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Money in the honey trap

Another quake appears currently to be rocking Parliament, and to the credit of the engineers and contractors who built it, the edifice has withstood the latest of the many ‘Tehelkas’ that have struck with accelerating frequency. The architects of India’s contemporary and increasingly lightweight political parties, however, cannot claim comparable skills, and what the loudest defenders of the scandal-struck Army officials and politicians fail to realize is that if political parties, including the ruling party, and their individual leaders are so passionate in their defence of the corrupt, it is inevitable that their conduct will eventually strengthen the public perception that they are themselves compromised.

At the outset it needs to be stated, without mincing words, that the response of a wide spectrum of politicians and ‘opinion makers’ who have chosen to attack Tehelka and Tarun Tejpal on the most far-fetched and specious grounds, has produced an entirely disgusting spectacle and an utterly shameless defence of the indefensible. This was, of course, as much the case when worthies from various political parties and from the senior echelons of the military establishment were caught on camera negotiating or receiving the price of their treachery in bundles of currency. It is all the more disgraceful, now, when a defence is being attempted of those who sought and secured the sexual favours of prostitutes as part of their payoff.

The much-maligned Manusmriti has, of course, pronounced many centuries ago, that "it is the nature of women to seduce men; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females…" Sagely, the learned Manu goes on to warn us that, "One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister, or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man." In this world-view, women are the source of all corruption, and men the helpless victims of their seduction. Quite rightly, this "wise man" of India has been much reviled for his misogyny. But when his views find an approving echo in an emancipated woman social and political activist’s fervent defence of the "poor men" who have "money and women forced on them", we are certainly within the realm of the absurd.

It is, indeed, amazing to see so many spokespersons of the ruling coalition – including the proud inheritors and advocates of our timeless culture of Hindutva – attacking the ‘morality’ of the classical ‘honey trap’ employed by the Tehelka investigators, and so eagerly defending those who betrayed their duty to the nation for a casual sexual encounter with a sex worker. There is, here, such surprising sympathy for the entrapped and such apparent outrage against the trapper that it would be useful to examine – or even speculate about – the possible motives of such misplaced moral indignation.

At the root of this response is, of course, an understandable panic. The Tehelka tapes have been an immensely unpleasant and unsettling experience for our deeply corrupt and compromised political leadership, many of whom, I am sure, are now having regular nightmares of being similarly and "unethically" caught on camera with their pants down, or with their hands in the till. It is these eminently justifiable fears that are, currently, being hurriedly clothed in high postures and rhetoric about the ‘morality’ of investigative journalism, the threat to ‘national security interests’ and the ‘international conspiracy to destabilize India’ that are all being projected as the ‘value based’ objections to what Tejpal’s crew has done.

These arguments are, of course, manifest rubbish, and those who are trying to pretend that the Security Forces are being demoralized as a result of the disclosure of the sleaze within a section of officers at Army Headquarters, and that the action of a handful of officers can tar the image of the entire Force, are not only lending their voice to an unprincipled campaign of obfuscation, but are also insulting the memory of the thousands who have sacrificed their lives, and the many hundreds of thousands who continue to risk their lives every day in the defence of India. There are black sheep in every organization, and it can be no one’s case that the entire Army leadership has been compromised because a few officers took bribes or accepted sexual favours from some ladies of the night. Of course, the entire ugliness could have been avoided if the indicted officers had chosen the honourable course and resigned the moment the scandal broke; but the nation has already seen the fullest evidence of their character and calibre, and such an expectation is clearly misplaced. But to believe that their conduct can destroy the morale of the Army and undermine national security is to underestimate, indeed, to hold in contempt, the strength, the depth and the endurance of India’s security structure. Were it so easy to undermine the Army’s morale and the nation’s security, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) would be raising armies of prostitutes instead of terrorists.

In the dishonest and orchestrated political response to the most recent Tehelka disclosures – and the response of all parties has been equally dishonest and opportunistic – it is necessary to remind ourselves about what these disclosures are really about. The Tehelka tapes are not about a few corrupt Army officers and politicians. They are about the vulnerability of the entire system, which can so easily be penetrated by the "suitcase people" with a few bottles of Scotch and a prostitute in tow. They are not about the ruling party or the present regime – the Opposition’s record on Arms deals is far from unblemished – they are about systemic weaknesses that need to be plugged to ensure that the nation is not cheated into purchasing overpriced and possibly inefficient defence technologies. And they are not about the ‘morality’ of investigative journalism and prescriptions of what can and cannot be done to arrive at the truth that is concealed behind layers and layers of impenetrable secrecy; they are about that truth which has actually been exposed.

I recall a case, perhaps in the 1970s, in which a journalist from a national daily "bought" a young woman to demonstrate the reality of human traffic in India. Many "ethical" questions could be raised in that case as well: the privacy of the woman in question, and of her family, for one. None of these could, however, dilute the enormity of the truth that was exposed by this act of investigative enterprise, or the fact that this truth would, probably, have been impossible to establish through any other means available to a journalist. This, precisely, is the logic and legitimacy of the Tehelka ‘sting’ operation.

It is time that India’s political leadership raised itself above the reprehensible, vindictive and utterly dishonest campaign it is carrying out against the Tehelka team at present, and focused on the real issues involved. Considering the number of investigations that Tarun Tejpal is facing today, it would appear that, after the ISI, he constitutes the greatest threat to national security. The real threat, however, lies in the progressive erosion of credibility that is resulting from the manifest dishonesty of the very parties, institutions and leaders who are attacking him, confirming public apprehensions that the entire system is, in fact, rotten to the core. I know that it is not. But if the nation comes to believe that it is so, nothing whatsoever can preserve the authority of the government, or save the nation from descending into lawlessness and anarchy.

Finally, it is important at least for the more reasonable elements within the system – not only within government, but in the Press, the judiciary and what passes for the intelligentsia in this country – to rise above partisan interests, to speak out clearly against the present campaign of obfuscation, and to congratulate Tarun Tejpal and his associates for their courage and commitment, not only in doing what they did, but in retaining their sanity within the perverted value system that has directed its entire and vengeful force against them, instead of punishing those who were so shamefully willing to betray the nation’s interests.

(Published in The Pioneer, August 25, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.