For years, Indian journalists have used their work to call the government and corporate firms to account for wrongdoing, illegal practices and corruption, often sparking public outcry and reform.
Today, some are well known across the country. Others are remembered only in the states where they lived.
But all of them, undoubtedly, serve as inspiring reminders of why diligent investigative journalism is immensely valuable — in what it can do for ordinary folks, for society and the field of professional journalism (that often seems to be wield influence without responsibility).
Listed here are five noteworthy moments in Indian investigative journalism that highlight the positive power of the press.
1. The Hindu’s Bofors Expose
The Bofors scandal that broke in 1987 marked a watershed for India — it was the first time corruption became an intensely public and political issue. The scandal was uncovered mostly by the Chennai-headquartered The Hindu and reported by Chitra Subramaniam-Duella and N. Ram. Almost 200 documents relating to Bofors were secretly sourced, verified and translated from the Swedish language before being published along with interviews and analytical pieces.
2. Tehelka’s Defence Deals Expose
Even as the nation was trying to find its feet after being knocked off balance by the massive Bhuj earthquake, on March 13, 2001, Tehelka published an investigative report that ripped the lid off the murky world of defence deals.
Carried out using hidden cameras, the investigation (called Operation West End) publicized secret videotapes of top politicians, bureaucrats and military official accepting bribes from two reporters (who posed as arms agents). The resulting furore created a major political storm and led to the resignation of those indicted by the videotapes. Interestingly, the same year, Tehelka also blew the lid of the explosive match-fixing scandal in Indian cricket.
3. Indian Express’s Cement Scam Expose
On the morning of August 31, 1981, readers of the Indian Express woke up to find a meticulously-researched expose on corruption in the grant of government cement quotas, complemented by supporting evidence and a blistering analysis that ran into 7,500 words. The swift, bold and bloodless journalistic coup has since come to be known as India’s Watergate – or the Cement scandal.
Almost overnight Arun Shourie, the then-executive editor of the Indian Express, became a national “hero” for his consciously studied and fearlessly pursued investigation of organised corruption in high places. In fact, it was after this incident that the irrepressibly buoyant MP Piloo Mody famously remarked, “Can you imagine the improved state of the nation if we had 10 Arun Shouries working instead of one?
4. Indian Express’s Human Trafficking Expose
The name Ashwini Sarin is not very famous, but in the world of media, he is known as the man who showed how investigative journalism can further the cause of democracy. His sharp and penetrating investigative articles exposed the family planning atrocities during the Emergency, the multi-crore defence vehicle disposal racket and the torture of Tihar Jail inmates.
However, the Indian Express reporter is best known for his incisive report on human trafficking that created a whole discourse around flesh trade, controversial as it may have been. In 1981, he exposed the sordid racket by breaking the law himself (when he bought a tribal girl named Kamala) and show how easy it was to buy humans in India. His work also inspired the movie and play named ‘Kamala‘.
5. Open Magazine’s Nira Radia Tapes
In November 2010, Open magazine carried the transcripts of telephone conversations between Nira Radia (a political lobbyist cum PR honcho) and politicians, industrialists, officers of corporate houses and senior journalists. The tapes — wire-tapped by the Income Tax department on a tip-off by the Central Board of Direct Taxes — shone a harsh light on the murky manipulations that take place at the highest levels in the country to manoeuvre government formation, influence public opinion, and cater to corporate interests.
Outlook magazine followed with a similar story just days later while the infamous audio recordings were submitted to the Supreme Court by advocate Prashant Bhushan as part of a PIL on the 2G spectrum scam.
One of the fallouts of this story was that the indicted corporates group terminated all commercial engagement with the Outlook Group but the magazine’s undaunted editor (Vinod Mehta) stood his ground.
Furthermore, the story of investigative journalism in India would be incomplete without mentioning the important role played by alternative media like CG Net Swara of Chhattisgarh. Founded in 2010 by Shubhranshu Choudhary, CG Net Swara helps poor villagers fight exploitation and oppression by local authorities.
For instance, one when the circle officer refused to pay them for work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (and even shouted at them for coming so often), the officer’s harsh rebuke was recorded and published on India’s first mobile community radio. After this attracted the attention of mainstream media, government took action against the errant officer.
Hard-hitting and honest, journalistic initiatives like these are why the press is called the fourth pillar of democracy.
Read More About CG Net Swara Here: This Man Grew up Among the Adivasis. Today, He Is Changing Their World with Mobile Phones.