Janice Rodrigues| NT BUZZ
Going undercover in the lion’s den is not something every 26-year-old would dare to do! Yet, we have journalist Rana Ayyub who took on the guise of a student and literally shook the iron vault. Posing as American student Maithili Tyagi, Ayyub in eight months uncovered some of the well kept secrets of Gujarat’s fake encounter cases. The investigation was initially undertaken under the aegis of the Indian news and investigative magazine Tehelka, which was dropped later; after which Ayyub chose to quit the magazine and self published her findings in the form of a book ‘Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up’.
Rana Ayyub speaks about the book and more in this interview:
Q: Could you tell us something about the book and the story behind it?
It was a book that was never meant to be a book, and that’s how I like describing it. For me Gujarat Files is a journalistic investigation which could never see the light of the day at Tehelka. It was an eight month undercover operation in which I went around Gujarat posing as Maithili Tyagi, a student from the American film Institute Conservatory. I had with me a 20-year-old French colleague and I was just about 26. In a span of eight months we did a sting operation on some of the top guys in Gujarat including the home secretary to Modi, the DGP, the commissioner of police, an ex ATS chief, a serving ATS official amongst others. The last person I went to meet as Maithili Tyagi was Narendra Modi. I had one meeting with him, right after which Tehelka asked me to return. They took a decision in due course of time that they could not publish the explosive investigation citing political pressure. From then on I knew I had to fight a lonely battle. I had a contract with two publications both of which eased out around the time Modi assumed power as PM in 2014. Finally I decided to self publish the book. I had to pawn my gold ornaments, take a personal loan from my bank and publish the book. Today as I talk to you, the book has sold 70 thousand copies in ten languages and has been one of the biggest bestsellers of 2016.
Q: Can you tell us something about the experiences while undercover?
All I can tell you is that as an investigative journalist and editor I would never recommend any journalist to go undercover. The CBI had used my call records and internal notes published in Tehelka as evidence implicating politicians. And here I was in a 250 square feet room at the Nehru Foundation (Gujarat) wearing ash gray lenses, a fake American accent, socialising with the who’s who. And I could have been dead any moment. I was not in touch with anyone, not even my own family. I was isolated. There were times I would go in the bathroom and cry my heart out. I did not get my menstrual cycle for 8 months, had panic attacks; got addicted to sleeping pills. But I guess it was all worth it. If you are convinced that the cause is worth fighting for, if you think the issue is worth investigating and you have no other means, going undercover is the only option.
Q: How far do you think the involvement of bureaucrats and politicians is affecting the judicial system in our country, especially in the cases of crimes against humanity?
Well Amit Shah and Modi, two politicians who the cops and bureaucrats indicted in the book with incriminating statements are today the top guys at the helm of affairs. What else does it say about the criminal justice system in India? ‘Human rights’ in India has reached its nadir.
Q: Your bravado has been complimented; what were the precautions you took while undercover? Did you ever fear for your life?
I will be dishonest if I say that I did not fear for my life. But when I was undercover I guess I internalised it. But it converted into psychosomatic symptoms like insomnia, paranoia, anxiety disorder. Honestly there are days when people laud me for my bravado I want to hit back and say don’t call me brave. Do not pull the trigger from my shoulder. Where is the individual conscience of the people of this country who call me brave?
The only precaution I took while being undercover was I lived and breathed Maithili Tyagi. I was not Rana Ayyub.
Q: Did you ever feel guilty for using a fake identity, while collecting data that was of real people and real experiences?
I do. I think I am answerable to all ethical questions asked by people, considering we live in times when a sting operation is done on everyone, be it a vegetable vendor or the milkman to get TRP’s. Sting operation is unethical if it is used as an easy way out without any justification. For me personally a sting operation should be done only once you have exhausted every other means of investigation and the issue at hand is of grave public interest. I had exhausted every means of getting to the truth. I was compelled to do a sting on officials who had either developed amnesia or turned hostile before the CBI and SIT. The only option left before me was to go undercover and I think in my case I justified the use of secret recordings.
Q: The Outlook named your story about the Gujarat fake encounters as one of the twenty greatest magazine stories of all time across the world. Your thoughts on this.
It was a very uplifting moment for me. This was the investigation that I risked my life for it. And here was this story listed as 20 greatest magazine stories of all times across the world. It was thrilling to be in the same space as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Q: How do you look at the idea of big business houses claiming stake in media houses?
Well you have big media houses whose meetings and AGM’s are covered live on media houses they have stakes in. This is the new media.
Q: How independent is Indian media today?
Some sections of the Indian media are fairly independent but the line between fair and compromised media is blurring each day. My book was reviewed by every media house but not a single media house reported it despite telling me in private that it was explosive.
Q: What is your take on the current political scenario in India?
Well we have a government in power elected by a democratic process and we have do not have a single opposition. That’s the political scenario today.
(Rana Ayyub will be Goa for a reading and discussion of her ‘Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up’ at the Literati bookshop, Calangute, today, March 14 at 7 p.m. The programme is in collaboration with People Tree, Assagao. It is open to all. Call: 2277740)