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Excerpts from Tarun Tejpal’s email to his managing editor and some reactions it evoked

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

Unfortunate incident? An author of Tejpal’s calibre should have chosen better words to describe alleged rape under the new law

I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further

Impelled to atone? Has anyone been more regal while referring to what he did to his daughter’s best friend?

Tehelka has been born and built, day on day, with my blood, toil, tears and sweat, and that of many others, against near-insurmountable odds

An affront to Winston Churchill’s immortal words in a week the world is paying tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s oratory

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.

Rarely has an accused judged himself and then sentenced himself to a six-month
vacation

You have always been stellar, Shoma, and even as I apologise to you and all my other colleagues, for this unfortunate incident, I leave Tehelka in your more than capable and safe hands

The only sentence in the statement that rings true. Shoma Chaudhury, the managing editor, indeed has proved more than capable of defending Tejpal. Who else would have had the capability to ask reporters: “Are you the aggrieved party? This is not a case, Sir, unless you know more than me.”


New Delhi, Nov. 21: Newsrooms in India were squirming tonight under an unsparing and unfamiliar glare that broke through walls of silence and self-importance built over many a decade.

The alleged sexual assault by Tarun Tejpal was sending shock waves not because of the indefensible transgressions but because one person finally marshalled the courage to cry the editor-in-chief has no clothes.

This is a maggot-infested skeleton that has been in the making for years. But when a young journalist prised open the closet, her role model and father figure chose to cover it up with prose that will go down in Indian media history as the most insensitive and inopportune.

L.K. Advani captured the capitulation of some newspapers during the Emergency by saying: “When you were only asked to bend, many of you chose to crawl.”

Tejpal, a celebrated journalist among whose trophies figures Advani’s party president Bangaru Laxman, did not outsource the job of chronicling his fallacies. He has saddled Indian media with a word whose pomposity will be hard to beat and whose aftermath will be hard to live down: “recuse”.

“I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months,” Tejpal wrote in an email to his managing editor.

That flowery attempt by a senior editor to act judge and jury has shovelled fuel into a public debate on ethics within a profession that plays watchdog but is today charged with double standards.

Not all newspapers covered the incident on Thursday morning, probably because there was no police complaint. This newspaper, too, would not have published the news in the absence of a formal complaint. But the young journalist documented her trauma with such precision and dignity that a newspaper could have ignored it only at its own peril.

Politicians, activists and many journalists today tore into the statement and the alleged acts of Tejpal, who had also worked with The Telegraph in the 1980s.

“The Indian media is on trial,” BJP leader Arun Jaitley bluntly said.

The Editors’ Guild of India drew attention to the potential for grave misuse of power. “The conduct that has been alleged would constitute grave sexual assault at the very least taking advantage of the authority and power of the perpetrator within the media organisation.”

The guild also underscored another issue that sometimes gets overshadowed because of the so-called influence journalists wield. “It also brings out vulnerability of young women journalists who need to be protected and free to pursue their careers without the fear of being subjected to such assaults,” the guild said.

Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury’s response itself showed how some are still in denial mode. Chaudhury insisted that the complaint was “an internal matter” and she referred to the alleged assault as an “untoward incident”.

“Tarun has resigned,” Chaudhury said today. “Isn’t that action?”

The new law

But the young journalist’s detailed account suggests a reckless attack in the confines of an elevator — not once but twice — that under India’s amended sexual harassment law could attract charges of rape.

“The new law is very clear. If what she has described in her letter to Ms Chaudhury is true, the new section will be applicable and he can be booked under Section 375 (b) of the IPC,” said Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, a member of the National Commission for Women.

Under the new law passed after the December 16 gang rape and murder in Delhi, insertion of any object constitutes rape. Tejpal is accused of using his fingers and later texted the word “fingertips” to the girl. The charge carries a maximum punishment of seven years in jail.

Late in the evening after hours of uproar, Tehelka said it had set up a sexual harassment redress panel under activist Urvashi Butalia.

But the law and a landmark Supreme Court judgment both require that Tehelka should have had a panel in place.

In 1997, the Supreme Court delivered the Vishakha judgment that made it mandatory for all organisations to have an internal sexual harassment committee.

It recommended a complaints committee at all workplaces, headed by a woman employee, with not less than half of its members being women. All complaints of sexual harassment by any woman employee should be directed to this committee. This is significant because an immediate supervisor may also be the perpetrator.

The committee is supposed to advise the victim on further course of action and recommend to the management the course of action against the man accused of harassment.

Tehelka managing editor Chaudhury and the other editors of the magazine can also approach the police with a criminal complaint on their own, based on the girl’s account.

Sources close to the girl, who worries for the future of the magazine that specialises in investigative journalism, said she had not yet filed an FIR.

Goa police probe

The police in Goa the alleged attack took place in a hotel there have got in touch with Chaudhury and asked her to send them the mail written by the young journalist and the letter issued by Tejpal. Tejpal remained out of sight today and Tehelka tweeted late in the night that he was still in the country.

Sources said the footage from the CCTV camera in the hotel lobby leading to the elevator was a vital piece of information the Goa police were likely to depend on. If the Goa police lodge an FIR, Tejpal will be booked under Section 375 (b) of the IPC.

The National Commission for Women, too, has taken suo moto congnisance but it has no mandate to take legal action.

Statement key

“The NCW and the Goa police can take legal recourse but prosecution would be difficult without the girl’s statement. They can file an FIR on the basis of the CCTV footage, but nothing would come of that. In fact, if they file a suo moto FIR, it will be a rare thing. An internal committee alone can take disciplinary action,” said senior Supreme Court lawyer K.V. Dhananjay.

The sources close to the girl said she was not satisfied with Tehelka’s enquiry and wanted an internal committee to probe the issue.

Activist Kavita Krishnan, who said that she was in close touch with the girl, tweeted: “She basically wants the sexual harassment acknowledged unambiguously in front of all fellow employees. He has NOT confessed sexual harassment, merely ‘misreading situation’ -- a lie. She is asking for sexual harassment enquiry, Tehelka’s denying. There’s no question of her ‘giving up’, but she must be able to control how she wants to take it forward.”

Not the remedies

The strongest criticism of Tejpal’s alleged conduct and statement came from among journalists.

“Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality,” Editors’ Guild of India President N. Ravi said in a statement. “The full force of the law must be brought into its investigation and prosecution. Due regard must be paid to the sensitivity and privacy of the victim who has already been put to grievous suffering.”

Tejpal’s attempt in his email to lace his “atonement” with words such as “laceration” did not win him sympathy. “What about the lacerations of the girl’s psyche?” asked the Delhi Union of Journalists. “His self-laceration and penance notwithstanding, he must be made to answer the law.

Political swipe

A political sub-text was also evident. The BJP, often at the received end of Tehelka investigations, struck with alacrity, hurling questions at the Congress. Goa police also stepped in after chief minister Manohar Parikkar, a BJP leader close to Narendra Modi, spoke up.

“Just because the assailant has connections in Congress party, the nation is deprived of the sage advice of P. Chidambram, the caustic comments of Kapil Sibal and the exaggerated tweets of Manish Tiwari,” Jaitley said.

“May be secular philandering is to be dealt with a different standard. We all wait to see if the young lady testifies to the truth or not,” Jaitley added.

The UPA government, which had decided to appoint Tejpal as member of Prasar Bharati last week, today revoked the decision.

“A decision was taken last week, but given the incidents that have cropped up since then, we have decided to revoke it,” a senior official said.

The Congress said: “On the issue of sexual assault, the Congress party's stand is clear that anyone found guilty of such an offence, action should be initiated against him. This is condemnable. It should be condemned.”