Fifty, you will agree, is no age to stage your first break-in. But as a super sleuth you are tasked to do the strangest of things - religion, caste, colour, year of birth or aversion to forced entry no bar. In fact, in the IB, you are trained in tasks you dislike or are most unsuited for because the British General who established the agency in the late 19th century believed it is most gainful to be prepared for the worst than to sharpen skills that one already possesses. That is why it makes perfect sense being taught to drive when your hands are tied or the art of pretending to enjoy TS Elliot when your preferred reading is Chetan Bhagat and browsing restaurant menus.
Until now, I had always assigned juniors or left it to colleagues to break into a hotel room or an office building. However, once the act of surreptitious ingress was achieved, I had no qualms about accompanying them inside the premises, conducting a search while brutally damaging property like a typical IB man. A psychologist friend of mine diagnosed my condition as a peculiar phobia where I was afraid of closed doors to which I had no legitimate key or where the option of ringing the bell was ruled out. “Why not try your luck with windows - of course not the one you have on your PC - but the good old fashioned one,” he suggested. But even there, I was gripped by a strange fear of breaking in.
Top secret mission
I had all but forgotten about this and other related phobias till I was assigned last week to secure documents hidden in a sixth-floor apartment in Gurugram (aka Gurgaon), outside Delhi. This top priority secret mission for the HRD Ministry, I was told, was one on which I could take no assistant along. So, I was left with no option but to swallow my fears and pick the tumbler lock of 601 C, Empire State Building, which overlooked other high rises that I reckoned would have fancy names like Manhattan Towers and Palm Beach View although the sea was over a thousand miles away from land locked Delhi-Haryana.
Well, that aside, I had been briefed that the flat was occupied by two NRI professors from Harverd University (not to be confused with the Ivy League institution going by a similar name) with its registered office in Wilmington, Delaware, USA. The name of the city immediately rang a bell. It had attained some notoriety when investigations in 2012 revealed that Delaware’s lenient tax laws led to the opening of thousands of shell companies in the largest city in the state. In fact, one location (1209 North Orange Street) in Wilmington served as the headquarters for 280,000 businesses! ‘Harverd’ University was located close to that infamous address.
A study conducted by the consultants Kamakshi, Perumal, Moin and Gracey (KPMG) for Harverd University estimates that the demand for journalists trained in disseminating false information will quadruple in the coming months with the 2019 General Election due in May.
Anyhow, once I gained entry into the apartment, I realised that it served more as a dumping ground than living space for Professors Mittal Woodward and Raghunath Bernstein. There was trash littered everywhere — empty pizza boxes, paper plates, beer cans, vodka bottles, unwashed clothes, cigarette butts and what have you. I carefully went through all the rooms. The cupboards yielded more dirty clothes, but the walls had graffiti scrawled with ketchup embellished with Heinz honey-mustard sauce.
I read the writings on the wall for clues but found they were meaningless one liners attributed to Alfred E Neuman, the fictional mascot of Mad magazine. Here are a few samples: ‘The trouble with doing nothing is you can neither rest nor retire’; ‘Medical insurance is what allows people to be ill at ease’; ‘In retrospect, it becomes clear that hindsight is overrated’; ‘It’s a straight road which doesn’t turn’ and ‘A good egg always gets beaten.’
It did not take long for me to realise that this assignment was turning out to be a bummer. Even the lone laptop on the dining table had only games and movies downloaded on it. Frustrated, I stepped back and took a breather and wondered if I had missed something. Suddenly it occurred to me that in this garbage bin of an apartment, I had not searched the obvious — the trash can. I rushed to the kitchen and rummaged through the outsized red plastic receptacle crammed with rancid refuse. At its bottom, I found a sheaf of papers wrapped carefully in polythene. It was the document I was looking for!
I rushed back to office, excited, and hurriedly read through the contents. Some fact checking and Google searches later, I filed a “Top Secret” report marked to the HRD Minister with a copy to my boss. In the introductory note, I summarised the 200-page document, which I thought was good enough to be shared in notional-oops - national interest with readers of SouthWord. So here goes:
Harverd University’s Devious Plans—An Overview
* The aforementioned university - based in Wilmington, Delaware, USA - may be part of a covert CIA operation to infiltrate the education system in India or some Murdochian design to control the media and content output in this country.
* As a first step, Harverd plans to open the Indian Institute of Fake News (IIFN) in Nagpur. Land for the campus has already been identified at Patgowari near Mansar (some 35km from the RSS headquarters as the Garuda flies provided it does not take a detour for lunch or to visit relatives).
* To create the right ambience, the proposed campus will have fake trees, fake lawns (astro turf), fake hedges, fake lakes and misleading signages. Twelve imitation Whitehurst clocks (the original cost between $200,000-$270,000) will perpetually display the wrong time, date and day of the week.
* In keeping with its ‘fake is the new real’ theme, prospective students, the document states, will be encouraged to submit forged mark sheets and other documents at admission time (post-dated death certificates will be considered as proof of having been born). Fees will be accepted in counterfeit currency (euros and dollars preferred although Rs 2000 notes will suffice). Payment in black will also be honoured and acknowledged with fake receipts signed by the (un)concerned “fake authority.”
* The document notes that IIFN is being set up to meet the growing demand in India for journalists trained in the art of generating fake news content. A study conducted by the consultants Kamakshi, Perumal, Moin and Gracey (KPMG) for Harverd University estimates that the demand for journalists trained in disseminating false information will quadruple in the coming months with the 2019 General Election due in May. “It is not just politically motivated websites and WhatsApp groups but also mainstream newspapers and TV channels that will require the services of content providers, journalists, videographers and editors adept at fiction writing. In fact, we see practitioners of fake news dominating the news space till such time that robot journalists takeover the task in two decades,” forecasts the KPMG study quoted in the document.
* The proposed IIFN Faculty will include lookalikes of noted editors from overseas and India. The Couch Potato Casting Company based in Juhu, Mumbai, and Stars Galore Inc with offices in London and New York have agreed to help in identifying actors suited for the roles. The Institute will be headed by an Acting Principal with a suitable degree from the National School of Drama, Delhi.
* According to the document, IIFN will initially offer a post-graduate diploma programme in Fake News for Beginners. The two-year course will introduce students to the mindset required to flourish in the prevailing news environment. Professors Woodward and Bernstein call it “the Eightfold Path” and list it as: (1) dedication to the government comes before commitment to truth (2) two wrongs always make a right (3) twisting facts/manufacturing evidence is justified if it’s for the larger good (4) undermining democracy is no crime but an act of nationalism (5) being suitably biased is being independent (6) exposing the Opposition is investigative journalism (7) distorting history is restoring facts (8) selective amnesia is a true art form.
* The course, one learns from the Woodward-Bernstein document, will also train students to edit and twist stories, write fake reports, tweets and “presumptuous opinion pieces”. Production of “deepfake” — an ultrarealistic fake video with implanted audio from voice samples and morphed images made with the help of artificial intelligence software — will be taught “for the first time in India”. A student who completes the course at the IIFN “will be work ready for any organisation including the media cells of patriotic political parties. Those passing with distinction can be directly inducted as fake editors,” claims the document.
* Guest faculty of the IIFC will apparently include senior editors, journalists, writers, historians, scientists and “thinkers with government-friendly blinkers” visiting Nagpur.
* Food served on the campus will be vegetarian. During college hours, all students must wear the University uniform — khaki shorts and the official T-shirt with the message “Fake News—Just Do It” emblazoned on it.
* Those joining the course cannot quit midstream and will be liable for prosecution under Harverdian Law which includes “rigorous imprisonment or a fine or both,” warns the document seized from 601 C, Empire State Building, Gurugram.
(From all the above, it is quite apparent that IIFN is a subversive organisation, which is dangerous for our democracy. It wants to be a law unto itself and must not be encouraged. The IB therefore strongly recommends that Harverd University must be prevented from establishing its presence in the country and the visas of professors Woodward and Bernstein cancelled with immediate effect).
Once I was through with filing my report, I called it a day. Exhausted, I slept soundly and by morning, forgot all about the two professors and the trauma of my breaking-in into their apartment. But imagine my surprise when the boss summoned me first thing in the morning. “Congratulations Shankar for an excellent job done,” he said with an approving smile, “The HRD Ministry is very happy.”
“Are they deporting Woodward and Bernstein?” I was incredulous.
“No, no, on the contrary, they wish to meet them. In fact, the Ministry is so impressed by their report that it wants to tie up with Harverd on the journalism project,” he said, even as I stood speechless.
Strange indeed are the times we live in…
(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)