First Global, the brokerage promoted by Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra which had a 14.50 per cent stake in the webzine Tehelka, has scored a major victory with official documents reportedly showing that the firm had been harassed by market regulators on trumped-up charges, after the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was shamed by a Tehelka expose that caught the then BJP president taking a cash bribe on camera.
According to a story in Business Standard, official documents obtained from the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that First Global had no “advance knowledge” of the stock market crash of March 2001 that followed the Tehelka story.
Titled “Operation Westend“, the investigation by journalists Aniruddha Bahal and Matthew Samuel resulted in the resignation of the then BJP chief Bangaru Laxman, defence minister George Fernandes, and plenty of egg on the BJP’s face.
The expose resulted in a massive witchhunt against the webzine and its promoters although First Global did not attend the editorial or board meetings, wasn’t in the know of Operation Westend, and was in fact in the process of exiting its investment in Tehelka six months before the story aired.
Documents obtained under RTI show that the brokerage—the first Asian firm outside of Japan to become a member of the London Stock Exchange —had no role in hammering down the stock markets. In fact, it did not figure in the list of the top-50 sellers from mid-February to mid-March 2001, and was in fact a net buyer of Rs 37 crore in the period between the Union budget and the Tehelka expose, a fact not contested by SEBI.
But, because of its links to Tehelka, First Global was stripped off its registration; Shankar Sharma and his wife and partner Devina (a former Business India journalist) were arrested as they were about to board a flight to London (Shankar was arrested two more times); and hundreds of cases were lodged against the duo in an extraordinary act of political vendetta that eventually resulted in the closure of Tehelka before its resurrection as an offline magazine.
First Global, which “paid more taxes than companies like Proctor & Gamble, Ranbaxy, and Titan“, was also forced to shut shop. Worse, the promoters were served over 200 personal summons, raided 25 times, banned from trading, forbidden from travelling abroad, and their accounts frozen.
The assault on Tehelka resulting in its closure, was one of two standout cases of media harassment by the former BJP government, whose prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani was recently decorated by India’s leading English language broadcaster NDTV with a “lifetime achievement” award.
“Always in favour of anti-terrorism laws, he abolished Press Censorship and repealed anti-press legislation during his tenure in 1977-1979 as the I&B Minister,” read the citation. Advani is also credited for his Emergency era comment on the Indian press: “When you were only asked to bend, many of you chose to crawl.”
Photograph: courtesy rediff.com
Also read: The witch-hunt against First Global