November 2013: The King of Sting is stung by allegations of sexual violence. I take stock.
That Tarun Tejpal is trending on Twitter is an understatement. The last time I remember being glued to the TV like this, for what seems like minute-by-minute updates on a twisty-turny case, is when my city was terrorised that November five years ago. What reality TV, even news of sex on camera in the Big Boss house, can hold a candle?
Naïve then to media motives, political conspiracies and Tehelka’s alliance with the Congress, at 18 I admired Tarun Tejpal and his tenacious team for what I simplistically saw as watchdog journalists taking on political corruption headfirst. Years and street smarts later, I continued to admire him for at least talking about (albeit sensationalising) a huge national problem. Especially when a close common friend told me of the trials his family and the Tehelka team endured as fallout, he emerged almost like a martyr—and one who had laudably endured.
This close friend is also the one who warned me about Tarun’s roving eye (and hands) before e-introducing us for work. My interviewer was not this legendary sleaze, I wrote a few pieces for the magazine and that was that about seven years ago.
The King of Sting, Tarun’s ‘Tehelka School of Journalism’ heralded the era of TV sting ops and has been the greatest proponent of the media trial (and Twitter and Facebook and trial by the internet at large). Though it is something I have a problematic relationship with, here’s what I think. I think Tarun Tejpal did it. I think he did and said every sick thing detailed by this scared but brave young journalist in her letter to Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka’s Managing Editor. He abused his physical power, the trust of a girl who looked up to him as her best friend’s father and father’s friend, and his authority as her boss.
After, he issued the apology that reeks of arrogance, judging that self-flagellation and a self-imposed six-month paid sabbatical would be enough. Since, he’s flip-flopped, lied and backtracked, alleged a “political conspiracy” and whatnot, and left a bumbling trail of evidence all over the place. (You’d think he’d know better, right?) Now, the victim has accused him of intimidating her family. In short, he has done everything he has appeared to stand against all these years. I think he’s worse than scum.
In a 2012 piece on the conviction of Bangaru Laxman, the subject of Tehelka’s Operation West End, Shoma had famously written: “If the vindication of Tehelka’s story sends out a message that from now on politicians will at least eschew knee-jerk reactions and meet exposure with dignified responses, the dark hours may have been worthwhile.” Funny, in light of her universally panned email brushing the incident aside as an “internal matter”, and how the magazine management has behaved when the shoe is on the other foot.
Will Tehelka Survive?
The interesting part about being in the public eye in these times is that you are compelled to embody what you preach, live your job. Just as film stars feel the pressure to always look and act a certain way, always under the gaze of the omnipotent camera, the actions of the founder and face of a magazine that encourages you to ‘Read It, Heed It’ hold a lot of significance. In the words of Maheshwar Peri, the Chairman at Careers 360: “Tarun is a victim of his own façade, fantasies and greed. He was never what he was portrayed, then and now.”
With two of the biggest pillars of the magazine that promised to be ‘Free, Fair and Fearless’ severely discredited and internal strife in the team, one wonders if it will weather the storm. (Especially in light of the blatant commercialisation of THINK, which, many felt, was the last straw in the selling out of Tehelka.)
This is a pity, I have to say; what an inglorious end it will be. Though Tehelka.com is woefully silent on the recent events, I feel that the only chance the brand has to survive is if new management manages to pull off an unbiased investigation as per the Vishaka Guidelines. It should then publish an honest story as it has always purported to do, even if it does reinforce the guilt of its Founding Editor. It’s a long shot; nonetheless, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater in hindsight, and acknowledge that the magazine has nurtured some great journalists who have done some extraordinary work.
The Tables are Turned
There are many reasons why Tarun’s claim of a political conspiracy is complete hogwash, not least is the victim. She’s a spunky, supremely intelligent woman, not one who would trade her life as she knows it for a political party or money. Heartbreakingly, media irresponsibility has meant that even I, with my rudimentary investigative skills, have figured out who she is—there have been too many details published about her. Now and always, even when the immediate frenzy dies down, she will be The Girl of The Tarun Tejpal Scandal. Aside from the personal emotional trauma and PTSD, of course, hushed whispers will follow her into rooms. Though not all from the Old Boys’ Club of senior journalists has supported Tarun, she will face hostility and guardedness from the outset of her career. She would not choose to be thus defined forever. She would not choose to make this up.
Frankly, I think she needn’t fear and could even, if she’s up for it, reveal her identity and speak up. There is no shame or blame, not hers anyway, and, as a journalist who writes on gender, she knows this. While none of this must be in accordance with her life plan, as they say, when life gives you lemons… If she could bear the burden of the spotlight and turbulence, she could become an inspiration for all women to stand up, speak out, pooh-pooh shame and seek justice against a mighty Goliath. As she heals and blossoms in front of the nation’s eye, her lovely boyfriend by her side, she will give other women hope that there is life—and love—beyond sexual assault. Much like Sohaila Abdulali, who, in 1983, published an account in of being raped in Chembur three years before (with her name, photo, et al), and has gone on to become a world-famous gender activist and writer.
Though equal rights activist Harish Iyer, who was a speaker at THINK and is the victim’s friend, too believes she should go public, he says that “the choice is hers, and it is not for us to intellectually masturbate upon.” Even if she doesn’t want to go public, I hope she will at least fight the legal battle till the end. She has enough and more support for the asking. From what I hear, the office of the Shakti Mills gang rape victim has handled the aftermath in a beautiful gender-sensitive that gives me hope—that there are enough mature individuals and organisations, particularly in the liberal media industry, who will be proud to back these women and to know them for their braveness. Among the chorus of outrage on my Facebook newsfeed, only two people have apparently sided with Tarun; at the receiving end of much backlash, one commented: “So this is what a lynch mob feels like.”
Will the Irony Never End!
What’s fascinating about this story are the players, of course, but also the liberal doses of irony it has presented. Life sure does repeat itself: in 2001, Tarun and Tehelka were the Davids; the BJP and Laxman were the Goliaths. Today, Twitterati wonders whether Tarun has connections that can influence this case; I am quite hopeful that, aside from the loss of his brand, public humiliation and strained socio-familial ties, jail time too awaits. I feel very sorry for his family; the girls and his wife didn’t deserve this.
At the time of going to press, the Goa Police has taken suo moto action, and has initiated investigations. It will speak to the victim today and to Tarun’s daughter too, before summoning the man himself. Tarun wants the case moved to the CBI. (Here, it is necessary to write ‘at the time of going to press’—this article is, literally the last one in for the absolute final print deadline, waiting as I have be for any new news.)
For now, Tarun Tehelka Tejpal, one of India's loudest campaigners for truth and transparency has been anything but. To quote his book The Alchemy of Desire:
“Men will always fall in the shifting chasm between the tug of the moral and the lure of the immoral.
It is in this shifting space of uncertitude that men become men.
Not animals, not gods.”
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in November 2013.