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Chitra Subramaniam - Gutsy Woman who exposed the Bofors scandal

Chitra Subramaniam with her childrenOn April 17, 1987 the first story on the hank-panky happenings of the Bofors gun deal came in through the wires of Swiss National Radio. She was then in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Not too long thereafter, as Nikhil's umbilical chord was being cut, the boom of the Bofors Scandal that smeared across newspaper headlines drowned his wailing perhaps. An hour later, instead of rocking his cradle she was on the phone. The story had broken. And as Nikhil cuddled in the warmth of his mother's arms, all of India had awoken to a rude shock. As document after document surfaced, the Bofors scandal meticulously exposed the greasy palms of the very people they had admired. "The breath of fresh air" that was Rajiv Gandhi, the then Indian Prime Minister, stood staring at a colossal arms deal scam and the fingers point just one way - towards him.

And all because one very gutsy woman had made it her business to find the truth while others did all they could to hide it. All because " I'm curious by nature and won't give up" says Chitra Subramaniam. "I was then with The Hindu, based in Geneva when the first bit of news came through on Swiss Radio about some pay-offs and my editor asked me to follow it up. I asked the right sort of questions, I suppose, and one thing led to another. The more I found out the more there was to find out," narrates Chitra, a Masters in Journalism from Stanford University, California.

The Bofors expose was undoubtedly a masterpiece in investigative journalism and Chitra found herself in the same league as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal that caused many heads to roll including that of the then US President, Richard Nixon. Like the two American reporters, Chitra did what she did because of a deep-rooted love for her country. "I felt cheated," she says, " and in the beginning I believed that Rajiv Gandhi was honest." For nearly a year as facts began to emerge, the heat was getting to those who were involved. Political pressure mounted on The Hindu to stop publication of the story further and it surprised Chitra that they did. Surprised because till then they had stood by her. "And when they did, I had 42 newspapers wanting to carry my story. I finally went to The Indian Express, because historically, that's paper that's stands up. During the Emergency, all the Indian papers buckled. The Statesman and the Express stood up," says Chitra referring to the Express as "A crusading paper". She also places Indian journalists pretty high up the order - "among the best in the world".

Did she receive a call from Rajiv Gandhi? "No, not him. But from someone very, very close. I got lots of visitors - no names, please - and they did everything to hide the truth," as she recounts those days. There were threats in plenty, offers of money and the only time she did get scared was her baby son was threatened. But she didn't relent. She told her sources, "If you are not helping me, then you are helping the cheats." Documents kept landing up everyday. Today, all her sources are her good friends.

Chitra could have stopped going any further if she wanted to. She had enough reasons to do so. After all, there were threats to her and her family's life. Then there was loads of money on offer. She didn't. Because she firmly believes that India is a great country and can be world class. Her sentiments and views are expressed in her second book (the first was on Bofors) called "India Is For Sale". She says, "I wrote that book because I was very angry. Angry at where we should be and where we are. We are 50 years old and we are whining like an 18-year old. Why don't we stop this long whine and show the world how good we are? Nobody lets India down more than Indians." Touché. Having said that, she needs to go across to where she was born and spent 15 years of her childhood and sharpen her investigative skills - Bihar. Lot's of Aloos and Samosas out there need frying.

At the behest of the Norwegian Prime Minister, since the last 2 years Chitra is with the World Health Organisation working on their most important campaign - Anti-Tobacco. "We want to compete with the best. Against the tobacco companies because we want to bring the death toll down. Not by whining, but by showing the world that we can do it. And we'll get there." After Bofors, Chitra didn't stop at that. She's written a lot on trade and disarmament, on the CTBT. On the telecom sector "something that I've looked closely at I think we can be on top of the world" and she feels the next thing that's going to take off is the pharmaceutical sector.

Graduated from Delhi's Lady Shriram College with an English Literature degree, she didn't know what she was going to be doing. "I could write" is all she knew and as she says, "I've written a bit of nonsense here and there." Well, the Bofors expose maybe nonsense to some people (and one can well imagine who that might be), but if her story has heads rolling even 13 years later (and more to come), that Chitra, is called "making history".

 
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