When Aam Aadmi Party leader and senior advocate Prashant Bhushan put out the sensational audio tapes of conversations between Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi and the then Tamil Nadu police chief of intelligence, Jaffar Sait, in 2010-11, he was not announcing something new.
Three days earlier, on February 1, a little-known (outside the southern state) Tamil website, Savukku.net, had made these tapes public. It even had an article explaining the alleged role of Sait in tapping phones to gather information and a transcript of the conversations. Though the mainstream media in Chennai largely ignored it, one of the post’s subjects, Kanimozhi, made news after being found unconscious and hospitalised the next morning.
Savukku.net, ‘whip’ in Tamil, has slain Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V Prabhakaran’s photograph on one side of its masthead and a silhouette of a cowboy on horse with the whip on the other. The first post on the site dates back to September 2010. In over 960-odd incisive posts since, most sprayed with venom and laced in humour, Savukku.net has been slashing hard and exposing what it calls corrupt bureaucrats, politicians, judiciary and even mainstream journalists, who it says are often too soft on their sources.
Though the website itself does not give any details about the publisher, it is no secret in Chennai media circles it is run by ‘Savukku’ Shankar.
A Shankar aka Achimuthu Shankar, was an average government employee till a few years ago. Shankar told Business Standard over phone he joined as a lower division clerk (LDC) in the directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC) following the demise of his father in 1991.
His life changed in 2008, when he was accused of leaking sensitive information to the press. In April 2008, transcript of a taped conversation between S K Upadhyay, then director of DVAC, and L K Tripathi, then chief secretary, was published by the Deccan Chronicle English daily. The day’s DMK government appointed a commission of inquiry under judge P Shanmugam to probe the leak. The commission zeroed in on Shankar.
Shankar told Business Standard the charges were false and he was contesting these in courts. He added he was subjected to third degree torture and was asked to testify against some officers.
Following his release on bail, he started collecting information through the Right to Information Act against whom he calls corrupt officers. When he thought he had enough information, he wrote about it in a blog post in mid-2010. “The next day I was arrested on some false charges of road rage. I was expecting them to (arrest me). They did not disappoint,” he said.
But his post was well-received, encouraging him to continue writing and eventually convert the blog into a website.
Meanwhile, the ruling DMK was decimated in 2011 assembly polls. While this eased pressure on Shankar, he says even under the new government, lot of matters of public interest went unreported. “Even within media there is a lot of corruption. Who is going to write about it? I will,” he said.
Chennai scribes complain
While some Chennai journalists say Shankar, with his earlier media experience, having been selected under the student journalist programme of a popular magazine, is picking on old colleagues, he rubbishes these. “I was just an LDC, sir. I got to know that blogs can be posted and you can write whatever you want in these. That’s how I started it. But I had approached several media houses with information of public interest but was turned down. I had approached them with even the 2G tapes. When they showed no interest, I put it up myself,” the government turned activist said.
He doesn’t reveal his sources for the tape. “I go collect information myself. And, I write it out when I find time. It does not take much to run a website apart from the server cost and domain charges. I am still getting half the salary,” he pointed out with a chuckle.
Even as he continues fighting in courts to get his suspension revoked, Shankar has continued his exposés. Some bloggers call him Tamil Nadu’s Assange, after the legendary Australian founder of WikiLeaks that publishes classified information accessed from whistleblowers. But such activism comes with its own perils.
Recently, a Chennai court ordered Shankar’s arrest, following a complaint by an employee of Sun TV for alleged defamatory posts on Savukku.net in May 2013. J Anbazhgan, president of Chennai Union of Journalists, said the organisation had made a representation to chief minister J Jayalalitha, seeking relief for Shankar. The union believes the complaint was motivated, connected as it is to Shankar’s possession of the 2G tapes.
Shankar’s Facebook page, which also has the cowboy with a whip on horseback as the display picture, has 4,774 followers and every post evoking a barrage of comments. He has has been busy updating the page on the Central Bureau of Investigation probe and other developments following the Bhushan conference. Looming large over the page, looking probingly into the oblivion from the photo on its masthead is a certain Julian Assange.