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Millennium Post

Truth versus Tehelka

As  the spectre of Tarun Tejpal, the rape accused in the high-profile Tehelka sex abuse scandal, haunts the media worldwide, as a fleeting sight of an outwardly calm Tejpal ensconced inside Delhi airport en route to Goa somehow manages to shock viewers into a deep discomfort with the unfolding slugfest, it makes sense to pause and reflect on how did it all come about. How did the story hunter become a story himself – not just an ordinary story of rise and fall, but one that includes meteoric climb, relentless pursuit of power, building of a questionable media enterprise, creating a nexus of political and corporate end users of his news-and-views organisation, and finally blowing it all up, unthinkingly perhaps, in a transgression so rude that even his best friends and lackeys in the media are practically left with no choice but to desert the sinking ship. The descent of the once powerful, intrepid journalist, who rightly or wrongly, had breathed life into the sagging credentials of broadcast and print media in this country less than a decade back, is symptomatic of all that is grossly wrong with this field, not just in India, but the world over.

Tehelkagate, as the alleged rape case has come to be known in the wider world, making both national and international headlines ever since the news broke about 10 days back, is being seen as the ‘Titanic moment’ of the organisation. Though it needs no introduction, still it would do well to encapsulate the ‘bullet points’, as it were, of this sensational sexual assault case.

Essentially, the allegations against Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, include two attempts at rape of a younger colleague in the same organisation, both times inside an elevator at the Grand Hyatt hotel about 10 kilometres from Panjim, Goa – the venue of
Tehelka
’s Thinkfest from 8 to 10 November 2013.

The incident became public after a series of emails exchanged between the young journalist and Shoma Chaudhury, the managing editor at Tehelka as well as Tejpal himself, were leaked into the media, ostensibly by some of the extremely disconcerted employees working at the magazine, a number of whom have now put in their papers. Young and dynamic journalists such as former literary editor Shougat Dasgupta, Ishan Tankha from the sports desk, photojournalist G Vishnu, Jay Mazoomdaar of the online portal, as well as Revati Laul, former assistant editor at the weekly magazine offered their resignations to protest against the shabby manner in which the
Tehelka
management, represented by Shoma Chaudhury herself, left the assaulted journalist truly disgruntled.

Eventually, after more than a week of facing the firing squad, Chaudhury, too, stepped down. However, as the emails, supposedly written in order to be circulated within the organisation, got out in installments, the picture gradually emerged. And, it was a horrifying, deeply disturbing portrait of the media as a site of rampant abuse of power and position.

As conflicting accounts of what had happened inside the elevator of the five-star hotel in Goa started hitting the public sphere, scathing commentaries ripped apart the man who was once the posterboy of flamboyant, ‘edgy’ journalism. Though a good section of the mainstream print media resorted to the familiar technique of blacking out a story (on the first day) that would cast aspersion on one of their own, this newspaper, the prominent English news channels, along with Twitter, dared to cover the incident with the seriousness that it deserved. In editorial after editorial, Millennium Post dissected what another commentator had termed the ‘tangled tonalities of Mr Tejpal’. We not only criticised, but condemned without mincing words, Tarun Tejpal’s ‘laceration’, his ‘bad lapse of judgement, misreading of a situation’ and his grandiose, self-exculpatory ‘recusal for six months’ as an ‘atonement’ for something that was clearly a criminal misconduct, an act of aggravated violation of a woman’s bodily integrity, and in fact, ‘rape’, under the amended Criminal Procedure Code (Anti-Rape Act, 2013).

Several questions surfaced after the initial reports of the sting baron being stung by this sexual assault scandal rocked the nation and particularly its fourth estate. It will be interesting to quote sections from an article that appeared on 24 November on the website Kafila. Referring to the elaborate attempts at orchestrating damage control amounting to a full-fledged cover-up, the writer dissects an interview that Shoma Chaudhury gave to NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan:

‘Ms Chaudhury begins by trying to justify why she did not immediately go to the police in contradiction of the new Sexual Harrassment law which clearly requires an employer to report incidents which fall under the rape law to the authorities, while simultaneously seeming to support the complainant. In her short explanation she insidiously slips in the word ‘consent’ several times: ‘ Even if it were consensual, ‘ she says , ‘ he would have still transgressed as a leader of the organisation’ and thus she ‘over-ruled his version which differed significantly from hers’.

However now the incident is in the public domain, she adds, I would have to add the word ‘allegedly’ as a prefix to what transpired. She goes on to say that she did not contest the journalists version while it was restricted to a discussion within the institution because it was still not a question of ‘criminality or legality’. ‘Now, however, that he is accused of rape, he has the right to defend himself’.

She also mentions that the defendant never used the word ‘rape’. She only says ‘sexual harassment’. The word rape is one that has emerged from ‘outside Tehelka’. Nidhi Razdan then asks Chaudhury ‘If the girl’s version were proved, would you consider it rape’? To which Chaudhry replies, ‘Yes I would. If it were proved legally and criminally I would.’

Exactly what does this mean? It means quite simply that in the space of three short statements Ms Chaudhry not only contradicts, but also criminally implicates herself. Firstly, the word sexual assault was not used even once in either Mr Tejpal’s apology to the complainant, or Ms Chaudhury’s letter to the office.

Second, how the complainant chose to name what occurred is completely irrelevant. Over and above a description of what happens to one, ‘rape’ is a legal definition. The complainant described what happened, it is for the law, not the complainant or Ms Chaudhury, to decide what these actions comprise. Third, Ms Chaudhury herself admits that she too viewed the charges as indicating rape, or at the least attempt to rape when she first received them. What then is Shoma Chaudhury saying?’

Why was a sexual harassment complaint cell not constituted once the allegations of sexual assault amounting to rape came to the management’s notice? Why did Chaudhury try to indicate that the young journalist was ‘satisfied’ with Tejpal’s self-chosen six-month recusal from the post of editor-in-chief and his pompous, self-serving letter of apology? Why wasn’t the legal option made available to the complainant when it is the duty of the organisational authorities, under Vishaka guidelines, to provide legal recourse, as either a criminal probe or an internal inquiry,  when a report of sexual harassment or assault is lodged?

Has Chaudhury let down the entire fraternity of women, not just her feminist colleagues and friends in the media and legal profession, by refusing to give the complainant her due share of importance, credibility and sympathy, all the while defending the indefensible Tarun Tejpal?

The fact remains that sexual harassment, assault in the workplace, often amounting to custodial rape, that by one in a position of power and authority, is a rather common phenomenon. There are a number of other cases of sexual assault doing the rounds in the media at this very moment, including those involving a retired Supreme Court judge, a senior editor at the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar as well as one against a prominent news anchor and editor-in-chief of a Bengali news channel. It is doubly damning when the self-proclaimed conscience-keeper of the nation, the media itself, gets embroiled in controversies, scandals and scams that bespeak that very same immorality and abuse of power at every level of operation.

The grim tale of Tarun Tejpal’s devolution into an alleged sex criminal from a high-flying media personality, whose hobnobs with the political and cultural glitterati had turned the tables in India media, could very well become the broken mirror in which the nation sees the disfigured reflection of its crème de la crème.

It is indeed a bonfire of vanities, not just Tejpal’s own, but of an entire gamut of newspersons who consider themselves above and beyond the laws of the land, who bend and violate rules and regulations at the drop of a hat, bask in the drunken glory of their inimically developed political and financial muscles.

Searing questions on Tejpal’s nefarious nexus with the dubious corporate groups – including that with the murdered liquor baron Ponty Chadha, Trinamool Congress MP and industrialist KD Singh, Essar group, JSW group, Unitech, and several others accused in one or more corruption cases – have been raised for years now.

In fact, how Tejpal obtained funding for his Thinkfest, how he wanted to start Prufrock, an ‘elite, invitation-only private club’ for great ‘intimacy’ amongst the rich and famous, perhaps an entente with the dead Ponty Chadha to turn his black money into white capital, are being talked about at length in almost every newspaper and news channel in this country.

Once a metaphor for an alternative space within the media, Tehelka’s decade-long demise into a circuit of sleaze, of a flimsy cloak of high-handed and shrill sagacity shrouding all kinds of shady deals with unscrupulous corporate and political camps is now out in the open. In fact, under scanner is also the famous 2001 sting operation (Operation West End) on India’s defence sector, that ended the hitherto soaring career of the then defence minister George Fernandes and the BJP chief Bangaru Laxman. However, the story of using sex, sleaze and unbridled amounts of money, legal and illegal, to clinch deals is now part and parcel of
Tehelka
’s own history. Its brilliant self-branding exercise now done to dust, with the two pillars of the organisation crumbling in the eye of the storm.

Yet, if theatre-person and activist Hartman De Souza be believed, Tejpal, the ‘author-journalist-entrepreneur’ had been rubbishing pointed questions aimed at his enormous personal property, including his mansion in Goa, as well as those directed at his demonstrably unethical methods of conducting the notorious sting operations.

Moreover, Tehelka’s use and throw treatment of many of its employees was becoming too much to accept, including Neha Dixit, who had filed a sexual assault case against a senior editor in 2008 that went unheard; and the unfortunate death of the young Tarun Shekhawat, who succumbed to malaria in the heartlands of Chhattisgarh while doing a story for the magazine. Ironically, the article that Tejpal himself wrote elucidating Operation West End was titled ‘Sleaze, senseless greed and dirty heroes.’ Perhaps, a seething irony that the joke is on him now.

Beneath Tehelka’s sound and fury lies a deafening silence. The silence of the smothered voices, the unregistered torment of many of employees who had been systematically mistreated, subdued, abused and threatened over the years.

Behind the veneer of sophistry, lay Tejpal’s sophisticated chauvinism, his cultured bigotry, although this is not to say that Tehelka’s resolutely secular and fearless stance on many pressing issues wasn’t commendable. It is therefore doubly regrettable that this ugly manifestation of male sense of sexual entitlement has been turned into a wrestling match between the rival political factions, of course under Tarun Tejpal’s astute spin doctoring and rereading of the situation.
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