In 2010, the journalist Rana Ayyub spent eight months undercover in Gujarat. Ayyub, who was then working for Tehelka magazine, posed as a filmmaker. She met bureaucrats and senior police officials in Gujarat who held pivotal positions in the state between 2001 and 2010. The transcripts of the sting operation, unpublished so far, form the core of her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. The self-published book narrates what the officials revealed about the complicity of the state machinery in the anti-Muslim violence in 2002, as well as in “encounters” such as the one that resulted in the killing of Ishrat Jehan, and the murder of the state home minister Haren Pandya, events that accompanied the consolidation of power in Gujarat by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
In the following excerpt from the book, Ayyub recounts the aftermath of a crucial exposé, and what led her to adopting an undercover identity.
With able help from human rights activists and officers who provided me with evidence, I made one of the most sensational exposés of 2010. These were the call records of the then Minister of State for Home Affairs, Amit Shah, and top officers during the course of encounters. Accompanying the call records was a damning internal Official Secrets Act note. The minister’s activity was being monitored by the state CID and the note alleged that the encounter was a sinister plot to kill innocents and label them terrorists.
The exposé created ripples in the political fraternity. Phone calls from the CBI poured in asking Tehelka to hand them those records which were later placed before the Supreme Court. I continued to stay at Hotel Ambassador in Ahmedabad, which by now had become my second home. Located in the predominantly Muslim locality of Khanpur, this was a rather unassuming place for me to stay at. I would discover later that the state BJP office was only blocks away. I was suddenly in the public eye. BJP leaders spoke about a certain young chap called Ayyub who had made the disclosure. For some reason the idea of a female investigative journalist had not crossed their minds. I was not complaining, it only allowed me to go about my work discreetly. But this did not last long. A few days into the exposé, my phone received a text from an unknown number which read, “We know where you are.”
Life had indeed changed; from that day on I changed my accommodation every third day, from the IIM campus in Ahmedabad to guesthouses, hostels, and gymkhanas. I had begun to operate like a fugitive. By this time, landlines had replaced mobile phone communication for me. Finally having provided all the evidence I could dig up to the CBI and writing my follow-up reports, I landed in Mumbai and decided to get back to some semblance of routine.
But destiny had other plans for me. Within weeks of the exposé, the CBI arrested Amit Shah, the first serving Home Minister in the history of independent India to be arrested. It became an overnight sensation. Most of the national media parked itself outside the CBI headquarters in Gandhinagar. As expected I had to return to Gujarat and report on the developments that followed the sensational arrest.
Shah’s arrest gave a new lease of life to those police officers who had been discriminated against during his reign. Officers sent feelers to me at this time saying that they wanted to talk. Many who had earlier avoided journalists now gathered the strength to speak. While most conversations were off the record, it was clear that the encounters were only the tip of the iceberg. There was something more sinister that had been buried in the files of various cases in Gujarat. None of us were anywhere close to the truth. There was an indication that over the last decade there had been subversion of the judicial process. Those who were supposed to safeguard the lives of people had been bought over. From the riots to encounters to political assassinations, many an inconvenient truth was waiting to come out. But how could one prove any of it?
The basic rule of journalism was evidence and I had none. There were only conversations and anecdotes, off-the-record confessions. How was I to prove it all? It was then that I made the decision that would change my life, professionally and personally.
An elaborate mail to my seniors and an encouraging response from them to probe deeper was enough to set me thinking. Close to three months in Gujarat and the circumstances under which I had met those willing to help me with information was indication enough for me that the road ahead was tough. To cull the truth from individuals who were in a position of power and had chosen to seal the truth within themselves was not going to be easy. My colleague at work Ashish Khetan had made chilling revelations in his exposé in which he had stung the likes of Babu Bajrangi and other local BJP and VHP leaders as they mouthed a cold-blooded narrative of the riots in 2002. But I was not up against the rioters who would speak of their bravado at the slightest ego boost. I was dealing with seasoned, senior IPS officers many of whom had had successful stints with RAW and I&B.
These were thick-skinned diplomats; to get them talking would require the skills of an able and astute investigator armed with power and authority. I did not qualify on any of these counts. Besides the planning, the execution too had been left entirely to me. I was aware that I could not take a junior from my office for that would only mean added risk. It was made clear to me that my editors would monitor my work but everything else had to be my responsibility. Every time I sent in a transcript I would get encouraging responses from both Shoma and Tarun with phrases like “excellent, keep at it” or “stunning revelation.” While it encouraged me to probe further, the truth was that I was a lone soldier on the field. I had to look after myself and ensure that the investigation yielded honest, fact-based results.
There were people who knew the truth and had chosen to live with it, going about life as if this incident, the cold political bloodbath that had taken place in 2002 was not a part of their career. As a journalist with an investigative organisation like Tehelka, I knew every door that could have offered some help was closed to me. The only way out before me was what every journalist in the pursuit of truth uses as a last resort. Go undercover. I was all of 26, a girl, a Muslim girl at that. I have never been conscious of my identity, but when it came to a state polarised on religious lines, these considerations were to be considered judiciously. My family was to be told about it, who would I be? Would I be able to pull it off without help?
The fact that I had attended a well-known mass communications course came handy at this time. Among my classmates were aspiring actors who had carved a niche for themselves in the film industry. Actor Richa Chaddha who was my classmate and now one of the finest heroines recently mentioned in an interview that she chose my career graph and experiences as a journalist to prepare for a film that had her play the role of a reporter. That “long time no see” call was made to another actor friend I considered myself closest to. With my friend’s help, I fixed an appointment with her make-up man. The next day I was sipping chai at a suburban Mumbai studio learning the technicalities of getting myself the right wig. The make-up artist, who turned out to be a veteran, helped me with some of the ones he had stocked. The wigs made me look different, but something felt cosmetic and out of place. The wig makeover had been a non-starter.
I thought a better idea would be to focus on changing my identity altogether. As luck would have it, I found an email on a group ID that I was a part of with my ex-classmates from a colleague who had joined the prestigious American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. It felt like an Eureka moment. This was to be my identity. A filmmaker from America in Gujarat to make some sort of film. The idea was ambitious, but the possibility of it working was within the realm of possibility.
I spent the next few days studying the work of the conservatory, its alumni, the films it had made and doing research on the kind of films that had been made about Gujarat, and the subject they had most focused on. Finally, I decided to keep the subject of the film open-ended depending on the kind of reception I received from the characters I would meet in the story which had no script. I had to have a name. One which was warm, conservative and yet strong in what it had to convey.
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 in the film were its USP, backed by powerpacked performances by its lead, including Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala. In the film, 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 had a resonance that had stayed 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.
This is an excerpt from Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, self published by Rana Ayyub.
Rana Ayyub has previously worked for Tehelka magazine, and is now an independent columnist with NDTV and Outlook magazine.