Last evening at around 8pm, if you were on Twitter, you might have received a link to two emails. The first was from Shoma Chaudhary, Managing Editor of Tehelka, to Tehelka employees informing them that there had been “an untoward incident” following which Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka’s Editor-in-Chief, had “extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved” and that Tejpal “will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months”. This was followed by this paragraph – “Throughout our 13-year career, we have proudly articulated and tried to live by the highest standards. We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only respond with right thought and action. In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the period mentioned”.
Tarun Tejpal’s email to Chaudhary was appended below. The subject line of the email was “Atonement”. These are some excerpts from his email – “ A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for. I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further…I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months”. In Tarun Tejpal’s letter of “atonement”, more space is given in praise of himself and his accomplishments and reads more like an Oscar acceptance speech.
If your read these emails, other than for balking at the purple prose and reference to Ian McEwan’s novel, what would you come away with? That Tarun Tejpal, the man who has built Tehelka from scratch and “against near-insurmountable odds” had a “lapse of judgment”. What could this “untoward incident” be? That he stole a colleague’s money, banged into their car, ate their lunch by mistake? And that’s why he was banishing himself for six months – I’m assuming on paid leave since he owns the magazine.
You wouldn’t think that it was a repeated sexual assault of a junior female colleague by him, the owner-editor in chief of the magazine. But that’s what has been alleged by her. Going by the emails, you wouldn’t have guessed so. At worst, you might have thought that he made a pass at someone and they rebuffed his advances. But sexual assault?
But Twitter is a cruel place. Information which you don’t want (and maybe shouldn’t be) revealed, will be revealed. Within an hour, some people had managed to get their hands on the private email sent by the Tehelka employee who made the allegations to Chaudhary, informing her about what had happened and what she hoped Tehelka and Chaudhary would do to support her. An email which clearly stated that it was far from an “untoward incident”. It was a repeated sexual assault on two separate days. Followed by SMSes from Tarun Tejpal which could be described as an awkward apology or a brazen justification of his actions. Other than for clarifying that the “incident” was a premeditated sexual assault, the email also stated that the woman hoped that Tehelka would constitute an anti-sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines to investigate this matter. At the very least she said she expected a written apology from Tejpal.
The divulging of this information on Twitter, though, came at a price for the employee concerned. Because no one seemed interested in whether they were divulging her identity or not, or whether they were revealing details which were of no relevance to the public. Details which are private and serve no purpose to all and sundry. People were falling over themselves tweeting and retweeting direct quotes from the email – which included information that could identify who the woman is.
Deepanjana Pal, Entertainment Editor – Firstpost and others contacted both the journalists who were directly quoting from the victim/journalist’s private email to Chaudhary and asked them to delete those tweets. Which they did, but after some 100 RTs and storify-ing had happened.
It was important that some details (not direct quotes, but paraphrased excerpts explaining that it was a repeated assault and not a flirtation) come out in the public domain so that people know what exactly was being brushed under the carpet. These details are what made many people view this as a serious sexual assault rather than a minor misdemeanour as it may have appeared to those favourably inclined to Tejpal. Those details also put in perspective whether Tehelka had responded with “right thought and action”. When I spoke to Deepanjana Pal about her reservations about the two journalists, Saikat Datta (of Hindustan Times) and Rajshekhar (of The Times Of India) tweeting out the email, she said that – “Her reservations weren’t about them tweeting out details. It was the manner in which it was done. It took on a voyeuristic angle by directly quoting details which are irrelevant to the larger public. Also, if the victim-journalist had wanted her email to be made public, she would have done so. The email had obviously been sourced from Tehelka employees. One only expects that better sense prevail amongst journalists at least and they think before replicating information which is a further violation of the journalist’s privacy. This better sense was not on display.”
What the email did do was reveal the gamut of Tejpal’s “lapse of judgment”. And that contrary to what Shoma Chaudhary, Managing Editor was portraying, Tehelka had not responded “with right thought and action”. The victim had specifically asked that a committee be set up to investigate the matter. What she got in return was a group email saying that Tejpal was banishing himself for six months. That Tejpal’s alleged behaviour is reprehensible is obvious. What is worse is Shoma Chaudhary’s role in the entire “untoward incident”. If a female employee cannot depend on her female boss to stand up for her when she is sexually assaulted by the male editor-in-chief, to whom does she turn? But then there’s much to be surprised by about Shoma, including her response to Indian Express when questioned on this incident – “I don’t know how this concerns you…I don’t think you can ask me these questions”. That is shocking, coming from Shoma Chaudhary, more so. Yes, she needs to answer.
She needs to answer:
1. As a woman who has stood up for women’s rights, have you handled the situation in a way that would reassure women that it is safe to speak up after a sexual assault?
2. It is clear that there are different rules for different folks in the manner that Tarun Tejpal has sentenced himself to a six month sabbatical. Is this how justice is served to the victim?
3. How do you justify staying on at Tehelka when the promoter and owner has confessed that he is guilty of this crime? Is it in keeping with your principles to accept that a six-month leave is adequate to put the matter to rest?
We of course have to wonder how effective or fair a committee set up under the Vishakha guidelines would have been in this case. While it would have had one external member, it would also include the HR head who is Tarun Tejpal’s sister and Shoma Chaudhary who has made it quite apparent where her loyalties lie.
I’m not shocked by Tarun Tejpal. He’s not the first editor to sexually assault a female colleague. The media is full of such stories. It’s just that when you are part of the media fraternity, it rarely gets reported because those who should report on your actions are your friends at best and friendly acquaintances at worst. And till recently they have refrained from doing so. The reaction and pressure and discussions which have ensued in this case thanks to the burst of social media offer hope for some change. This has been a slowly evolving process over the last few decades. I have been told of an incident in the late Nineties, which took place in one of the very few news production companies in India at the time. A senior editor molested a female colleague at an office party. Despite witnesses, the editor was neither reprimanded nor fired. In spite of being asked to by some colleagues, the victim did not make an official complaint. Her reason being that she needed the job. An issue like this would ensure her parents asking her to quit and stay home. With his boss’ (male) blessings the offending editor survived with no consequences whatsoever. Things changed slightly for the better in the 2000s. Two editors were sacked summarily after inappropriate and offensive behaviour towards female colleagues. The reasons for their sacking were never officially acknowledged or communicated or covered by other journalists. Today, thanks to social media, people are discussing and condemning the Tejpal incident. It is no longer possible to sweep such incidents under the carpet. Hopefully in another decade we might even see such cases going to court without the necessary push of Twitter outrage.
There is the fact that it is far easier for those of us who come from a certain privilege or background, to stand up when we are wronged. It is far easier for a girl or boy who comes from a journalist family and fraternises in the same circles as the offender to demand that he answer for his actions. Not everyone can do that. Which is why it is important that the management of any organisation take up the fight for any and every employee who finds themselves in this situation. This is after all not just about journalism, it is about a man in a powerful position misusing his designation over his junior colleague because he thought he could get away with it. One can hope that following this incident and the support the victim is getting among her fraternity others get the courage to speak out and see such offenses to their logical conclusion to put some fear into predacious men.