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Cellphone Sexcapade Fuels Scandal in India

Teens' racy video goes online, an executive is jailed and a strait-laced nation is atwitter.

December 21, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — What began as a private encounter between a boy, a girl and a cellphone video camera has exploded into a national scandal in India, underscoring the clash between the country's traditional values and modern technology.

A 17-year-old student at the prestigious Delhi Public School used his cellphone to shoot a clip of what police discreetly called an intimate moment with a classmate. It ended up drawing peeks for just under $3 on, India's biggest Internet auction site, which is owned by San Jose-based EBay Inc.

On Friday, the American head of Baazee was jailed, accused of permitting the sale of pornography online. As Indian newspapers probe for every lurid detail, the uniformed students of Delhi Public -- the campus of choice for children of the capital's elite -- are visiting editorial boards to defend their private school's honor.

India, where the Kama Sutra textbook of erotic love was penned at least 1,500 years ago, is deeply conservative today when it comes to matters of the flesh.

Last month, Delhi police asked two female tourists to get off the street because they were scantily clad. One was in a strapless dress that stopped at mid-thigh, the other a black bathing suit, partially covered by a wraparound skirt flapping in the breeze.

Indians were scandalized again last week when someone with a cellphone camera snapped a picture of Hindi film stars Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur kissing and sold it to a Bombay tabloid. The front-page picture provoked a national debate on decency and morality.

The Supreme Court said that printing the photo was contrary to the public good. The editor apologized, saying the newspaper simply wanted to show "two young celebrities in love."

The Delhi Public School scandal won't pass so easily. Police are examining phone records, interrogating potential witnesses and searching for more suspects on the trail of the racy clip that is said to run about two minutes.

The video has spread from a single cellphone that a bragging boy showed off to friends in the school washroom to dozens of websites and bazaars peddling bootleg videos.

It has been widely circulated on India's cellular network by means of short message service, a technology that enables users to beam text and images between phones.

On Friday, Delhi police arrested Baazee's founder and chief executive, Avnish Bajaj, a naturalized American citizen who set up the site in January 2000. He sold it to EBay for about $50 million in cash in August but remains head of Baazee.

Like all of EBay's sites in 29 countries, Baazee provides an online marketplace where private buyers and sellers can do business.

Users, who pay a fee to Baazee for successful transactions, agree not to trade in various items, including living and dead creatures, drugs, weapons, stolen goods -- and anything obscene or pornographic.

When Bajaj, 34, appeared in a Delhi court Saturday, a prosecutor said police did not oppose releasing him on bail. But an hour later, a second prosecutor changed that position and the judge ordered the executive to remain in custody until Friday.

He was locked up in Delhi's high-security Tihar prison, Asia's biggest, but was moved to a prison hospital after he complained that he felt sick.

Bajaj faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of more than $2,200 if found guilty of violating India's Information Technology Act, which outlaws "publishing, transmitting, or causing to publish any information in electronic form which is obscene."

Calling the case against Bajaj baseless, company spokeswoman Deepa Thomas said the seller of the video clip had violated Baazee's rules. The company removed the item as soon as it became aware it was on the site, Thomas said.

"It is distressing and unacceptable that the police have chosen to misdirect their energies toward our country manager Avnish Bajaj and not to the thousands of small sellers in Delhi and other places where these and other clips are being sold in roadside shops," she added in a statement.

Thomas identified the seller of the video as Ravi Raj, 23, a student at the Indian Institute of Technology.

He posted a listing on Baazee on Nov. 27, under the heading "DPS Girls Having Fun," with a tease line something like "Hot Stuff," Thomas added.

Police believe Raj may have received the video through friends at Delhi Public. He offered to send a video e-mail attachment to buyers, so the actual clip could not be seen on the website, Thomas said.

The listing was removed Nov. 29, after another Baazee user alerted the company as part of its community watch program, she added.

Police have arrested Raj and the boy in the video, who cannot be identified because he is being prosecuted in juvenile court.

The girl, 16 and in 11th grade at Delhi Public School, also has not been identified. She and the boy have been expelled.

The boy is said to have transmitted the video to a friend, who then passed it on to others. It was eventually sold for $220 before it was listed on Baazee, according to local reports.

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