Assault charge hits sting pioneer

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 21.11.13
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New Delhi, Nov. 20: Tarun Tejpal, the journalist who pioneered sting operations in India and scalped some big names in politics, has “recused” himself as the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine for “six months” following a colleague’s charge that he sexually assaulted her.

“The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. 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 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 under the subject “Atonement” and sent to Shoma Chaudhury, the managing editor who will officiate for him in his absence.

The choice of words such as “recuse”, usually uttered by judges while withdrawing from cases citing conflict of interest, and “for the next six months” have stunned the news floor of the magazine that specialises in investigative journalism, insiders said.

Although Chaudhury’s mail to her colleagues informing them of Tejpal’s decision referred to “an untoward incident”, some insiders said the November 7 incident was nothing less than sexual harassment and efforts were on to dissuade the colleague from filing a police complaint.

The email by Tejpal, whose tehelka.com website had carried out Operation West End that showed politicians such as then BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting money, comes at a time a snooping operation made public by another website is churning the political landscape.

Aniruddha Bahal, the chief editor of Cobrapost that reported the alleged surveillance ordered by an aide of Narendra Modi on a woman, was part of the tehelka.com sting that felled Laxman in 2000. The Tehelka magazine was launched later.

Since Operation West End, Tehelka has been at the centre of a media proxy war between the Congress and the BJP.

Tejpal’s email, in which he apologised to all colleagues, also lifts — even if partly and couched in euphemisms — an undeclared veil that has largely shrouded Indian newspapers. Not many newspapers, including The Telegraph, report on scandals involving journalists or media houses unless a police complaint is filed.

But the circulation of an email, whose authenticity has not been challenged, has ensured that the issue is no longer in the realm of speculation.

Sources said that a young journalist, a close friend of Tejpal’s daughter, was the victim. She was molested during an event organised by the magazine in Goa, they added.

The sources said she was targeted on two occasions. They said the girl, the daughter of a senior journalist, had confided in them that she had more than once requested Tejpal to desist from troubling her.

The sources added that Tejpal tried to suggest that the girl misconstrued “a drunken banter”.

In the email to her colleagues, managing editor Chaudhury said: “This may come as a rude surprise to many of you. There is a letter from Tarun appended to this mail. There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months.”

Her message added: “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.”

The question of legal action has not been referred to in the email.

Below her mail was appended Tejpal’s email, where he underscored the high ideals by which the magazine stands.

“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. It has lived for and fought the big battles of our time, always on the side of the oppressed and the wronged, always on the side of equity and justice. Its voice has travelled the world and changed policy and perceptions. It has been a beacon for those who would do the right thing,” he said.

The mail concludes with the following sentence: “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. In apology, Tarun.”