Aniruddha Bahal: The King of investigation

Stirrings In Sheikhdom
October 11, 2004
Journos hounded for exposing the corrupt
August 14, 2009

Aniruddha Bahal: The King of investigation

It still happens that before shipping off to India, you are prescribed one of VS Naipaul’s subcontinental travel tomes, several hundred pages of sonorous insights meant to be taken along with your bitter, nightmare-inducing anti-malarials. Together with Rushdie’s Indo-Pak partition epic Midnight’s Children, Naipaul’s India books constitute the heavier half of a well-established literary travel regimen.

But, as the news weeklies keep telling us, India is changing. And Naipaul is ageing, his cash value in celebrity death pools diving each time he lives to see a new printing of his 1977 classic, India: A Wounded Civilisation. As Naipaul gently fades, so does his India. The Laureate’s India – An Area of Darkness, he first called it, in a 1964 title – is an exhausting expanse populated by soot-caked street urchins, publicly defecating street sweepers, dysfunctional puke-green rotary phones, Kafka-meets-Krishna bureaucracy, and a few insecure middle-class matrons. The country of his ancestors appears as you’d expect it to appear based on his notorious mid-life conclusion that India is just a particularly colourful part of the “Turd World” – “the world’s largest slum” populated by “a withered race of men.”

This stinking, maddening place still exists. It practically slaps you in the face the moment you hit the Tarmac at Chattrapathi Shivaji International in Mumbai. But this India is lately feeling the cool of shadows cast by the glass skyscrapers and hi-tech exurbs sprouting like pop-up-book pictures around the country. You’ve heard about the call centres and the two-generations-ahead software centres, but consider this: in the gleaming condo and mall enclave of Gurgaon, an outsourcing boom-town just outside Delhi, call-centre employees have settled in enough numbers so that a sizeable chunk of the city actually operates on same time zone as New York City.

Naipaul’s socialist India of the 1960s and 1970s – its soft alliance with the Soviet Union frozen in his pages – has become the West’s new best capitalist friend, symbolised by Gurgaon’s fully globalised, hard-partying Hindu middle class, “India’s first Me Generation” according to one recent magazine cover. This India is well past the novelty of an imported Benz blasting past oxcarts, two-stroke rickshaws, and severely overloaded, psychedelically painted Nehru-era diesel trucks. This is a land of Lamborghinis now; the first Gallardos will be arriving in Bangalore this year. The latest Forbes count tells us that the subcontinent now has the fastest growth rate for billionaires anywhere outside of the US. In this 500-horsepower place, Naipaul’s masterful meditations on woe and wounds and the weight of history can all sound very last-century, if they are heard at all.

The books now thrust upon a traveller to India reflect this change. There’s William Dalrymple’s literary journalism anthology, The Age of Kali (1998), reflecting the caste upheavals and economic and cultural liberalisation begun in the early 1990s; there’s Gregory David Roberts’s autobiographical cult novel of the Indian underworld, Shantaram (2004); and, most recently, there’s Suketu Mehta’s non-fiction bloody valentine to the maelstrom that is post-modern Mumbai, Maximum City (2004).

Then there is a novel called Bunker 13 that presents the new India at terminal literary velocity. Published in 2003, it exists on a yet higher post-pity plane, one that eradicates most of the new India books that have piled up in the last decade. As India’s “creamy class” – the preferred local term – grows and accelerates, so does the rate of obsolescence of certain so-deemed culturally representative books. Yet Bunker 13, the second novel from New Delhi novelist and journalist Aniruddha Bahal, remains the closest thing to a Declaration of Independence for Indian fiction, signed with a Ralph Steadman exclamation-point splat.

Bunker 13’s hardboiled, hipster-slang-spitting antihero is Minty Mehta. Mehta shoots smack, snorts speed, runs guns, administers date-rape drugs (one scene earned him a 2003 Bad Sex in Fiction award), and blows away Kashmiri militants with more concern for how arms peel away from the torso under a wave of bullets than with the politics and history of the famous Indo-Pak tug-of-war up north. A self-confessed “born scumbag” Minty Mehta is, like his creator, an investigative journalist, the cocky bastard child of Irvine Welsh, Joseph Heller and ex-junkie war reporter and glory hound Anthony Lloyd. He is also Bahal’s Americanised caricature of a riotously liberated Indian middle class. And the rousing critical and popular welcome he received in 2003 signalled Bahal wasn’t the only Indian writer bored with Raj costume dramas and partition tear-jerkers.

Bunker 13 wastes few pages before announcing that we are in a new, post-historical India. The novel opens with Mehta parachuting out of an Indian Air Force cargo plane, a loaded syringe taped to his forearm. As Mehta introduces the little Afghan soldiers into his bloodstream at 4,000ft, the ghosts of the 1947 Indo-Pak partition, the tired faces of whom populate so much Indian fiction, are nowhere to be seen. Ditto the plumed ghosts of the British Raj, the Maharaja kings, or the Mogul emperors. Naipaul’s great “wounded civilisation” is with one squeeze of the plunger reduced during Mehta’s narcotic free fall to land-plot patterns below. If there are hopelessly indebted farmers down there, contemplating a jug of pesticide – and there are, thousands – we don’t see them. If there are burning brides and exploited untouchables suffering in the land – and there are, millions – we don’t hear their voices. In fact, fuck ’em. As the chemical pumps into Mehta’s heart and his eyes roll back, history and every other Indian-lit cliché lift up and away on the prose rush of one of the greatest and most ridiculous heroin scenes ever to appear in the drug-fiction genre, and into which Bahal was the first Indian to strut.

If Bahal had been born, written Bunker 13 and died, he’d be a New Indian of note, something of a poster boy, even. But this is the least flashy of his accomplishments. He’s also the most feared journalist in the most populous nation on earth to possess a free press. Bahal has brought a government to its knees, cracked the pillars of three of India’s most revered institutions, and sparked an international debate over the ethics and efficacy of undercover media operations, aka “stings”. While every Serious Indian Writer has portrayed or lamented India’s famously rank corruption, Bahal has viciously exposed it with the help of a few trusty colleagues and a couple of spycams.

Bahal doesn’t look like a mastermind of deception. He looks like the guy who wrote Bunker 13. He has the shuffling gait and loose, easy grin of a veteran stoner. A conventionally moustachioed man in his late thirties, he ambles through the five-star lobby of a swanky Delhi hotel in a half-buttoned, cotton flower-print shirt, baggy jeans and sandals. Over plates of chow mein, he tells me about his life.

Born in the small north Indian city of Allahabad, Bahal graduated university and moved to Calcutta, the nation’s cultural capital, where he wrote his first novel. He also dabbled in journalism to pay bills. Along the way, he found he was good at reporting, and liked it. After A Crack in the Mirror was published in 1991 – a romance that sold 500 copies – he moved to Delhi.

Bahal soon landed writing and editing gigs at India’s two leading news weeklies, Outlook and India Today, where his work on everything from Kashmir to cricket established him as a young investigative reporter to watch. Somewhere along the line, journalism became more than just a way to support his fiction efforts. “It started to get too interesting,” he says. “It’s an intoxicating combination – civic outrage and the thrill of chasing a big story.”

In 1999, at the crest of the dot-com boom, Bahal and two of his colleagues from Outlook jumped ship and founded – “sensation” in Hindi – a news website that they hoped would redefine Indian journalism and perhaps make them rich and famous on the way. One of these colleagues was the legendary Indian editor Tarun Tejpal, who would go on, like Bahal, to gain literary fame for his own sex-drenched novels, specifically The Alchemy of Desire (2005), shortlisted for France’s Prix Femina Étranger award.

An investor with deep pockets secured and the staff installed, Bahal, Tejpal, and their Tehelka colleagues turned to the task of making a splash. Their proposed formula involved lots of time to develop stories combined with hidden recording devices, newly available to the Indian market. The gadgets that most interested Bahal were the increasingly miniature spycams.

“We decided to show you could take on systems of governance,” says Bahal. “The spycams were the fangs. We supplied the venom.”

On the subcontinent, cricket is a national religion, uniting Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Kids set up wickets everywhere, using proper equipment if they can afford it, and sticks, bricks, and balls made of rubber bands if they can’t. I once saw some boys playing on a dusty wedge of land in a cramped Himalayan foothill town; the narrow pitch was squeezed between straight drops of several hundred feet.

So when Bahal and his colleagues employed a spycam to catch leading Indian cricketers taking bribes to throw matches, the scandal rocked the entire country. (It also birthed too many “journalism with balls” puns to count.) The sting operation was eventually turned into a 500-page book, Fallen Heroes (1999), which garnered Bahal a lot more attention than his first novel. One prominent Indian critic said that it “restored Indian journalism to its lost glory”.

While wrapping up the cricket story, Bahal began laying the groundwork for a more daring operation, one involving the Indian defence establishment. When Bahal conceived of “Operation West End” in early 2000, the Indian military was riding especially high on the wave of pride unleashed by India’s successful 1998 nuclear tests. Bad-mouthing the military, let alone publicly shaming it, wasn’t something people did.

In retrospect, it all looks comically easy. Bahal and his colleague Mathew Samuel made up business cards for a fictitious British company named West End. Lacking any specialised knowledge of weapons or the defence industry, they entered at the lowest level of the procurement food chain and attempted to secure an army contract for a fictional hi-tech, hand-held “thermal camera” produced by West End. Bahal and Samuel then moved steadily, and implausibly, up the ladder of corruption. When asked where he lived in London, Samuel, who had never been out of India, panicked and replied, “Manchester United”. Another time, Bahal was asked the range of the camera. He stammered and replied, “unlimited”.

By the time Bahal and Samuel ran out of bribe cash eight months later, the undercover journalists had captured hundreds of hours of incriminating footage on their spycams. The footage was devastating and abundant. It showed leading government and military officials accepting (and often demanding) favours from West End ranging from wads of dirty rupees to visits from nubile prostitutes.

When Bahal edited the footage into a four-hour documentary and posted it on the Tehelka website, all hell broke loose. “After the use of the spycams in the cricket story, people may have thought that that was the end of it,” says Bahal. “But in West End Indians saw for the first time visual proof of government corruption. It had a tremendous effect. We had confirmed what everybody always knew but nobody dared prove. The public response was overwhelming.”

“Operation West End is the ultimate indictment of Indian government,” wrote Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka’s proud editor, as he basked in the rapidly rising flood-waters of the website’s traffic, which immediately rose to 30 million hits a week. “It is the ugly fable of a poor country that has been completely sold off by its rich and powerful. We spent 11 lakhs [about £6,000] on the story. If we had a little more money we could have ripped open the entire system end to end. We were just a group of amateurs, a leanly funded media organisation with limited resources. Suppose we had been the ISI [Pakistani Intelligence]?”

Tehelka’s stinger was just the first strike in what quickly became a deadly scorpion fight between the website and the then ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government. BJP is the political wing of a neo-fascist religious organisation called the RSS, which in the 1930s was self-consciously modelled on the Nazi Party. The BJP went after Tehelka with the Indian equivalents of the MI5 and the Inland Revenue – and went after them hard. Bahal and Samuel spent a week in prison while they were questioned; others on staff were threatened. The government backlash was so furious that Tehelka became an international cause célèbre; those who jumped to the site’s defence included Salman Rushdie and the craggy voice of India’s moral conscience abroad, VS Naipaul.

“The shitstorm that followed breaking that story could be a PhD thesis,” says Bahal, shaking his head. “The BJP and the military establishment immediately began trying to discredit us by spreading false stories about us and our ulterior motives. Government institutions harassed us. They scared our investors away. They even threw one of them, Shanker Sharma, in jail with no charge. Then they tried to blame the dot-com crash on us. At one point I had 10 bodyguards assigned to me. It all got very tiring”.

Those forced from power included the president of the ruling BJP party, Bangaru Laxman; defence minister George Fernandes (later reinstated); and several senior military officials. Tehelka, too, was put out of business, a victim of the government’s vicious counterattack. [Tehelka, reborn two years later and continuing today as a print weekly, may yet get the last laugh. In May 2005, the new, non-BJP Indian government finally ordered a fresh probe into the exposé, resulting into the arrest of RK Jain, the so-called “Briefcase Man” of defence minister George Fernandes. As of this writing, other arrests are expected to follow.]

Bahal used his new-found fame as well as a few half-written chapters to land a book deal with Faber and Faber in London. The result was Bunker 13. But, like Minty Mehta, his novel’s easily bored protagonist, Bahal was hooked on the rush of breaking big stories. He soon set up Cobra, a news portal focusing on South Asia. The desire to put Cobra Post on the map takes us to Bahal’s most recent, tongue-in-cheek, and most literary undercover operation to date.

In early 2005, Bahal wrote an op-ed for the Hindustan Times suggesting that someone conduct an investigation into the process by which questions are selected and asked during official debate in the Lok Sabha, India’s raucous and sometimes bloody parliament. Soon after the article appeared, Bahal was served with a letter from parliamentarians threatening him with legal action for publishing false accusations. He had accused no one, of course; he had merely insinuated. Unbowed by the harassment that had followed Operation West End, Bahal smelled a challenge in the threatening letter. He decided to prove his theory that the parliament’s Question Time was corrupt.

As with Operation West End, Bahal set up a fake organisation, the North Indian Small Manufacturers’ Association, and printed some slick-looking business cards. He outfitted a young female research assistant, Suhasini Raj, as a company representative, and sent her around offering bribes ranging from £200 to £1,500 to MPs in exchange for asking questions ostensibly in the imaginary firm’s interest. Among the questions uncritically accepted by the MPs and asked in Parliament were these sly homages to Bahal’s literary heroes:

“Has the Railway Ministry placed any order for purchase of the Yossarian Electro Diesel engine from Germany? Is the ministry aware that the Tom Wolfe committee report in Germany has halted its induction into the Eurorail system?”

“Has the government given sanction for the seed trial of Salinger Cotton of Monsanto? If so, has a report been prepared on Catch-22 cotton so far?”

“Has the ministry lifted the 1962 ban it imposed on the book For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway and the 1975 ban on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hunter Thomson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? If so, when were the bans removed?”

Then there was this string of technobabble, which underscored the lack of computer literacy among India’s political class:

“Is it true that while NRI firms such as India Uncut of USA, Sepia Mutiny of Britain and AnarCap Lib of Netherlands have been allowed to invest in Indian SSIs, the reputed German investment firm Desipundit has been denied permission? If so, reasons thereof? Is the Union Government of India planning to [allow the] import [of] new technologies such as Trackbacks, Pingbacks, Blog-rolls, Splogs, and Hitcounters?”

When the middle ranks had been penetrated and the questions accepted, Bahal himself entered the picture, taking over from his assistant. Bahal disguised himself in what he describes as a “ludicrous wig and even more ludicrous glasses.” He looked like an Indian version of Mike D in the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video. Nonetheless, Bahal caught 11 MPs on video, all accepting embarrassingly paltry bribes from a wigged freak to ask idiotic questions. Nine of the busted were suspended by their parties. Most were forced out of government permanently. The King of Sting had stung again.

Besides offering a steady flow of updated national headlines and investigative reporting, Cobra Post acts as Bahal’s permanent advertisement for, and philosophical defence of, the black art of the sting.

“Hidden cameras and politicians are an… entertaining combination,” Bahal observes on the site. “The cameras can acquire evangelical powers. By simply amalgamating sounds and images into facts they can etch the spiritual poverty of Indian politics. They can also furnish the nation with the itinerary of graft.”

There is also this one-line manifesto: “If used rightly, tiny, lens-bearing apertures can empower a citizenry by exposing democracy’s toxic acreage.”

If the public’s benefit from that exposure is much debated, the fact of its empowerment is not. Bahal’s repeated mapping of “democracy’s toxic acreage” has birthed a sting-operation cottage industry in India. Everybody’s doing it. Seven years after Bahal lifted the lid on cricket corruption, not one major Indian news channel lacks an undercover division. Sometimes these spycam squads tackle serious issues and high-level graft; often they pursue tabloid fluff, such as proving that Bollywood producers and starlets – lo! – trade sex for roles. Bahal’s Cobra Post itself has recently joined hands with India’s Star News channel to present a new show called Benaqab (meaning “unmasked”), which aims to broadcast a sting operation every Saturday and Sunday.

TV ads for storefront journalism schools now boast courses in how to pull off “devastating sting operations” before they mention more traditional skills like the inverted pyramid and video editing. Bahal’s work and that of his many imitators has spawned another growth industry: pocket-sized radio frequency detectors and jammers that block recording instruments. This, in turn, has led to smaller, more sophisticated cameras. It is a veritable spycam arms race.

Does the paranoia mean anything? Are Indian public officials cleaner now or just more careful? Regardless of the ends, people debate the ethics and efficacy of the means. Bahal’s many critics generally point in two directions. One is toward the harm done to innocent victims, defined as either those on the sidelines – such as the wives of politicians captured with prostitutes – or the principals themselves, who they say straddle a hard-to-define line between criminals demanding exposure and innocent victims of entrapment. MK Narayanan, a former chief of Indian Intelligence, writes in The Asian Age of a vast gulf between “‘snaring’ or ‘tempting’ people into accepting ‘gifts’ or ‘bribes’, where a cause of action does not exist, and exposing corruption regarding specific deals. Not to recognise the significance of this difference would be a grievous mistake.”

In other words, the stings merely create corruption where there was none before, and thus prove nothing.

Another critique, one dripping with cynicism, holds that stings destroy public confidence in the very institutions they are intended to scare or shame into better behaviour. Since politics is never going to be squeaky clean, it is simply better not to know. Social order demands a certain level of public ignorance. This is what one Indian critic implied when he charged, “The uncontrolled and unregulated spycam has the potential of becoming a kind of an unlawful MWD – mini weapon of destruction – for the country’s psyche. ”

But do public institutions with histories of corruption deserve closed windows and secure lines? Why should they be shielded from a clever crusader working in the public’s name? It isn’t just India’s BJP that believes the public’s right to know should be circumscribed for its own good. A 1984 report by the US House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, which conducted a four-year investigation of stings, concluded: “While investigations of public corruption may be intended to restore the public’s faith in the integrity of the affected institutions, ill-conceived and poorly managed undercover operations are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.” Secret corruption is preferable to a damaged reputation; what the people don’t know can’t hurt them (or will hurt them less). It is precisely this kind of paternalism that Bahal and his new generation of stingers have refused to accept in Indian politics.

Mention his critics, and Bahal quickly executes a defence and parry. When I told him that a journalist I know told me he found stings “trashy” and counterproductive, he visibly darkened.

“First of all, I prefer the term undercover operation,” he says. “These critics are an elitist minority. I think some of them are jealous of the impact that some of the undercover stories have had. Some haven’t sufficiently educated themselves about what really happened. And the remaining few fail to understand the fact that in India, resource misuse is at epidemic levels. A serious impact on stemming corruption would not only increase the country’s GDP significantly; it would also reduce social inequities.”

While admitting that the practice occupies an ethical grey area, it’s a grey area Bahal believes it is possible and necessary for journalists to operate in comfortably. On one condition: the story must involve an overriding public interest.

But even with a hornet’s nest of stings, corruption and social divides in India are unlikely to be erased or significantly eased anytime soon. Beneath the country’s expanding middle class – depicted so vividly in Bahal’s fiction – is a huge and growing population of rural and urban dirt-poor, which Bahal claims is the main beneficiary of his journalism.

Representing both groups is a parliament of thieves in more ways than one: nearly a quarter of India’s 545 MPs have been charged with crimes, including rape, murder and extortion. A dozen government ministers in the current centre-left government, meanwhile, have criminal cases pending against them. Ethical grey areas are not unknown to them.

“Policemen here have reduced their jobs to going after pimps and sex workers because they are easy targets. They don’t have enough gumption to go after the political classes,” says Bahal. “So it falls to journalists. My ends more than justify the means. If they are screwing the country, it’s our right and duty to screw them back.”

The art of disguise: More reporters who go undercover to get the dirt

Yosri Fouda

Although the Al Jazeera news channel’s chief investigative reporter doesn’t go undercover in the traditional “disguise yourself with a fake beard and funny glasses” way, his uncanny ability to blend into any situation and make the people he is reporting on trust him and feel comfortable with his presence has led him to win many scoops.

These include being the first journalist since 9/11 to interview the two senior al-Qa’ida members who are widely thought to have masterminded the attacks, Khalyd Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah. He was invited to interview them, reportedly because Osama bin Laden himself was a fan of Fouda’s show, Top Secret, on Al Jazeera.

Alan Abel

With a body of work that stretches back almost half a century in the US, Abel should probably be considered more of a hoaxer or prankster than an investigative reporter. However, through his numerous press interviews and television appearances, where he adopts ridiculous fake personas to represent dummy companies or invented campaign groups (such as those seeking to clothe “naked” animals or outlaw breastfeeding),

he has exposed both lazy news journalism and the gullibility of television chat show producers. In 2004, his daughter Jenny Abel made an award-winning documentary about his life, called Abel Raises Cain.

Günter Wallraff

To research his stories about social injustices In Germany, Wallraff has done everything from using a pseudonym to work as an editor for four months on the right-wing tabloid Bild-Zeitung, to dressing up as a Turkish immigrant worker. His name has even become a word; wallraffen means to report undercover in German. However, his methods have been heavily criticised – particularly by those who have been exposed by his reports.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich has taken on other identities to research two books exploring the darker side of the American economy. In Nickel and Dimed she exposed the shocking reality of life among the US’s poorest paid workers by taking on a series of low-level jobs and discovering a demeaning world of abuse and prejudice. And in Bait and Switch she played the part of a middle-class, middle-aged white-collar professional looking for work, and found herself being rejected again and again in favour of younger, cheaper workers.

Mazher Mahmood

This News of the World investigative reporter is most famous for his “fake sheikh” alter ego. As well as targetting criminals, lax UK immigration rules and various corrupt officials, he has conducted a string of high-profile stings on public figures, including the then England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson (who admitted an interest in managing Aston Villa), actor John Alford (who was subsequently jailed for drug offences) and Newcastle Utd bosses Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall (who took Mahmood to a brothel and described Geordie women as “dogs”). However, he has had less luck of late, after George Galloway claimed earlier this year to have rumbled an approach from the journalist, and his photograph was widely circulated.

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