The case against accused Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, is straightforward and stark: alleged sexual assault and rape — grave cognisable offences punishable under Sections 354A, 354B, 376, and 376(2) of the Indian Penal Code — in addition to the non-cognisable offences specified by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The details of what allegedly happened inside a lift of the Grand Hyatt, Bambolim, Goa on November 7, 2013, the opening night of Tehelka’s Think festival, are chilling in the revulsion they produce. The victim — a young woman journalist employed by Tehelka, who was allegedly lured into, and imprisoned within, the lift, which was then manipulated by the alleged assailant to make it “stay in circuit” — showed both courage and professional precision in setting out the details in her letter of complaint to her Managing Editor and “mentor,” Shoma Chaudhury. She also had the presence of mind immediately to seek solace and solidarity from three of her journalistic colleagues and to unburden herself of what happened. “Confused, hurt and really, really scared” and not wanting to lose her job, she reported for her assigned work the next day and, incredibly, that evening, after the sessions were over, Mr. Tejpal is alleged to have attempted to reprise the sexual harassment and assault after forcing her into the lift. All this plus the harassing and aggravating texts and the emailed “apologies,” one private, the other public, that the alleged assailant and rapist sent her seem to make the criminal case against Mr. Tejpal unassailable.
The Goa Police have gone about their duty under the law of the land with professional dispatch and thoroughness. This must have been made easier by the fact that the duty, what precisely they are bound to do in respect of laying a First Information Report (FIR) “upon receiving any information relating to commission of a cognisable offence”, has been clarified in a recent judgment by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of India. On the other side, the Tehelka editorial management has behaved disgracefully, with a mixture of obfuscation, denial, evidence-suppression, and cover-up. In an email dated November 20 to her subordinate editorial colleagues, many of whom by then were evidently well-informed on what had actually happened, Ms. Chaudhury characterised the alleged sexual assault and rape as “an untoward incident”; she went on to say that Mr. Tejpal, “though he…[had] extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved,” would be “recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months”. The Editor-in-Chief attempted to lighten the situation for himself by admitting to “a bad lapse in judgment, an appalling misreading of the situation,” for which he awarded himself the penalty of “atonement…the penance that lacerates me,” recusance from the editorship of Tehelka and from the office for six months. The latest instance of an appalling misreading of the situation and worse is for a member of Mr. Tejpal’s immediate family to barge into the house of the victim’s mother and put emotional pressure on her, harass her with a demand for sensitive information and also for some kind of internal settlement so as to escape from the clutches of the law. The victim herself has stepped forward to protest, in an email sent to this newspaper and to some other media organisations, against this flagrant attempt to harass and intimidate her and her family. This also amounts to tampering with evidence, a serious offence.
The law must and will take its course but meanwhile there are practical issues to be attended to in the wider media world. The most vital among them is the protection of the identity of the young woman journalist, the victim of alleged sexual assault and rape. Her letter of complaint and other sensitive communications have been leaked from within Tehelka and are in the public realm, and we must assume that all this has been done for a very good reason, to defeat the obfuscation and the cover-up. The expressions of solidarity with the victim, from across the board, following the leak are heartening. But on the other hand, all the relevant players — the mainstream media, the bloggers, and the social media folk — need to exercise greater restraint and care than they have shown so far to protect the victim’s identity, as the law requires them to do. Then there is the fate of Tehelka as a multi-media organisation, a spirited and irreverent venture with an investigative and muckraking focus. It may be in a process of unravelling, considering the exodus of talented journalists that has been reported in the social media. Fresh, and surely some investigative, attention will be paid to the ownership of the venture, its political connections, and so forth. Legal troubles aside, it will need a particularly thick hide for the Tehelka management to allow Ms. Chaudhury to continue in her job. But fairness demands that there should be no open season on the news organisation itself. All that we know suggests that many of the victim’s colleagues, young, middle-ranking, and senior journalists, have stood by her, and in doing so, have helped to set public conscience and the law in motion. They have acted as good professionals, journalists with integrity — and more important in this case, as good citizens. Contrary to what some shrill voices in the social media insinuate, this is decidedly a case of the news media not resorting to ‘double standards’.