Decoding the Big Indian Sting


This is the second research note from Shaunak Sen, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

 

In a provocative comment made in a presentation in 2010, Ravi Sundaram suggested that much like ‘planning’ in the 1950s (or modernity in the 1990s), transparency might be the axiomatic progressive slogan the contemporary moment would be remembered by [1]. The frenzy to render transparent hitherto opaque / invisible material has expressed itself in a range of ways in the recent years. From enormous information databases like UID / Aadhaar and other biometric based government schemes, to various self-surveillance practices opened up by social media ecologies, to large-scale GPS infrastructure plans, to the expansion of both public and private CCTV cultures, to new corporate/market trends that demand more transparent models of investment declaration/financial disclosure, to the burgeoning information activism which includes RTI activists, environmentalists, and a whole spectrum of NGOs / humans rights based groups, the desire for transparency has become something of a contagion raging across multiple fields today [2]. My interest is in the sting-video, one of the key forms through which the fascination with transparency has performed itself on a public level in the recent years.

In this post I revisit the inaugural moment of Tehelka’s Operation Westend. Journalists Mathew Samuels and Anirudh Bahal, posing as arms dealers from a fictitious London-based company called West End International hawked a non-existent Defense product called ‘hand-held thermal cameras’ to the Indian government by bribing several ministers and top-level bureaucrats, all for a paltry sum of Rs 11 lakhs. A number of high-ranking officials were caught on spy-cameras discussing or accepting bribes (including Bangaru Laxman, the erstwhile President of a ruling national party) while others were seen demanding branded liquor or female escorts. The national media was in a tizzy, senior leaders like George Fernandez and Jaya Jaitley handed in resignations and for a while the government seemed to be tottering on the brink of a historic collapse. This post reproduces brief excerpts of an interview I conducted with Mathew Samuels (currently investigations editor, Tehelka) in which I try and map the emergence of the sting video in India and its proliferation post the Westend moment. I also interview leading investigative journalist Ashish Khetan (currently editor of Gulail and electoral candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party) to sketch out a techno-material history of the form as well as the key transformations in some of the conceptual issues surrounding it over the last two decade. Khetan conducted the well known undercover Tehelka sting (2006) around the Gujarat riots, and a host of well known undercover investigative stories during his stint as the investigations editor for Tehelka.

This post also contains excerpts of interviews conducted with post production technicians who routinely work on sting videos like video editors/graphic designers etc to outline common technical practices the ‘industry’ follows in carefully constructing and packaging sting operations.

Tehelka Sting - Bangaru Laxman
Credit: Firstpost

A central problematic in thinking through the concept of transparency (especially in the Indian context) is the question of corruption. While the existence of corrupt practices within the bureaucracy was fairly known and recognized, there wasn’t, before the undercover operation conducted by Mathew Samuels and Aniruddha Bahal, a stable ‘real’ image to pin to this commonly known ‘public secret’ [3]. The grainy image of Bangaru Laxman became iconic overnight, and Tehelka and sting operation suddenly became catchphrases symptomatic of a new emergent techno-political culture that expressed great faith in the capacity of new media technologies to exorcize corruption and introduce systemic transparency.

‘Incorruptible technology’: On the rise of the sting

Arguably one of the first full blown ‘Internet events’ in the country, Tehelka’s status as a website was an endemic factor in the way the sting was consumed at the time. In his description of the time, William Mazzarella claims that the widespread discourse around the advent of a hyper-efficient e-governance “attempted to synthesize a political language of transparency with a corporate managerial vision” and an corporatized, technocratic administration that was efficient and functionally incorruptible [6]. What was congealing rapidly, as Mazzarella and others have pointed out, was the understanding of information as a human right (ibid). Related to this new idea of right was a discourse around truth — the Internet was foundationally seen as a medium that revealed visibly the unsavory ‘truth’ behind traditionally veiled public institutions. Drawing from a Tarun Tejpal interview Mazzarella claims the Internet at that point in India was popularly perceived “as a corruption-exposing X-ray machine that was striking fear into the hearts of national leaders” [7]. Mazzarella’s contends that the video-clips of Operation Westend were informed heavily by the aggregation of these various intersecting discourses around the Internet.

But the interview with Mathew Samuels suggests that this link with corruption was even more endemic than Mazzarella’s speculations. Samuels conjectures that the issue of corruption was foundational to the rise of the first generation of sting journalists in India [8]:

“Most of us (most of his generation of sting journalists) witnessed corruption on an incredibly close ground day to day level. In the mid 90s I was a college dropout in Kerala. The rate of employment for the educated youth was absolutely abysmal. Most youngsters would join a political party out of nothing better to do (many of my generation drifted into RSS). I myself was actively involved in student politics. There was widespread anger at the state of affairs, your generation has still seen videos of petty bribes being given etc, for us there was no representation of corruption so pervasive in our everyday lives except in movies. As journalism aspirants we would be fascinated with Mossad, news about Mossad and its strategies, and would hungrily dig up whatever we could find of Bob Woodward’s work. Our primary reference points in India were Arun Shourie and the Bofors scam in Hindu. Investigative stories would barely get any space in newspapers in India. When Tehelka first came up it was very exciting – it had done one of the first undercover stories around the cricket fixing stories but everyone got exonerated! Stumbling upon the first strand of information around Westend was absolutely accidental, and quite fascinating really.

I was on a bus from Pune to Bombay, and I didn’t have a seat so I was standing. There was this other guy Anuj Madaani [9] who didn’t have a seat as well. We got quite friendly during the ride and once we got off at Bombay he offered that I came down to where I was staying for a drink. It’s during that conversation that he mentioned the high level of corruption in the CSD ordinance and that I should try and do a story of some sort on it. Aniruddha Bahal, who was my editor back then, had asked me to focus on a story on LTTE, so I started this arms dealing story as a hunch on my own, without him knowing. Soon after, Anuj and I went to South Block and met this local fixer, Susheel [10]. It took just one conversation for Susheel to offer us a number of documents including equipment the ordinance had/owned, what they required and how the procurements were usually made, in lieu of some amount of money. It was unbelievable how easy it was! He also promised to make us meet his boss Additional Director General, Procurements Amit Singhla who was incharge of the Ordinance [11]. Next day I went to my ATM and withdrew Rs. 2000 which Anuj and I gave Susheel. After receiving the cash, Susheel’s face started glowing and he immediately gave us all the documents! Such confidential documents, this easily! This was the first on-cam money transaction.

Bahal still didn’t know. The next day Susheel got more documents. We gave him Rs. 5000 and he took us to meet the Additional Director General at his home. After our conversation it was decided I was to finally pay 2 lacs, and I gave him an advance of Rs. 20,000. After receiving the amount he told Susheel to give me even more documents. The next day Susheel told us that the deal would work better if we arranged some women for the Additional Director General! This is when I told Aniruddha Bahal about this operation I was carrying out – he heard 4-6 tapes and got excited. He decided to put in Rs. 6,00,000 as an investment and we decided to make this an all out sting operation. We decided to form an artificial company. I lived in Janakpuri back then, when you cross Rao Tilla Rao Marg, there’s a road called Westend. That’s how randomly this fictitious arms deal company was named! We then chose HHTI – Handheld Thermal Imager, we had no idea if this sort of a device existed but we just saw something on the internet and decided on this fictitious project. We got the in-house Tehelka designer to put together a company brochure and a business card, and that’s all we were armed with when we went in for the deals. The only query they had for us after we gave them the brochures were what the magnifications of the device was. So I met a friend of mine who teaches at IIT, and asked him to imagine a product like this and think of fictitious dimensions for the device. We gave them these bogus measurements and it seemed to work for them! That’s the thing. Corruption was such a common and pervasive thing that people were not that reluctant to even talk about it. Corruption was transparent! All we had to do was put an image to what was a commonly known thing, and that in itself was scandalous enough. That’s how much the idea of transparency has changed, compare it to how weary bureaucrats are of any kinds of electronic devices today while speaking to strangers! By making some things more visible, you also push them towards invisibility.

‘If only the batteries lasted longer': The material history of the sting

Westend in a sense, fixed what images of truth were to look like.  The Bangaru Laxman image became something of a model for the ‘exposed-real’ for years to come: the blurriness, the slanted angle, the typography used for subtitling, the color tone etc. But the accounts of Ashish Khetan and Samuels nod not merely towards the extremely contingent physiognomic / hardware conditions responsible for this aesthetic but also how the content material might have been markedly different had the equipment used for the sting been different.

Samuels:

I had absolutely no idea even about the existence of such equipment when I joined Tehelka.  Anirudha Bahal had a friend working for UK express, who’d worked on some football fixing story there. That guy gave Aniruddha Bahal this camera – that’s what actually created the scope for the story. When I first met Bahal, he stung me, and later showed me the footage! Barely anyone would even be weary of someone recording what you were saying back then, let alone go out of his or her way to check if you were carrying covert cameras! I was at that point using a camera fitted into a tie for many of the stings. Other than that we also had a briefcase fitted with a camera. For most occasions it was never a problem, except once. Jaya Jaitley had heard from Ajay Jadeja, her son in law about the existence of briefcase camera (since Ajay had been on the receiving end of a spycam operation using the same technology by Tehelka). Jaitley had become weary of briefcases. Before the meeting I was told that I could not take any briefcase in the room. When I was sitting infront of her I did not keep the briefcase standing like I always did, since it could arouse suspicion. This was a double camera suitcase! There was one vertical camera for when the briefcase was kept upstanding and one horizontal camera on the back end for when it was laid down on the table.

Sting - Devices #01 Sting - Devices #02
Credit: (left) GadgetBuy; (right) SpyZone

Sting - Devices #03 Sting - Devices #05
Credit: (left) SpyCamStore; (right) Sabilla-News

Ashish Khetan also recounts instances when the hardware would become a major determining factor within stories, especially during his famous 2006 sting:

I was using medieval equipment. I wouldn’t even call them spycams, they were just your regular size handycams, that were fitted into satchels or bags! There was lots of soldering, large amounts of dangling loose wires that had to be rationalized and kept concealed. It was all very clumsy and dangerous… no just a regular handy-cam from Sony or some such company that would get locally assembled into a bag somewhere in Delhi. It was very rudimentary, very obtrusive during the operation and very fragile. Of course it dictated a large number of decisions during the recording. You see, you had to manually put your hand in to put the tape. These were not memory card fitted cameras, but but big bulky tapes which would have recording capacity of around 40 mins. So every time, it clocked 40 mins into the conversation, something had to be done to change the tape… so you see! We had to switch it on just before the proper meeting, so a lot of things that would be said in the lead-up to the main interview would get completely missed. On various occasion I had to cancel important scheduled meetings and prospective stings because the soldering of the wires would come undone. I would take the next train to Delhi, go to my local soldering guy and get it sorted and then head back.

There was one incident during the Zaheera Sheikh case, when ____ a popular local goon and henchman of _____ was with me in a car, with him in front and me and my assistant at the back. He started saying stuff which was very important suddenly and we were just missing it out. So after a while, I asked my assistant to open his newspaper wide in front of him so he could completely cover the rearview mirror’s angle. He did it and I quickly bent over and switched on the recording. But so much material could’ve been gotten if the technical conditions were different. The audio on the cameras was bad so it was crucial that I kept the bag very close to the face of the person, yet at the same time being careful that he didn’t see the mass of wires inside. All these technical conditions obviously heavily influenced what the image looked like as well as the kind of content we could access.

Samuel’s and Ashish’s struggles with the erstwhile technology hint at the instability of what the template of the real has been over the last decade. Khetan’s and Samuels accounts also nod towards how the whole narrative of when a sting conversation commences and what act becomes its central focus point was entirely predicated on technical assemblage available at their disposal at the time – Khetan repeatedly stresses that because of the limited recording space on the camcorder tapes, the actual sting would only begin during the meeting, or around the time of the monetary transaction. Had there been better digital memory available, what we understand as the standard image of the sting might have been vastly different. Certain kinds of framed bodies look guilty today. The act of holding money that is the physical gesture of actually touching currency became the harbinger of that which had to be rendered transparent. Transparency didn’t so much entail making transparent ideas, conversations, or practices, but of catching the instance of economic corruption in the act. The classic Indian sting image therefore hyper-focused on economic corruption, its only in the last 3-4 years years that stings that aim at exposing mindsets/attitudes have entered the fray (the recent Tehelka sting, which exposed the shockingly misogynistic attitudes of several officers in the Delhi Police, could only be done because the recording capacity made it possible for hours of mundane conversations to be recorded.)

Sting Video #01
Credit: India Today

From ‘breaking news’ to ‘isse viral kar do’: On the transformation of the sting

Samuels:

It changed the form of visual media in the country entirely. TRP’s grew instantly, viewership for news programs were soaring. The whole idea that news could be gripping, consumable entertainment first matured after Westend. I think it would be safe to claim that Westend had a large part to play in the rapid rise of the 24*7 news channel in India. Just have a look at the old news footage of NDTV etc before then and you will know exactly what I mean: new kinds of packaging suddenly started coming in. There was increased use of dramatic graphics, and interestingly behind-the-scenes – how clandestine story operations were prized out now became an interesting backstory to dissect. Every job interview for TV channels had a question about whether the applying journalist could ‘do a sting’. But most of the many stings that came up in the wake of Westend took shots at small fry – Besides the excellent work of Ashish Khetan in 2006, mostly others did petty bribes, sleaze stories, sex scandals etc, how the government had come after Tehelka and what they did to me was lesson enough for most journalists to not go after the BIG corruption stories high up in the government. The form of the sting caught on and became popular, but what kind of transparency it brought in vis-a-vis corruption in the corridors of power is debatable.

Sting Video #02
Credit: Outlook

Khetan:

I wouldn’t say the moment of the sting has come and gone. Of course there was a point when a flurry of stings came out from every second news channel that the general quality seemed to have plunged. Channels would run full stories on traffic cops accepting petty bribes etc, but Indian journalism hit an all time low during India TV’s sting on Shakti Kapoor. Sting videos were now primarily a source of titillation rather than political disclosure [12].  But still there are newer kinds of potentials that have also developed. Take the out-take for example, we see a number of exposes happening from footage culled out of pre-interview or post-interview conversations. Lets face it, the people we used to sting 5 years ago have become far far more weary. No politician now even has a stray conversation with a stranger let alone accepting money. Newer circuitous ways of taking money have been developed – fixers who cannot ever be connected to the politician now collect on their behalves. Our technologies of covert recording have also become infinitely better. Today we use cameras in shirts, calendars, books pen drives etc whose lens opening is the size of a pinhole, making it virtually indiscernible to anyone checking you – a few years ago I started getting custom made spycams designed specifically the situation I expected to be in. These have at most one very tiny neatly hidden wire, have long battery lives that go into hours and really good video/audio capacities. A crucial aspect of the sting now is to be able to hide the sting till one has finished post production and ready for the press release. Since emails and phones are very easy to tap, sending scripts, voice-overs, additional files, discussing them has to be an incredibly well concealed affair. Hiding a sting till its release is nearly as big a secret as the secret one is about to reveal!

I’m not as celebratory about this new moment of cell phones and hundreds of citizen videos that come out everyday. Look the strength in the video is not just in that one image it manages to visiblize but the larger structure its able to situate the image in. The strength of the sting will always be on excavating material that does not already exist and create long form stories from that. It rests on bringing to light something new into the world and make sense of it in a broader way, which is not something that chance encounters caught arbitrarily on a cell phone will be able to do.

Of course, we see a larger change happening now. Under AAP different kinds of people who’ve fought for transparency in their own respective fields have come together concertedly. Medha (Patkar), myself, various RTI activists, environmentalists, lawyers etc have fought against different layers of institutional opacity for years, and then we decided to come together to contest politically. Opacity can never be justified, and barring sensitive information where disclosure can foreseeably endanger innocent lives, transparency is always progressive.

Sting Cartoon

On the ‘foreign hand’ in digital data: The reliability of sting video as evidence

Khetan:

The one interesting question of course here is the question of evidence. People keep crying hoarse about how digital material is not reliable because it can be manipulated and meddled with easily. I think this is an entirely erroneous response to it. Veracity is easiest to catch in the digital domain – if someone has altered/edited or meddled with the footage in any way whatsoever it can very easily be traced. All digital alterations leave footprints. To my mind video evidence is as if not more accountable to oral accounts. Individual testimonies are weaker when it comes to proving veracity, according to me. Look at what happened with the police officer Sanjib Bhatt – it was one man’s word against a system, and ultimately it just didn’t hold. In contrast if you look at some of the legal fallouts of sting cases in the recent stories, you will see how they hold up far better in the court of Law. Laxman got prosecuted, the people involved in my 2006 expose got prosecuted – in fact the judge spent a whole chapter on my video material and corroborated it, NDTV’s sting on advocate Anand in the infamous BMW case also led to a conviction. So if you actually come to look at it, digital evidence has actually held up quite well in some legal cases recently.

Conversation with post-production personnel who’ve worked on a number of stings also yields interesting insights into the process of careful packaging of ‘truth’ by the use of myriad aesthetic and technical processes.

Ajitesh Tyagi (video editor) [13]:

A sting usually uses some staple pre-set templates. In order to heighten the effect of a sting a number of conscious editing decisions have to be taken. These include selection of sting footage, selection graphics plates that are to be used, music, changing of resolution, cut-points of shots etc. Take for example any sting video – if its about some bureaucrat in say, Lucknow; we’d first use stock images of official cars somewhere identifiable in Lucknow, the a graphic of a dark silhouette’s hand holding a briefcase on which stark text in block whites come. Then we cut to the actual sting footage, this cut point is very important to what I’m saying. We start from a jerky point where the people involved are sitting down or something like this… if the first few moments are shaky and inaudible it is good because is raises interest in the video and more importantly makes it clear that this is a real authentic video. We often put red circles to gesture and then play it in loop in the full package. It also makes sense to keep a ticking time-code of the handy-cam on the image. All of this creates an over all atmosphere that heightens the sense of intrigue and reality in any video. Sting video editing is an art that requires practice.

In the next post I will trace this new moment of citizen stings – myriad videos shot by regular citizens that have gone on to become media events unto themselves, especially in the context of social media and a political party like the Aam Aadmi Party which pegged its mandate around question of transparency.

References:


[1] This comment was made during the LASSnet conference in 2010 in a paper titled ‘The Secret and the Transparent after Media Modernity’ (Sundaram, Ravi. 2010. The Secret and the Transparent after Media Modernity. Lassnet Conference. Retrieved from http://pad.ma/AJI/info).

[2] For a detailed explanation of many of these trends see Sundaram [1] who gives a broad overview connecting these trends, and Anirban Gupta Nigam’s unpublished M.Phil. thesis which specifically looks at Aadhaar and particular instances of evidence revelation by the Aam Aadmi Party [3].

[3] Gupta-Nigam, Anirban. 2013. Forensic Imaginaries: Media as Image and Apparatus. M.Phil. Dissertation, Cinema Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[4] A number of commentators have connected Michael Taussig’s idea of the public truth in thinking through corruption. See Lawrence Liang’s ‘Naked Truth’ [5], Ravi Sundaram [1], and Anirban Gupta Nigam [3].

[5] Liang, Lawrence Liang. 2013. Naked Truths. The Caravan. Retrieved from http://www.caravanmagazine.in/periscope/naked-truths.

[6] Mazzarella, William. 2006. Internet X-Ray: E-Governance, Transparency, and the Politics of Immediation in India. Public Culture. P. 476.

[7] Ibid. P. 475.

[8] Some portions of the interviews have been paraphrased and shortened.

[9] Name changed.

[10] Name changed.

[11] Name changed.

[12] Lawrence Liang points to the strange affinity between watching pornographic MMS and sting videos revealing corruption. “There is almost something pornographic about them. In an important work on contemporary corruption, historian Ruth A Miller argues that the discourse of corruption has always been underwritten by an erotic charge. This is evident, for example, in the language used to describe the revelation of impropriety; we talk of “denuding someone”, “naked truth”, “pardaphaash karna” (to expose), etc. For Miller, one of the defining characteristics of the erotic is its disintegration of established boundaries. Such disintegration also characterizes the exposure of corruption, which often appears to be more compelling to us than the corruption itself” [5].

[13] Name changed.


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Published on: August 11, 2014


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