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August 2, 2001

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T V R Shenoy

More important than Phoolan's murder

The killing of Phoolan Devi has led to several demands for a comprehensive investigation. I agree that the death of a Member of Parliament is a serious issue, particularly when the murder took place barely a kilometre away from Parliament House. Yet that is not the issue that is at the top of my mind right now.

There are three investigations in progress just now which are of far greater importance. Several important persons could be under fire as a result. More important, the investigations concern two respected and powerful institutions, the Supreme Court and the Union finance ministry, as well as a media organisation that has made the news as well as reported it -- Tehelka.

Let me begin with my brethren of the journalistic world. Tehelka's exposť brought down a defence minister and a president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and led to the Trinamul Congress leaving the National Democratic Alliance. It also led to a judicial commission looking into the whole mess. And therein lies a tale...

The commission has obtained the raw footage of the now famous Tehelka tapes. It comes to something over 80 hours, considerably more than the four hours or so that were shown on television. If I remember correctly, it was only Zee TV that ran even that; other channels were content to air just the highlights. Obviously, quite a bit was not shown, almost 80 per cent in fact.

It turns out that this 80 per cent, the chunks which never made it off the editing table, is very interesting indeed. There are, for instance, several references to the fact that George Fernandes cannot be approached with money. Yet the edited footage would give quite the contrary impression.

Speaking of money, I understand that the men who financed Tehelka are themselves an interesting lot. (The media group is worth about Rs 70 million.) They succeeded in making a huge profit in the stock market. So much so that the revenue-men believe they can get over Rs 1 billion by way of tax! How does one make money in a falling market? Well, that is precisely what the taxmen would like to know.

Since the revenue authorities have been mentioned, it seems the proper place to mention another institution in Delhi -- the Union ministry of finance. The question is: what did it know about the Unit Trust of India, and when did it know it?

The former chairman of the UTI has made certain allegations in an affidavit. He has said that he used to get telephone calls from the finance ministry and the prime minister's office as well as from a certain member of Parliament. This will be easy enough to prove -- STD calls as well as those made over a cellular phone are automatically logged. (I understand that several bureaucrats who had previously offered very creative reasons for being given a mobile phone are now much less enthusiastic!)

The Central Bureau of Investigation has a tough task ahead of it. The issue cannot be brushed under the carpet, given that it has been raised in Parliament. Those damning telephone logs will tell a tale. If there are too many of them, people will want to know what all those conversations were about.

Was someone in Delhi giving instructions to the UTI in Bombay? (Or, if 'instructions' is too strong a term, then how about 'suggestions'?) Or was anyone in Bombay telling the finance ministry exactly what the situation was with respect to potential losses? In either case, it would be slightly embarrassing, given that ministry officials have consistently denied they knew anything at all about the UTI operations.

Finally, there is the third investigation I mentioned. The one that concerns the Supreme Court itself. This is not a new inquiry, but one that has been, supposedly, on the active list for the past eight months. It is being conducted by the CBI on the orders of the Supreme Court itself.

The inquiry is about the provenance of a certain document, supposedly issued by the English Bar Council. A Supreme Court bench found that this piece of paper was not genuine, and instructed the CBI to look into its origin. The agency was also told to conduct the inquiry as expeditiously as possible given the persons concerned.

Despite this last admonition, the CBI has been unacceptably slow. As far as I can tell, the latest development is that it has sent a request to London, asking for permission to question the registrar of the bar council over there. Surely it did not take eight months to draft a simple letter!

These three cases are going to take up a lot of ink and paper in the newspapers in the days to come. The people -- and more importantly the organisations -- concerned are very influential indeed. I wait with interest to see how the CBI -- possibly other agencies too -- will handle them.

Trust me, if the murder of Phoolan Devi could open up a can of worms, these three could end up taking the lid off urns of worms!

T V R Shenoy

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