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  • The truth is a tricky thing

    Posted On August 6, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    “How often do people tell you the truth?” I was asked the other day. My interlocutor was a young twenty year old sophomore from Jamia Millia. He was a guest on The Big Question, our tuesday night Doordarshan-One programme.

    “I imagine that TV anchors are always told the truth” he added answering his own question.

    “Why?” I asked. It did not seem half as obvious to me.

    “Oh, because you know what the truth is. So if the guy is lying you chaps can catch him out.”

    I wish that was so. But it isn’t. Of course anchors know how to judge what they’re being told. That’s not the problem. The problem is : ‘what is the truth?’ As often as not it’s neither simple nor necessarily straightforward.

    In fact the truth is a tricky thing. It can cut both ways. In a television interview one often thinks it lies with the person who talks the longest, the loudest or most forcefully. But sometimes that’s only how it seems. Appearances can be misleading and eloquence beguiling.

    My young interlocutor’s question would have passed unnoticed had it not been for the fact that unknowingly it touched upon my own personal embarrassment. At the core of that predicament was the question ‘what is the truth?’ and my belated realisation that perhaps I was not aware of the answer even though I thought it was on my side. In fact it wasn’t, or so at least it now seems.

    Barely a week earlier I had interviewed Amar Singh for BBC’s HARDtalk India. The interview was about the way his party has politicised Phoolan Devi’s death. Like most people I was convinced of the case. The newspapers and all the news channels had reported the facts extensively and I knew them like the back of my hand.

    The interview was a right royal ding-dong. But the bit I cannot forget concerned the arrangements made by the Samajwadi Party for Phoolan’s funeral.

    “Mr. Amar Singh” I had said, emphasising each syllable of his name to draw attention to the fact I was addressing him personally. “Her mother and her sister, in fact her family, pleaded publicly that it should be held in Delhi yet your party was determined to hold it in Mirzapur. Why?”

    To be honest, I paid little attention to his answer. Like all of you I too was convinced he had no reply. The funeral was held in Mirzapur because the Samajwadi Party wished to exploit the event for its own political purposes. But Amar Singh could not concede this and therefore whatever he said hardly mattered. His answer, I decided, was irrelevant. So, as soon as he finished I had my next trump up my sleeve and with a flourish revealed it.

    “And what did your leader Mulayam Singh say?” I asked but only rhetorically. “When it was pointed out to him that Phoolan Devi’s family wanted the funeral in Delhi he said : ‘Family? What family? The Samajwadi Party is her family.’ He actually put a political party above her blood relatives, above the people she cared for.”

    Again, I did not think his answer mattered although this time for the record I should add that he said Mulayam’s answer was not shown in full. It was edited. “But we all heard him say it?” I countered. “The whole country did.”

    As far as I was concerned that settled the matter. This little victory was mine. The truth, as I could see it, was on my side. If I could have I would have snorted with glee before changing subjects and choosing a new field of battle to charge on to.

    Three days later, ironically on the very day the interview was scheduled to be broadcast – by when, of course, I had forgotten all about it and turned my attention to other more pressing matters – I was reminded of this. But it wasn’t with a sense of triumph.

    “Have you seen the news?” Vishal Pant, the producer of HARDtalk, asked as he rushed into my office.


    “Because you’ll never believe what Phoolan’s sister Munni Devi has just told Star News.”

    I had no inclination of what to expect and, quite frankly, since the Amar Singh interview was not at the top of my mind I certainly did not link her comments to it. We switched on the box and waited. And then it happened.

    “Samajwadi Party hamara parivar hei ” she said as I stared in disbelief.

    “Jo pittaji chahte hein hum woh hi karenge” she added or words to that effect because I was by then a bit disconcerted. The wretched woman was proving me wrong even before the Amar Singh interview had been broadcast.

    “Who’s pittaji?” I asked clutching at straws.

    “Mulayam Singh, of course” Vishal answered. “And there’s more. She’s about to call Amar Singh her brother. Her rakhi brother.”

    Now whatever explanation you or I may have for this outcome – and there could be several – the fact that cannot be belied is that dear Munni had just turned what I thought of as the truth on its head. Worse, she’d snatched it from my hands and planted it squarely in Amar Singh’s. Both Vishal and I realised this which is why our shared but stunned silence communicated each other’s thoughts perfectly.

    We stayed like that for a while. Then he spoke. Munni’s inexplicable comments brought back memories I had completely forgotten.

    “Do you remember what Amar Singh said as he was leaving after the interview?”

    I didn’t but then I don’t think he expected me to. Vishal himself had only just remembered.

    “He said there were things he could have said which he did not because it would have been wrong to reveal them. Do you think he knew about Munni Devi’s changed feelings but could not say so? Was that what he was hinting at?”

    I don’t know. Nor, to be honest, does Vishal although I think he half believes his own fears. But what I do know is that the truth can be a tricky thing. It can change fast and sometimes comprehensively. On the assumption that Phoolan’s family meant what they said – and said publicly – I accused Amar Singh of politicising her funeral, of holding it in Mirzapur against her family’s wishes and of elevating a political party above her blood relatives. Now here was the same Munni Devi claiming that the Samajwadi Party was her family, that Mulayam Singh was pittaji and that she would do – and gladly at that – whatever he wanted.

    Heavens can truth change!

    I wasn’t wrong when I cross-questioned Amar Singh. But now it seems nor was he when he stood up to my questioning. It’s just that what I thought was the truth at the time has altered pretty significantly.

    Perhaps Munni Devi is to blame. After all, both versions came from her mouth or her mother’s. May be she should explain why she has changed her position so totally.

    But as a result of all this there is one answer I feel sure of. I now know how I should reply to my young interlocutor’s question : ‘How often do people tell you the truth?’

    The appropriate answer is : it depends upon what the truth is.

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