by Khetan the "chilling truth of one of the worst societal ruptures in modern Indian history."

What must be the most dastardly involvement of a chief minister in a carnage upon his subjects in post –Independence India lost some of its cold  horror in the hands of the TV channel¿s  juvenile and completely inappropriate anchors.  Whatever else you use Jhujjar Singh and Zaka Jacob for,  you don¿t use them for chilling exposes about the Gujarat carnage.. One is comical, the other facile. "Where was Narendra Modi and what was he doing? Sit back and listen to this shocker."  Or, from Singh, "Many more gory stories. All captured on our camera."  From Jacob, "It is something we¿ve always had a gut feeling about but now for the first time on camera." Thanks chum, for airing your biases.
The trouble with breaking news  that has to be kept going hour after hour is that you need to start pulling in others to keep the ball rolling. Abhishek Singhvi rolled out the most damning adjectives he could think of, Rajiv Pratap  Rudy attempted  a pathetic rebuttal, and Lalu Yadav  was given  free rein for a while. Somewhere in the middle of all this, fleetingly, there was some mention of  Congress and NCP workers also being involved, but it would not have served anyone¿s purpose to have put that to Singhvi.
 It is after all both good television and good politics to not dilute your ammunition with inconvenient sideshows.

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