In Other Words
Crime and Punishment
Tehelka, Vol. 4, Issue 6, Feb. 17, 2007, New Delhi Shortly before New Year’s Day, police began to unearth the remains of at least 19 people, mostly children, from a backyard drain of a businessman’s home in Noida, a middle-class satellite city of New Delhi. The homeowner, Mohinder Singh Pandher, and his male servant, Surendra ...
Tehelka, Vol. 4, Issue 6, Feb. 17, 2007, New Delhi
Shortly before New Year’s Day, police began to unearth the remains of at least 19 people, mostly children, from a backyard drain of a businessman’s home in Noida, a middle-class satellite city of New Delhi. The homeowner, Mohinder Singh Pandher, and his male servant, Surendra Koli, were jailed after the gruesome discovery. In late March, authorities formally charged Koli with one of the murders and claimed he confessed to 15 others. They added that he dismembered his victims and experimented with cannibalism. The killing spree may have gone on for more than two years. Investigators concluded that Pandher was unaware of the killings, but he was charged with luring prostitutes to his house, one of whom ended up as Koli’s victim.
The shocking tale quickly became the latest indictment of Indian law enforcement. Relatives of the victims claim that the police ignored them repeatedly when they tried to report their children missing. Eventually, one frustrated but determined parent took the police to court. It was only under a judge’s order that the local authorities agreed to investigate. The ghastly remains were then uncovered.
Why did India’s police force show such indifference? Law enforcement there is beset with a familiar set of problems: bribery of underpaid officers, police ties to organized crime and corrupt politicians, and officers’ frequent refusals to file crime reports and launch investigations, because doing so would add to the crime figures in their jurisdictions. Nor did it help that all of the victims were poor. The Noida killers preyed on migrant families from impoverished rural towns who worked as laborers and servants in the city’s middle-class homes. These families had no influential friends or connections who could pressure the police to do their job.
The story of the Noida murders was tailor-made for Tehelka, an upstart weekly newspaper that has made a name for itself by pushing the limits of investigative journalism in India. "We’re not happy just saying, ‘So many sackfuls of bones were found today,’" says Harinder Baweja, the newspaper’s investigations editor. "The fact that the killings continued for two years was mind-blowing. Obviously, there was police complicity. We set out to prove that complicity."
Tehelka‘s month-long investigation, headlined "Police & Politicians: In with the Child Killers," told the story of Nand Lal’s determined struggle to get the police to investigate the disappearance of his 20-year-old daughter, who went missing after visiting Pandher’s house in May of last year. It was Lal who, repeatedly stymied by the police, finally obtained a judge’s order to open a formal investigation. A couple of weeks before his daughter’s alleged remains were found, Lal and his son and daughter-in-law were summoned to the police station. In his account to Tehelka, Lal explained that Pandher and Koli were at the police station when they arrived, and that the two men denied his allegations, claiming Lal’s daughter was blackmailing Pandher for money. The police even reportedly beat up Lal’s son and daughter-in-law, and said the family was trying to defame a good man. Afterward, Lal went into hiding, fearing further police retribution. But Tehelka‘s journalists tracked him down, and in an exclusive interview, told his story.
The Tehelka article also exposed a police officer, unaware that the newspaper was taping him with a hidden camera, saying that Pandher paid another officer, Simranjeet Kaur, 250,000 rupees (more than $5,500) to cover up the crime. Tehelka found evidence of at least 38 phone calls between Pandher and Kaur in the month before the bodies were uncovered in late December. Tehelka reported that another officer, Dinesh Yadav, made three calls to a senior politician and subsequently got off virtually scot-free. Exactly what was said remains a mystery, but the implication that Yadav benefited from high-level connections sparked a political firestorm. He was transferred out of Noida the next day and suspended the day after.
The Noida report was just the latest in a string of "sting operations" by Tehelka, which was originally launched in 2000 as an English-language news Web site to counter what Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka‘s founder and editor in chief, believed was a lack of seriousness in Indian journalism. Its reporters have created waves in the Indian media by surreptitiously filming and recording people making incriminating statements in a number of investigations. Tehelka‘s first big scoop was an exposè on match fixing in cricket, by far the country’s most popular sport. Then, in March 2001, came the organization’s most famous and controversial story. Tehelka journalists posed as employees of "West End," a fictitious defense contractor, and handed over cash bribes to willing politicians and military officials, all caught on hidden camera. Defense Minister George Fernandes and Bangaru Laxman, the president of the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, resigned as a result.
But the government didn’t wait long to strike back. First, it raided the offices of Tehelka‘s largest financial backer and later arrested him on charges of stock market manipulation. Then, a Tehelka staff member who had been investigating leopard poaching was charged with hiring poachers himself. A month after that, one of the lead reporters in the West End sting was charged with assaulting and threatening an investigator from the Central Bureau of Investigation, who complained that the journalist verbally abused and "manhandled" him. As funding dried up, the number of employees dwindled from 124 to four, and the Web site closed down. Meanwhile, Fernandes was reinstated as defense minister.
But Tejpal brought his venture back from the brink. In 2003, he launched a public appeal for support, claiming that the media’s job was to expose abuses of power. He signed up 15,000 subscribers for a proposed weekly newspaper. The proceeds launched the first print issue in early 2004; the Web site is now back up as an online version of the paper.
Today, Tehelka, with a cover price of 10 rupees (about 22 cents), sells 80,000 copies a week, primarily to a socially conscious urban readership. The newspaper offers an alternative to the mainstream media, which tends to focus more on middle-class concerns than the lives of India’s vast poor population. Calling itself "the people’s paper," Tehelka deals frequently with the plight of the low-caste Dalits or victims of the military’s antiterrorist campaigns in India’s restive regions. "We do not represent the rich and the powerful," Tejpal repeats ad nauseam at staff meetings. "We represent the underdog. We represent the voiceless. We represent the suffering."
Although its circulation is smaller than India’s major daily newspapers and weekly magazines, the popular success of its sting operations has spilled over to the rest of the media. Other newspapers and television stations have started employing hidden cameras, too. But the practice of secretly recording conversations and meetings has raised ethical questions. Are Tehelka and other news outlets guilty of entrapment, unfairly luring officials with money and favors? Regardless, Indian readers don’t seem to be bothered by these methods. They are so fed up with rampant corruption, particularly in government, that they feel the ends justify the means.
In the Noida case, Tehelka‘s investigative team can take credit for ensuring that at least one corrupt police officer did not escape punishment. This new, emboldened style of Indian journalism is certainly a positive trend. Unfortunately, there are probably many more corrupt police officers and politicians to uncover. But the good news is, no one knows that better than Tehelka.