The truth of the tapes

Print edition : October 27, 2001

GEORGE FERNANDES' impatience to return to the Defence Ministry should be seen in the context of the Venkataswami Commission's October 12 order regarding the veracity of the Tehelka tapes. Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Bangaru Laxman and others who received notices from the commission claimed that the unedited tapes submitted to the commission by tehelka.com were doctored or manipulated. However, it appears that they wanted to delay the commission's order on this charge so that Fernandes' reinduction into the Cabinet was not marred by any adverse decision. But their hopes were belied when the commission issued a 22-page order upholding the veracity of the tapes, after giving opportunities to all those who were summoned to produce their witnesses or experts to be examined.

The first indication that the Vajpayee government was preparing the ground for Fernandes' re-entry was available on October 8 when it filed an affidavit before the commission, shifting to some extent its stand on the veracity of the tapes. The government first reiterated its stand that it did not wish to examine anybody on the veracity of the tapes. However, it demanded that the commission refer the tapes to experts in the interest of justice and to clear the uncertainty on their genuineness. The order said: "This slight but significant change in the stand of Union of India is rather curious especially considering that it had proceeded with inquiries of the Defence personnel and others based on these very tapes themselves... The authorities conducting the inquiry apart from not questioning the veracity of the tapes had also negatived the contention of parties before them regarding the veracity of the tapes. The stand taken by Union of India at the present juncture seems to be inappropriate and unsustainable in law and on facts."

The commission noted in its order that none of the persons who have received its notices has seriously challenged or questioned their presence as such in the tapes. Nor was it their case that their figures had been interpolated, it said. The gravamen of their charge was directed more against the actual wordings in the transcripts, highlighting certain deletions or glaring mistakes. Even certain discrepancies in the actual words spoken by some of them in the tapes and highlighted by the experts who appeared before the commission would not in any manner affect the main visuals, it said.

The commission agreed with Shanthi Bhushan, counsel for tehelka.com, that no prima facie case had been made against the genuineness of the tapes either by way of evidence or otherwise and said that the mere possibility of the tapes not being genuine would not be sufficient grounds to doubt their veracity. Shanthi Bhushan's contention that none of those who had received notices attributed any motive to the alleged doctoring of the tapes was well-founded, it said.

The commission held that it was inappropriate at this juncture to refer the unedited tapes in its custody to a panel of experts, especially in the absence of any material to challenge tehelka.com's claim that they are camera originals.

Tehelka.com has conceded in its affidavit that the work of transcribing nearly 100 hours of tapes has been fraught with many difficulties and that inaccuracies have occurred owing to the paucity of time and the sheer volume of the work. Shanthi Bhushan stated that if the persons who had received notices were able to point out any inaccuracies satisfactorily, the benefit of the doubt would go to them. He said: "But this would not in any way entitle them to question the veracity of the tapes themselves."

Shanthi Bhushan pointed out that none of those whom the Tehelka team had met had disputed their participation in the "negotiations" and even acceptance of money and other gifts but tried to rely on certain mistakes in the transcripts, which would not in any manner devalue or defeat the main thrust of the tapes - which was to expose the extent of corruption in the Ministry of Defence in connection with the procurement of weapons and equipment for the Army.

The commission agreed with the opinions given by two expert-witnesses - Pradip Krishen and M. Umashankar - produced by tehelka.com. The commission did not find the testimony of Milind Kapoor, an expert produced by Jaya Jaitly, convincing enough.

In its order, the commission noted that a novel written by Pradip Krishen's wife Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) was published by IndiaInk, of which Tehelka's chief executive officer Tarun Tejpal was a co-founder. The commission's counsel Gopal Subramanian argued that although Pradip Krishen's testimony was liable to be viewed with caution in the light of this fact, it was not sufficient cause to disregard his evidence, which was consistent and solid. Pradip Krishen told Frontline: "Tarun Tejpal was a minority shareholder in IndiaInk. He is no longer a director. In any case, I don't have any obligation to do him a favour by this testimony. There is no economic link between tehelka.com and IndiaInk. It is a very absurd suspicion of bias to be entertained."

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