Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011, Tarun Tejpal declared that his magazine, Tehelka, had come close to closing down “around 200 times”. It was an apt, well-crafted pitch, just right for the air of radical cool it breathed—and advertised. It wasn’t just another magazine. It was the quintessential applecart-upsetter for the establishment, almost insurrectionary in its vibe. Self-consciously so. Managing editor Shoma Chaudhury once famously told a foreign delegation meeting Indian scribes that she wasn’t just a journalist but an “activist-journalist”. Their persecution in the early days won them sympathy, honour and accolades. The nasty crackdown by the NDA government following Operation Westend in 2001—one of the biggest and most outlandish scoops in Indian journalism, which led to the resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes—was described by Tejpal as an encounter with the “beast” and “its entrails”. The beast metaphor has turned up a bit of late at Tehelka. In Goa, at the ill-fated Thinkfest, Shoma even hosted a session on rape and the “beasts amidst us”. So it’s both a great tragedy and irony that it would be a beastly tale that would do them in. What Tehelka’s foes couldn’t achieve in years, Tarun’s self-destruction did in days. Allegations of sexual assault against the founder-editor by a junior colleague at the Thinkfest—now derided by many as a “stinkfest”—haven’t stopped letting off a terrible odour. But now the gloves are off. It isn’t just about sexual harassment anymore but about its “supari journalism”, as journalist Sucheta Dalal alleges, and the financial inventiveness apparently practised by the magazine, as detailed in papers like The Indian Express. Advance obituaries are being written, many with a touch of glee, all against a very vocal atmosphere of politics: for neither Tehelka nor the BJP hide their mutual dislike. Sexual assault—in a five-star hotel lift—has been the proverbial drop that made the cup overflow.
With news channels mounting a virtual witch-hunt against one of Narendra Modi’s principal media bugbears, and more bad news coming by the hour, five journalists at the magazine had quit by November 28. The same day Shoma, under fire for her actions that were seen as a cover-up for Tarun, said she too was stepping down. “I am no longer sure whether my presence is harming or helping Tehelka,” she wrote. The duo had no one else to blame, they had made a bad situation worse by first attempting to handle the complaint with rich prose, using words like ‘atonement’ and ‘adamantine’. Later, as e-mails and texts tarnishing the victim’s reputation did the rounds, they had got the “tonality” seriously wrong, by their own definition.