Millennium Post

Not penance, it’s penalty for Tarun Tejpal

It’s the Nirbhaya moment for the Indian media: it’s on trial. One of us, a young woman journalist working at Tehelka, the weekly news and opinion magazine, has been sexually assaulted by Tarun Tejpal, the owner and editor-in-chief of the very same publication. Such predatory sexual behaviour in the workplace, particularly in the relatively liberal professional space that is the media, is shocking and disgusting to say the least. Yet the studied silence maintained by the biggest national dailies in this country, particularly the Times of India, The Hindu, among others, is a slap on the face of truth, justice, equality and the pedestal on which Indian media places itself. However, Millennium Post and Indian Express frontpaged the incident and highlighted the crime, without thinking about saving one of our own or heeding the institutional biases clouding our judgment. Looks like a repeat of what happened almost three decades back, when in the wake of India Gandhi’s murder in 1984, amost 3,000 Sikhs were killed in broad daylight and the biggest newspapers of the time, namely TOI and the Hindustan Times, remain mum on the issue for almost two days.

Frankly, it is not at all new, though what is really outrageous is the sanctimonious letter of ‘atonement’ that the senior editor sent out to his colleague, Shoma Chaudhury, the managing editor at Tehelka. In that email, Tejpal pretty much exonerated himself from the extreme offence committed by him not once but twice during the Thinkfest 2013 in Goa. The self-exculpatory and self-righteous tone of the letter – that attributed the incident to a ‘bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation’ and set out the self-decided course of action by allowing himself a ‘lacerating’ recusal of six months from the role of editorship of the magazine, as ‘penance’ for the error – speaks volumes on the kind of presumptions and impunity that had been traditionally enjoyed by men in power in any organisation. In fact, what was even more disheartening was the concerted initial attempt by the Tehelka management to brush it all under the carpet by deeming it an internal matter that wouldn’t need the legal recourse as per Vishaka judgment that looks at sexual harassment at workplace. More nauseating was the vehement defence put forward by the managing editor of the publication, wherein she categorically stated that the assaulted journalist was ‘satisfied’ with Tehelka’s perfunctory stance, when, in reality, she was clearly angry and outraged at the level of collective conspiracy designed to put a gag order on the word spreading about the despicable conduct by a posterboy of big league Indian journalism. It is an abysmal example of a journalist as famously glamorous as Tejpal systematically and serially abusing his position of power to obtain sexual favours from junior colleagues, both out of a skewed sense of male sexual entitlement, but also because he could threaten the younger colleague of dire consequences if she ‘pissed him off,’ to quote the man himself. But what was the proverbial icing on the cake was Tejpal’s self-gloating and self-mythifying letter to Shoma Chaudhury, wherein he reduces this reprehensible conduct and definite ‘rape’ under the new Anti-Rape Act, to a being just an ‘untoward incident’, barely deserving of a passing reference to the significance and great glories of the magazine itself and the journalists who have been its founding members, including the culprit and serial molester editor-in-chief. Tejpal’s decision to send himself on a six-month exile for his sexual misconduct amounted to an arrogant and indulgent self-positioning as well as an institutional cover-up. How can the accused decide his sentence?

However, Tejpal’s case cannot be taken in isolation. Like that of Ranjit Sinha’s verbal equation, Asaram and the retired SC judge, Tejpal’s conduct is actually typical of men in power, who voice holier-than-thou words on ‘the universe of everyday violence’ that the women must put up with on public platforms and go back to practise exactly the kind of crimes that they so vociferously condemn on TV channels and newspaper columns. Clearly, in Tejpal’s case, the so-called ‘aggrieved party’ is not just every woman journalist and female employee working in any corner of this country, but also the media as an institution, which must come clean and stand by its young member, who had the gumption to put it out in the open and demand justice, when the women in power themselves let their younger colleagues down. Tejpal must submit to the law of the land. It’s good that on Thursday night, finally, Tehelka decided to constitute an internal enquiry committee presided over by Urvashi Butalia. However, what can be applauded is the power of social media to bring out the incident in the open and not allow entrenched institutional biases and other pressures to systemically silence the dissenting voices. Over the years, democratisation of the media has enabled such stories to reach the wider public, and in this case, Twitter must be given its due credit. Media as an institution needs to strengthen itself, instead of getting embroiled in corporate and political fetters by accepting funds from dubious sources, as done by Tehelka almost ritually, including having companies which are accused in one or several corruption cases as sponsors for its flamboyant and high-profile Thinkfest. Media – which has become an elite club of big league editors, and a clique of select TV or print journalists, whose job is to act as political pimps or corporate lobbyists – must take time to indulge in some introspection and look at its own disfigured face in the mirror.
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