Unlike Justice (Retd.) Ashok Kumar Ganguly, Tarun Tejpal’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 two versions. Never mind 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 in a bind. How do they defend a crime whose perpetrator has confessed to it? So they came up with these attempts at sly defence which pretend to not be a defence but providing nuance. Some like BG Verghese are writing as though they were ghostwriting Shoma Choudhury’s defence.
So let us lacerate these attempts at defence one by one.
'Trial by Media' or 'Lynch Mob'
The one that we heard the most by the time Mr Tejpal went to prison 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 Choudhury told an interviewer in June 2012,
“…it is a complex position. 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.
Difficult as it may be, this is exactly what Madhu Kishwar and her Hindutva friends say in defence of Narendra Modi that even though he’s 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 Tarun Tejpal, and provided a minute-to-minute coverage. But that is how the beast called the media is. Having gone big with the Tarun Tejpal story, it couldn’t have given it up until Tejpal got arrested. Since there was a real fear that with his wealth and influence Tejpal may be able to get away, the media did a great service here. The media did a commendable job also because the Indian media doesn’t like to go after its own.
Let us not kick a man when he’s down, we are told. But he was being kicked 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 his subjectively decides lacerates 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 Shoma Choudhury refused the aggrieved staffer’s demand to set up an internal Vishaka 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 Shoma Choudhury from refusing to set up an internal inquiry to defending her ‘feminist principles’ on TV. Before the ‘trial by media’ began, Shoma 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, TV cameras shooting them on the way from Delhi to a Goa court. But a TV anchor said on live news that he had heard from a Tejpal associate that he was taking a flight at so and so time. In other words, Tejpal carefully produced these family visuals for the media so as to evoke sympathy—oh what a happy family about to be ruined by a lynch mob!—and thereafter his defenders could claim further sympathy by accusing the media of invading the family’s privacy. Since the woman journalist must try and 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 Shoma Choudhury crying on TV or a Tarun 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.
'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!’ Tarun Tejpal was making all kinds of claims in his defence—the woman was ‘normal’, it’s a BJP 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 Binayak Sen and Soni Sori to the Talwar parents and the 16 December Delhi gang-rape and murder.
We all know that the courts are often influenced by media and public opinion, whether we like it it 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 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 Tarun Tejpal? What is Tehelka’s greatness to do with an act of sexual assault by its editor-in-chief?
When the spotlight thus turned to Tehelka and its alleged greatness, it was thus inevitable. You can’t bring Tehelka’s greatness as a defence for Tarun Tejpal’s crime and then complain about Tehelka’s financial jugglery being dug out.
The truth is, that Tehelka was run like a family fiefdom, with Tarun Tejpal as its patriarch. The only outsider who could have the privilege of becoming de facto family was Shoma Choudhury. Tarun Tejpal is the founder, editor, public face of Tehelka and for a long time, he owned the majority stake in Tehelka 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 this 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 was that Tehelka’s greatness had lately been questioned rather strongly. It 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 happens to have a ponytail like Tejpal.
Yet I am all for saving Tehelka if it can save itself. And if it can’t save itself, the aggrieved woman staffer, her demand for justice and those supporting this demand are not to be blamed. 99% of the credit for destroying Tehelka should go to Tarun Tejpal and the remaining to Shoma Choudhury for the way she put Tehelka at stake to defend Tejpal.
Two investigations into Tehelka’s financial jugglery 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 or those merely asking for justice for a woman journalist sexually assaulted by its founder-editor?
Saving Tehelka requires that its majority shareholder, KD Singh, has to 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 KD 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 TV channel. In other words, KD Singh might kill Tehelka, not those demanding justice for a sexually assaulted staffer. Or he may not yet not do so because he’s himself a shady politician-businessman who must owe Tejpal a lot.
In a video interview, Aniruddha Bahal reveals how Tarun Tejpal took all credit for Operation West End that shot Tehelka to fame. In his public appearances, Tehelka’s We became Tejpal’s I. So it is not the fault of those seeking justice that Tarun 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?
If the sly suggestion was that we should spare Tarun Tejpal his ‘error if judgement’ in order to save Tehelka, then sorry, you lose.
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 Tehelka hired and immediately fired for a paper Tejpal started, called Financial World.
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.
Apart from the ethical problem with this position, it is simply not true. Just before Tejpal, the big story in India 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 Mr Narendra Modi’s favourite industrial group, Adani, against which Tehelka wrote a lot if stories but suddenly fell silent one day.
And who finally put out Snoopgate? Aniruddha 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 as 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 the wrong guys for doing the right thing. You can wonder about the irony of ABVP protesting outside Tehelka but you may also like to wonder why AISA did not do so.
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. Let us please not look for alibis.
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?
Last but not the least, secularism as a defence of Tarun Tejpal really hurts the cause of secularism. 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 causes of bringing down the Congress and furthering Hindutva.
'Why Single Out Tarun When the Media is Full of Molesters?'
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? 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 code of Omerta.
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; 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’.
'Great Man', 'Great Journalist', 'Great Novelist'
So you love Tarun Tejpal and think that a lifetime’s work should not be tarnished by ‘one indiscretion’? Not even the most path-breaking honourable journalism gives you the right to break the law. Did you say something about letting the law take its course? If one indiscretion by Bangaru Laxman took him down…
Charu Nivedita and Palash Krishna Mehrotra have both argued, the latter more slyly than the former, as if 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 do not 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 time in jail, Tejpal the sexual predator is likely to use this 'lapse in judgement' and his lacerating penance to make them part of the mythology of the 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.
A version of this article was first published in Kafila