Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Preface: When there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan, Aroon Purie and Madhu Trehan – in a quest to bring real pictures to people – created Newstrack. Here, a small band of ambush journalists, led by Madhu Trehan, planted the first seeds of independent reporting.‘Newstrack’ eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today.
Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of self trained TV journalistswho experimented with ways to do investigative journalism at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates ‘the unexpected and the unusual’ in that journey.
How We Covered the Devastating Hooch Tragedy of 1991
The hooch tragedy, as mentioned in this story, happened on 5 November 1991.
The octagonal glass room where our editorial meetings were regularly held was packed to the gills – but almost everyone was either half asleep or still recovering form post Diwali celebrations. Ram, our favourite office boy, brought in the morning newspapers along with a tray full of coffee mugs.
Suddenly, we were jolted awake. The news had just come in – 200 people in Delhi had died on Diwali night after consuming illicit liquor. Most of them were labourers or rickshaw-pullers who’d consumed the liquor in the form of ‘sura’ or ‘karpoor asav’ – a so-called ayurvedic medicine.
At one word from my boss Madhu Trehan, I decided to investigate the story.
It was a strange case. 200 people had died, but no one seemed to know who was responsible for this tragedy! The police stated in its press briefing that the widespread deaths were due to adulteration of cheap methanol or paint raw stock in ethanol. There were no clues leading to who had really done this.
We decided to meet each victim’s family. We collected all the liquor bottles from their homes and studied the label on each bottle, finally tracking down the liquor unit whose address was most frequently mentioned on the labels.
By now, the authorities had sealed all ‘sura’ making factories. The suspect factory was deserted with no labourers or owner in sight – but its entrance had a big lock wrapped in white canvas tape, bearing the markings of an official red seal. How would we go inside and collect samples to establish that this indeed was the rogue factory that had produced the spurious killer liquor?
Just as we were about to turn back, I noticed that the damp plywood of a window had come undone and a couple of cats were slipping in and out. Well, if the cats could go in, so could the crew! We collected samples from the drums as well as the liquor cases lying around. We also took a series of incriminating shots and slipped out from the premises.
A lab report confirmed that this indeed was the culprit factory that had produced the poisoned hooch.
I also simultaneously realised that persistence does pay off.
Journalism – Like Romance – is Strictly for the Smitten
We dug out the names of the four partners and decided to confront them on camera. They were apparently cousins and lived as a joint family in Patel Nagar. We entered the house, only to be confronted by the stout and feisty ‘chaiji’ – the mother of the accused. As soon as we began to question her about their whereabouts, she pounced on the camera person Bharatraj and sunk her teeth into his wrists. She remained attached there, digging deeper, even as Bharat yelped in pain.
The cousins now emerged from their hiding place and began to push the sound engineer around. I ran outside to call for help. Miraculously, I found a police jeep stationed a few yards away. I rushed up to the cops – who were merrily munching on moohfali – and cried out, “Bhaiyya, kuch log hamere crew ko maar rahe hain – plz bachao! (Bhaiyya, some people are beating up my crew – please help)” I pleaded.
They switched on their engine, reversed the jeep and drove out of the narrow lane like a shot! I came back to the courtyard to collect my battered crew and learnt the second important lesson of reporting – criminals, scamsters and fraudsters you can tackle. But their mothers? They are ferocious. Don’t even try.
We reporters think that once the story is telecast our job is complete – but the stories come back to ask us for more.
In the aftermath of the 200 deaths, the government put up a special commission of enquiry under Justice Jagdish Chandra. All the accused and the liquor industry put up a battery of lawyers to prove that this incident was not a case of either adulteration or negligence. According to defence lawyers, this incident was due to some “unexplained chemical reaction – a freak incident” outside anyone’s control.
While the meek public prosecutor restricted himself to mumbling some legal jargon, the whole focus of defence was to prove that our report was mala fide, our interviews with victims were doctored and confessions of employees had been taken under duress. Faced with formidable charges, I first started giving long detailed answers to every accusation – till Justice Chandra calmly raised his head from the tall pile of papers, intently looked at me and said – “just say currect or incurrect madam”.
From there on, I continued to stoically say ‘incurrect’ for the next one year at every hearing. I learnt the third and perhaps the most important lesson of journalism. Aamir Khan’s film PK has a song ‘Love is a bhaste of time'; journalism – like romance – is strictly for the smitten. It’s not a job – it’s ishq. Do it only if the bug has bitten you.
The Jagdish Chandra Commission of Inquiry included this TVT story’s inputs as primary evidence against the accused.
The four accused were convicted by a sessions court in August 2000 after a nine-year-long trial. While Ashish Bhatnagar, Naresh Bharadwaj and Satpal Sethi were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment, Rajeev Sapra was sentenced to five years.
During the nine-year-long trial, 46 others were also accused for production, transportation and selling of sura. 41 of these accused persons were either discharged or acquitted; some of them also pleaded guilty, and were allowed to go after a fine.
(Nutan Manmohan has held assignments such as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flight’ got the ‘Wild Wing OBE’ award in UK. Her 26-part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)