The Tejpal case: Presenting the perpetrator as the victim
What has Tehelka’s greatness to do with an act of sexual assault by its editor-in-chief, asks Shivam Vij
Unlike Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly, c’s defenders cannot cry innocence given that Tejpal has confessed to his crime, albeit disputing the degree of it. He has even confessed having told his colleague that suffering the sexual assault was the “easiest way of keeping your job”.
Even his two decades old comrade Shoma Choudhury is unable to defend him beyond saying that he has his versions. Nobody buys Tejpal’s ludicrous retractions.
This put Tejpal’s friends, fellow molesters and self-defeating secularists in a bind. Many of his friends have chosen silence, which is understandable. It is only human to recuse oneself from the difficult choice between principle and friendship.
Though some like Arundhati Roy and Sankarshan Thakur have admirably chosen principle over personal association.
But those who wanted to come out and actually defend Tejpal were at a loss for words. How do they defend a crime whose perpetrator has confessed to it? So they came up with a few sly defences which pretend to be nuances.
Some like B G Verghese are writing as though they were ghostwriting Choudhury’s defence.
So let us lacerate these defences one by one.
‘Trial by media, lynch mob’
The one that we heard the most by the time Tejpal entered a police lock-up was that it was a ‘trial by media’ and those wanting Tejpal punished were like a ‘lynch mob’. Let us quote the scriptures to the devil. Managing editor and fellow shareholder Shoma told an interviewer in June 2012, “I believe that trial by media is quite important in India, largely because many justice systems are fairly derelict in the country. There are lots of times when justice can get waylaid because of empirical evidence not being there. Take Gujarat, for example. So it is important to fight some issues at a level of public perception.”
She did go on to say that trial by media becomes a problem sometimes, such as when she disagrees with the media narrative, on, say, the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case.
That is exactly what Madhu Kishwar and her Hindutva friends say in defence of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi: even though Modi been given a ‘clean chit’ by a Supreme Court-appointed investigation committee, he has been vilified for years by the media and the left-liberals. It amounts to a ‘trial by media’ by a ‘lynch mob’, they argue.
In other words, we are fine with ‘trial by media’ and ‘lynch mobs’ as long as they are fighting for our cause. Rapists, mass murders, honour killers, anti-corruption activists -- you name it, and the ‘trial by media’ argument comes out as a sly defence by those who the media is going after.
The media did go after Tejpal and gave the case minute-to-minute coverage. But that is how the beast called the media is. And Tehelka is part of this beast, chasing the big story of the week. Having gone big with the Tejpal story, it couldn’t have given up on it until Tejpal got arrested. There was a real fear that with his wealth and influence and battery of lawyers, Tejpal may be able to get away.
The media made sure he does not. We should commend the media for this because the Indian media does not go after its own. By going after Tejpal the media has also disproved the notion that only when the rapists are poor labourers that the media goes into outrage mode.
Let us not kick a man when he’s down, we are told. But he was being kicked at for refusing to go down, for giving us the bullshit of a great sacrifice of a six-month ‘recusal’ to ‘atone’ for his sins, to inflict upon himself the ‘penance’ that he decided would ‘lacerate’ him, for refusing to subject himself to an internal Tehelka investigation, let alone the law of the land.
It cannot be emphasised enough that Tehelka and Choudhury refused the aggrieved staffer’s demand to set up an internal Vishakha committee. They agreed to do so only after the story blew up in the media. That is what this ‘trial by media’ achieved -- it took Choudhury from refusing to set up an internal inquiry to defending her ‘feminist principles’ on television. Before the ‘trial by media’ began, Chaudhury was negotiating with the aggrieved staffer whether Tejpal’s apology would be sent to all Tehelka staffers or only the top editors.
After the ‘trial by media’, Choudhury started calling up feminists in town to head the Tehelka sexual harassment complaints committee. That is what the so-called ‘trial by media’ achieved.
As part of more such spurious media criticism, we were told that the media did not even spare Tejpal’s family and its privacy, television cameras shooting them in the airport and the flight from Delhi to a Goa court. But a television anchor said on live news that he’d just heard from a Tejpal associate that Tejpal was taking a flight at such and such time.
In other words, Tejpal carefully orchestrated these family visuals for the media so as to evoke sympathy. Oh what a happy family about to be ruined by a lynch mob!
Thereafter, his defenders could claim further sympathy by accusing the media of invading the family’s privacy. Since the woman journalist must try and keep save her anonymity -- a task made more difficult by every passing day -- remember that you are not going to see any visuals of her hugging her family.
Don’t let a Choudhury crying on television or a Tejpal hugging his daughter at the airport make you forget who the perpetrator is and who the victim is.
In other words, what the trial-by-media argument slyly means is that the media should have forgotten the story and without media glare, Tejpal would have been better capable of dodging the law.
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Image: Tarun Tejpal, the 50-year-old founder and editor-in-chief of investigative magazine Tehelka, hugs an unidentified relative at the airport on his way to Goa, in New Delhi
Photographs: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
'Let the law take its course'
Tejpal’s defenders brought out this one and hurled it at the so-called lynch mob as if it was those demanding justice who were not letting the law take its course! Once again, what they really meant was that we should just shut up and stop demanding that Tejpal be arrested. Of course when Asaram Bapu was trying to escape the law nobody said to those demanding his arrest, ‘Oh please, let the law take its course!’
Tejpal was making all kinds of claims in his defence -- the woman was ‘normal’, it’s a Bharatiya Janata Party conspiracy, he’s a man of stature, and so on. But we were supposed to just shut up and never comment on it, and let the law take its course.
One person went to the extent of saying that the matter is sub judice so we should not comment on it -- as if a case being sub judice ever prevented Tehelka from trying to influence the courts for causes we espouse, from Dr Binayak Sen and tribal teacher Soni Sori to the Talwar parents and the Delhi gang-rape and murder. It also needs to be pointed out that the Tejpal case is not sub judice -- the trial hasn’t yet begun.
We all know that the courts are often influenced by media and public opinion, whether we like it or not. Justice in this country is not blind, and it is important for us to make it see from our eyes. Just as Tehelka tried, one cover story after another, to influence the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case!
‘Tarun is not Tehelka’
From day one, we were told we should not target Tehelka for the ill acts of just one individual. In the same breath we were told what great work Tehelka has been doing for humanity. In his own non-apology apology, Tejpal spent more words saying Tehelka is great than actually atoning, apologising or doing the ‘penance that lacerates’. This is a self-contradictory argument.
If the individual and the organisation are different why are we being constantly told how great Tehelka is, in the defence of Tejpal? What has Tehelka’s greatness to do with an act of sexual assault by its editor-in-chief?
It was thus Tejpal’s fault that the spotlight turned to Tehelka. You can’t bring Tehelka’s greatness as a defence for Tejpal’s crime and then complain about Tehelka’s financial juggleries being dug out.
The truth is, Tehelka was and is run like a family business, Tejpal its patriarch. The only outsider who recieved the privilege of becoming de facto family was Choudhury. Tejpal is the founder, editor, public face of Tehelka and until not long ago, he owned the majority stake in the company along with his family members.
Virtually his entire family is involved in Tehelka -- not just his sister as publisher but also his wife, brother, nephews, daughters… When the patriarch is tainted, the family business is doomed. How is that the fault of those asking for justice for a woman whose bodily integrity he violated under threat?
The other problem with the Tehelka-is-great argument is that Tehelka’s greatness had lately become questionable. Tehelka has been accused of killing stories to get ads -- in what amounts to blackmail journalism -- from groups such as Essar, Adani, Goa Tourism and a shady educational institution run by a man who also has a ponytail like Tejpal.
Yet I am all for saving Tehelka if it can save itself. Don’t blame a young journalist seeking justice if Tehelka dies. 99 percent of the credit for destroying Tehelka should go to Tejpal for his criminal act and the remaining 1 percent to Choudhury for the way she put Tehelka at stake to cover up for Tejpal.
Two investigations into Tehelka’s financial management have revealed that even as Tejpal and Choudhary built a public interest journalism brand and cried over the lack of money to fund it, they personally profiteered from it at the cost of Tehelka. Would you still blame the conflation of Tejpal and Tehelka on those asking merely asking for justice for a woman journalist sexually assaulted by founder-editor?
Saving Tehelka requires that its majority shareholder, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament K D Singh, must wrest control of it from the Tejpal-Choudhury clan. There is no reason why professional non-shareholding non-family editors and managers can’t be found to reinvent Tehelka.
But it is unlikely that Singh would do so. He says the Tehelka brand has been irredeemably hurt and he’d rather exit his investment.
“As a friend it’s disturbing, as an investor I am scared,” Singh told a television channel. In other words, Tehelka might get killed by Singh, not by those demanding justice for a sexually assaulted staffer.
Or Singh might not yet not kill Tehelka because he’s himself a shady politician-businessman who must owe Tejpal a lot.
In a video interview, journalist Aniruddha Bahal reveals how Tejpal took all credit for Operation West End that shot Tehelka to fame. Bahal complains that after that sting operation that shook the A B Vajpayee government, Tehelka’s ‘We’ became Tejpal’s ‘I’.
So it is not the fault of those seeking justice that Tejpal and Tehelka co-branded each other, and this was done calculatedly. Is this the fault of the young woman who didn’t even want a police case but an internal investigation that Tehelka refused to hold?
The demise of Tehelka will result in a lot of job losses, and I hope they all get jobs soon. Some have already quit on principle. But I wonder how many worrying about the salaries of Tehelka staffers shed tears for the journalists Tejpal hired and soon fired for a paper he started, called Financial World.
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Image: Former Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury
'Tehelka was no different than the rest of the media anymore'
So we are told that Indian secularism is in such a bad way that it needs to stand on the shoulders of rapists and conmen. We are told that Tehelka was an important ally in the battle to save India from Narendra Modi.
The biggest problem with this claim is that simply not true. Just before Tejpal, the big story in the media was Narendra Modi’s Snoopgate. Tehelka had that story for a month but chose not to run it. Many media houses also had the story but chose not to run it.
Fear of Modi. In other words, Tehelka was no different than the rest of the media anymore, when it came to Modi. It may not be incidental that one of Tehelka’s advertisers and Thinkfest sponsors was Modi’s favourite industrial group, Adani, against which Tehelka wrote a lot of stories in 2011-12 but mysteriously stopped doing so one day.
And who finally put out Snoopgate? Bahal’s Cobrapost and Ashish Khetan’s Gulail. Both Bahal and Khetan are ex-Tehelka journalists. In other words, if there is such a thing as the ‘idea of Tehelka’, it was already outside of Tehelka.
Neither the struggle against Hindutva nor socially responsible journalism were born with Tehelka. Neither secularism nor journalism will die with Tehelka. The baton had already been passed on to others since Tehelka had become more of an ‘arts and dinner club’.
It is true that just like disgruntled ex-Tehelka journalists, the BJP has had a great moment of schadenfreude to see Tejpal and Tehelka self-destruct. It is true that the Goa government rarely shows such alertness about sexual assault and rape in Goa as it did in this case. It is true that Bangaru Laxman is a happy man.
But unlike the Vajpayee government’s war on Tehelka after Operation West End, this time it is a case of the wrong guys doing the right thing. You can call out their hypocrisy but you can’t fault them for doing the right thing.
If anyone has threatened Tehelka as an institution this time, it is not the State or an adversary government or a political party or even an ‘envious’ media, as it is being made out by some. It is Tejpal’s own actions, nothing else. None of the so called media envy was lunging to harm Tehelka till a moment before the allegation came to life.
The BJP conspiracy argument has a corollary. If we accept the suggestion that the BJP is going after Tejpal to settle scores, then we must also wonder if the aggrieved Tehelka journalist would have got justice in a Congress-ruled state?
Secularism as a defence of Tejpal is a self-goal by secularists. You are only giving the BJP types the opportunity to say that ‘secular rape’ is allowed. You are only proving correct their contention that you don’t stand for justice but for ideology.
In fact, you are being just like them. Just as they’d rather overlook a Snoopgate or two for their larger cause of bringing down the Congress and furthering Hindutva, you want to overlook a rape or two to keep the secular messiahs in the battlefield.
Oh well, for the simple reason that now that we have a complainant willing to speak out we should back her. Why should she not get justice only because she has shown the strength to ask for it?
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Should we follow the Omerta code?
A lot of people are asking where were all these people who claim to have known about sexual harassment in the media but did nothing about it. As if now that the silence had been broken, we cannot speak because we didn’t speak all these years. In other words, we should continue to follow the Omerta code.
Why send poor, secular, purple prose-loving Bunty to jail unless we send all the molesting editors to jail? Yes there may have been cases when women in the media asked for justice but didn’t get this response.
But this case got the response it did for a variety of factors that came together: Tejpal’s apologies and confessions that left little room for doubt; that the aggrieved staffer comes from a media family way too many Delhi journalists knew; the email with the gory details nobody should have read angered and shocked everybody.
And lastly, Tehelka’s self-righteousness, grandstanding and duplicity. If you molest women employees in the lift and sympathise with rape survivors in the auditorium (‘The Beast Amidst Us’), the rest of us are bound to point out the irony.
The point of this defence is to again spin doctor Tarun the Perpetrator into Tarun the Victim just because the real ‘victim’ refuses to be a ‘victim’.
As a male journalist may I also point out that not all male editors are sexual predators in the office!
‘Tarun is a great journalist, novelist’
So you love Tejpal and think that a lifetime’s work should not be tarnished by ‘one indiscretion’. Except that not even the most path-breaking and honourable journalism gives you the right to break the law. Nothing gives you the right to break the law. Did you say something about letting the law take its course?
Also think about how ‘one indiscretion’ too Bangaru Laxman down…
Charu Nivedita and Palash Krishna Mehrotra have both argued that great writers should have the right to violate women’s bodies at will. “Tejpal has been given the ‘rapist’ title even before his literary contributions are realised,” Charu mourns. Alas! What an unfair world!
These articles don’t even need a response. Just read them and laugh, and then feel sad to see the extent to which some can go to justify their misogyny.
But Charu and Palash give rise to another thought. After spending years in jail, Tejpal the sexual predator is likely to make his incarceration part of the mythology of Tejpal the novelist.
Which is fine. Tarun can write his fiction as long as the aggrieved staffer gets to see her truth written by a judge.