In my 25-odd years as a journalist, there have been “stories” about this or that editor, but never has the courage of a young woman, who complained that her editor had sexually assaulted her, been the focus of so much national attention.
With five states in India going to the polls, one would think that newspapers and television channels would only be obsessed with the fate of the Congress and the BJP, the two main parties in the fray.
Instead, the Indian media has been gripped by the shocking story of Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, also an author, allegedly sexually assaulting a young colleague on November 7-8 inside the lift of a plush Goa hotel.
Tejpal and his magazine Tehelka have been at the forefront of exposing corruption in defence deals, laying bare the real face of political leaders and revealing the role of key persons involved in the 2002 carnage against Muslims in Gujarat.
Tejpal, along with the magazine’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, also took the lead in exposing the ingrained anti-women biases, especially after the December 16, 2012 rape-and-murder case that shook India.
For many young and idealistic journalists, Tehelka was the place to practice an alternative journalism where stories that the mainstream media ignored could be told. At the same time, there have been questions about the sources of funding for Tehelka.
But all this is just by way of context, it’s not the story.
Newspapers and television channels have exposed the sorry saga of an editor, who took the moral high ground on gender issues, being accused of such grave charges.
On November 18, the woman journalist wrote to Shoma Chaudhury complaining that Tejpal had assaulted her. A day later, he wrote in an email:
It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.
It would appear that Tejpal and Chaudhury believed the incident could be “managed” with the woman journalist on the basis of Tejpal’s apology, but the Goa police took matters into their own hands and booked him on rape charges.
As this is written, the Goa police have questioned Chaudhury and the grapevine has it that Tejpal will be arrested. Unusually, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar is taking a personal interest in the investigation into the rape charges against Tejpal.
After the woman journalist demanded an inquiry, Chaudhury hastily set up a committee to inquire into the sexual assault charges. However, under the Supreme Court’s Vishaka guidelines of 1997, Tehelka should have had an existing complaints committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints.
Of course, Tehelka is not the only institution – in the media and outside – to violate the Supreme Court’s guidelines.
The DNA newspaper reported that in Maharashtra only 2,608 of the 45,000 establishments had standing committees to look into grievances of a sexual nature. You can be assured that the situation in other states is not much better.
On November 12, the Supreme Court set up a committee of three sitting judges to investigate an allegation by a lawyer that she was sexually harassed by a retired judge of the apex court.
Two weeks later, Additional Solicitor-General Indira Jaisingh, in an open letter to the Chief Justice, wrote:
“Transparency in the functioning of such committees must be assured. Failure to do so has led to motivated rumours that the intern has not named the judge in question. It has also done a great disservice to the committee by giving rise to the suggestion that the judges threatened her to withdraw from the case.
All this has led to vitiating the atmosphere for a fair enquiry into her allegations.
It is therefore necessary that the Supreme Court as an institution and in full court take a decision on the procedure to be adopted while dealing with such complaints or enquiries. After all, there are two incumbent chief justices on this committee and the procedure they follow, matters for how they would approach the issue judicially when called upon to do so.”
So, the issue of sexual harassment and molestation is something that needs to be tackled everywhere. The high-profile Tejpal case highlights yet again the need for institutional mechanisms, as well as awareness to deal with the menace.
Power equations – lawyer-intern, editor-reporter and boss-employee – enable men in authority to indulge in and get away with instances of harassment, molestation and more.
The courage shown by the young Tehelka journalist would have been in vain if the societal spotlight is not used to empower women everywhere to raise questions about the conduct of those in authority.
The Supreme Court and its three-member committee would send a good signal by speedily investigating the woman lawyer’s charges. This would show that the Court was serious about its own Vishaka guidelines.
The law, meanwhile, must deal with Tejpal and his like.