Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub jolted the world by writing about the Indian government’s complicity in the atrocities committed during the Gujarat genocide of 2002.
Ayyub launched an eight-month long sting operation on the behest of Tehelka, a famous Indian news magazine known for investigative stories, by posing as Maithili Tyagi, a student of the American Film Institute Conservatory.
As Tyagi, she chronicled details regarding the tacit approval of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) high-ups in Gujarat including the then home minister of Gujarat and now national president of BJP Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat. Amit Shah was later arrested as a result of her investigation, making him the first ever home minister to go behind bars.
Ayyub stung bureaucrats and senior police officers in Gujarat between 2001 to 2010 and recorded their conversations with six cameras hidden around her body, exposing the complicity of the government in anti-Muslim riots as well as fake encounters.
She also authored the best-seller “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-up” that created ripples in India and raised many questions which hitherto remain unanswered.
Arguably one of the most abused journalists on Twitter, her bio introduces her as a “Journalist, writer, film buff. Rooted in Indian politics and social justice. Free, fair and fearless.”
The famous Indian magazine Outlook called her investigation in the Gujarat fake encounters as one of the 20 greatest magazine stories of all time across the world. Renowned Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra has admitted that many journalists have privately applauded Ayyub’s courage in authoring Gujarat Files while Ramchandra Guha has termed it ‘a brave book.’
Her book has already sold over 170,000 copies in a year, but Indian mainstream media has blacked it out and so seems to be compromised
Her book has already sold over 170,000 copies in a year, but Indian mainstream media has blacked it out and thus seems to be compromised. India’s higher judiciary has also turned a deaf ear to her book and not taken any suo motu notice so far, even though the book’s foreword has been written by the retired Indian Supreme Court judge, Justice (R) B N Srikrishna, who headed the famous Srikrishna Commission on the Bombay riots of 1992-3.
All this has not deterred Ayyub from pursuing what she calls digging out the truth on the Gujarat tragedy. Recently she visited Canada and spared time for an exclusive interview for Narratives.
First of all tell us a little about your background?
Rana Ayyub: I was born in Azam Garh, Uttar Pradesh, but raised in Mumbai. So I am a Mumbai girl. My father was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (Taraqqi Pasand Tehreek), who migrated from Azam Garh to Mumbai. He was a journalist and had written nine books. We were acquainted with intellectuals such as Kaifi Azmi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz from childhood, and they developed my passion for writing and journalism. I did try to opt for sciences during early school but pathetic grades made me quit. My genes dictated my career thereafter and journalism became my destiny.
What motivated you to undertake such a dangerous sting operation which could have jeopardised not just your career but even your life?
RA: I was 26 back in 2010 when I was working for Tehelka. My extensive investigation resulted in a high profile arrest of Amit Shah, who is currently the national president of BJP. It was the biggest scoop of the year and won the highest journalism award that year.
But when he was sent to jail, I realised it was just the tip of the iceberg and I needed to investigate more. Amit Shah was sent to jail because of extrajudicial murders and fake encounters. A lot of people, both Hindus and Muslims were killed in fake encounters. They were wrongly labelled as either Naxalites or working on the behest of Pakistan’s ISI who were in Gujarat to kill Narendra Modi.
It was proved later that they were innocent. Despite Amit Shah’s arrest, the whole truth was still evasive. An investigation committee was set up but it never accused Modi, who later claimed to have gotten a clean chit. The fact is, he was never even accused by the committee, so there was no question of getting the clean chit. Then there was a very high profile murder of Haren Pandya, who was one of Modi’s rivals.
Much was written about that murder but again the truth remained elusive. At that moment I thought I should investigate this mystery especially when the all-powerful Amit Shah was behind bars and people might come out and talk about it. Now the biggest problem was how could a journalist from Tehelka, which was known for its sting operations and hidden cameras, make such an investigation.
So I was left with no other option but to go under-cover, change my identity and launch the sting operation, although I was personally against sting operations especially for petty news stories. I believe a sting operation has to be launched as a last resort when there is no other way left to investigate an important story. Sting operations are admissible in the court under the Indian Evidence Act though.
So I decided to disguise myself as an American filmmaker who had roots in India, hated minorities especially Muslims, who is liberal and whose father is a Sanskrit teacher. I posed as a pracharak (regional missionary) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with a fake English accent, and whose name was Maithili Tyagi. I surrounded myself with couple of foreign interns including a 19-year-old French boy, to get easy access, which is a norm in India. I bought a Kashmiri kurta and fixed one camera in it, I had a camera in my watch, in my diary, in my shoes; around five to six cameras around my body.
Your family’s reaction?
RA: No, I did not tell my family anything. Only two senior editors of Tehelka knew about this operation. So first of all I befriended filmmakers in Gujarat, worked with them, and to avoid any suspicion managed different shoots on forests, lifestyle and museums in the city.
When comfortable, I told those filmmakers I wanted to interview different achievers of Gujarat especially those from the lower caste and OBC (Other Backward Class is a collective term used by the Government of India to classify castes which are socially and educationally disadvantaged), because some of these OBC officers were involved in Ishrat Jahan’s murder, a 19-year-old Muslim. So one meeting led to another and finally, I reached Narendra Modi. This sting operation continued for eight months.
I think they never expected that I would go that far and do the sting on Modi as well. It was beyond their expectations
How did you choose the name Maithili Tyagi?
RA: I must confess that being a film buff did help me immensely. I love watching Hindi films and one of the films that I remembered seeing at that point was Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja. I had managed to watch it on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai. The strong female characters were played by Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala. Koirala played a character called Maithili, who explored the lives of Indian women and caste and gender-based suppression.
Maithili was also the name of Sita, wife of Lord Ram. The name resonated with me. When I found myself looking for a second name, which was common and without the snob value of some surnames, indicating neither Brahmin nor Dalit status, “Maithili Tyagi” was born. My visiting card read Maithili Tyagi, Independent Filmmaker, American Film Institute Conservatory.
Did you stay at some hotel?
RA: No I didn’t. I stayed at Nehru Foundation hostel. I immediately procured a SIM card in the name of Maithili Tyagi and was surprised at the ease of getting one with the documents arranged by my alleged ‘guardian family’ in Ahmedabad. The investigation was to take a long time. Neither I nor my organisation could afford the luxury of accommodating me in a plush hotel.
Also, I was playing the role of a struggling filmmaker who had limited financial support. Accommodation for someone like that could be arranged only by a local. This time help came from an artist friend who was well-connected in the literary and cultural circles in Ahmedabad. He was kind enough not to ask too many questions.
How many interviews did you do during your stay in Gujarat?
RA: I interviewed almost 10 people during this sting operation but I met them almost 10 to 15 times each. Initially I used to talk to them only about their achievements, got to know them, established personal rapport and eventually became part of their families so they felt comfortable.
Don’t you think this sting operation was a betrayal to those who you stung?
RA: Absolutely, it was! For me it was a moral dilemma as well. Especially when I recall the home secretary Ashok Narayan’s wife cooking “vegetables with Paneer” for me; or another female minister who used to rub oil in my hair, I felt really bad. But then there was a larger issue at hand. When all the inquiry commissions interrogated these officers, they simply said they didn’t know anything. That was spineless and that thought justified my sting operation.
Are there any confessions in these tapes?
RA: Yes, there are. For instance, G L Singhal, a senior police officer in Gujarat, said on tape that when he “did the encounter of” Ishrat Jahan, he didn’t even know who she was. Ashok Narayan, home secretary, said that chief minister Modi freed police officers from jail who had killed Muslims. Police Commissioner P C Panday said, Muslims “beat us twice we beat them once and we liked that.” There are many such confessions which prove the complicity of the Modi administration.
So what are you demanding now?
RA: I want the inquiry started. I am willing to give these tapes for forensic analysis. The media can criticise me but at least they should write about this huge story.
Why did Tehelka stop you from going further on the story and backed out?
RA: I think they never expected that I would go that far and do the sting on Modi as well. It was beyond their expectations. By that time I had already met with Modi along with my French friend. He was very forthcoming and friendly with us and told us that he was fond of President Obama. He also showed us around, especially his library and invited us to lunch the following Sunday. At this juncture, I called my editor from a PCO and he asked me to come back to Delhi. I went back excited that my editors would be happy to see my progress. But to my utter surprise, they asked me to stop the operation immediately. I was flabbergasted.
When did you decide to write a book?
RA: My organisation had been dillydallying for over a year and did not want to publish my story. In 2013 I resigned from Tehelka in protest over my friend’s molestation. Then I went to all the important editors of the country to publish my work and each one of them looked disinterested as the 2014 elections were around the corner and everyone knew Modi was coming to power.
At that moment I decided to write a book instead. But who will publish it was the biggest question. I went to all the major publishers, but they refused too. Then I decided to self-publish it. I managed every step on my own starting from graphics, distribution, and even the launch, which to my surprise was a jam-packed event. Every important editor and journalist of the country was there. I thought it was a big success and I’ll have a huge press the next day but all the media was quiet about it, except for some websites.
What was the reaction from the regional media?
RA: The regional media really supported me, especially the media in Kerala and Punjab. But despite a general media blackout, my book became a best seller on Amazon. It has sold 170,000 copies and been translated into 12 languages. It has also been nominated for an award for one of the top ten investigative books ever.
Are you facing pressure from the Modi government now and did you have to go through psychological or physical trauma during this taxing and arduous journey?
RA: I started having anxiety attacks in 2011 when they refused to publish my work. During my eight-month long stay in Gujarat, there was fear in my mind which I never revealed but it started manifesting in many things, for instance I used to wake up in the middle of the night and start crying, while on the flight I used to fear the aircraft was going to crash. I consulted a psychiatrist and went through the treatment for years. My brain still freezes sometimes whenever I speak about Maithili Tyagi.
Why did only Rana Ayyub come to these conclusions, why not the rest of the Indian media? Was the whole Indian media compromised as far as the Gujarat tragedy was concerned?
RA: Some of them did support me and published my excerpts, but reluctantly. They should have published my work even with a caveat or criticism. They could have challenged my story, my means or my conclusions. If I was wrong, at least one of the ten people I stung could have taken me to the court but nobody did.
So why are they keeping quiet? Did they want to ban your book?
RA: No they are trying to kill it by silence as they very well know if they ban it or react to it, it will open up a Pandora’s box.
Do you think due to the huge losses, the Indian media particularly the electronic media is compromised as the Modi government has billions to spend on the media?
RA: Right now most of the media houses in India are being run by corporate companies and they would do whatever it takes to be successful. For instance, the government made income tax cases against NDTV and threatened to close it down for one day. This was a signal to the media to behave or face the consequences. Journalists generally are scared now.
I am very optimistic that one day people will reach the truth and the culprits will be taken care of
If nothing happens, no court takes notice or invites you for your version of the story, what happens next?
RA: Ideally the Supreme Court should have taken suo motu action, called me to the court, challenged my means and results of the sting operation. After all I had a fake ID and I entered the chief minister’s office with a fake identity. They should have made a case against me but nothing happened. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence. So I think some people from the judiciary have also been compromised. But I am very optimistic that one day people will reach the truth and the culprits will be taken care of.
You interviewed Amitabh Bachchan once but it was cut short and you were disappointed?
RA: In 2007, Bachchan sahib gave me a half hour slot to interview him on a film set. We had done two interviews earlier, both pertaining to his films and his national award, and he found it comfortable to talk to me. I had great respect for him, as an actor, as a son and an orator par excellence. But from that day to this day, Amitabh Bachchan for me is an individual, an alleged icon beyond redemption.
For an interview that was to last 30 minutes, it was wrapped in five minutes to be precise, mostly with his silence. For a man who thought I was a good journalist, my questions on Bofors, Gandhis, the attack by Raj Thackeray on his family, on Modi were treated with a cold stare. He did not utter a word. Signaling his assistant to wrap it up. He left, without saying a word to me. The Amitabh Bachchan I so revered continues to cut a sorry figure.
My dear friend Hartosh Singh Bal wrote an excellent cover on him a few years ago titled ‘Amitabh Bachchan, A Man Without Convictions’. He cuts a sorry figure today when despite being named in the Panama papers he tells us about the virtues of GST, cleaning our backyard for Swachh Bharat and coloring the communal landscape of Gujarat with his endorsement. I lost my hero that day.
As a journalist it was my worst ever interview and I am convinced should there ever be a change of government at the center or in Gujarat, Amitabh will continue to be the ambassador for that government and endorse all that was wrong with it. But then Amitabh is a cult, right? So don’t question him. Worship the false god.
Final question, are you working on other projects as well?
RA: Yes I am working on a book regarding Muslims in India. What it means to be a political Muslim in India? Also, I am planning to write a book on the corporate sector in India and role of black money in the country.