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      Vox Populi or Lynch Mob?          

Omkar Goswami


As I write this piece on 28 November 2013, the coverage on Tehelka promoter and till very recently editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal’s sexual assaults on a young woman journalist of his organisation continues to gather steam. It hasn’t reached a crescendo. That will doubtless happen in the coming weeks, especially if Tejpal’s top-notch legal team can justify their huge billings by finding some arcane loophole to get their client off the hook.

I want raise a few issues here and then make a case for continued high pressure activism. First, none can deny that Tejpal is the promoter, boss and head honcho of Tehelka, and that till very recently the assaulted journalist was an employee of the organisation, many rungs below Tejpal. Therefore, this is a case of two alleged sexual assault incidents where the molester was hierarchically superior to the victim. The vast majority of sexual assaults at workplaces occur in similar circumstances — where assailants believe that their organisational pre-eminence give them the clout to initiate such assaults. Equally often, this superiority is used to cow down the victim or cut a shut-up deal.

Second, no evidence that is currently in the public domain suggests consensual sexual behaviour between Tejpal and his victim — the frivolous, “ostensibly playful” behaviour that the editor in chief alluded to in his first “informal between you and me... lapse of judgement” email. Tejpal’s defence will certainly try to create consensuality, and a smear campaign against the victim has begun. However, if a young woman in her 20s who worked at Tehelka and was a close friend of Tejpal’s daughter had frivolously playful, fun-filled, consensual sexual interludes with her editor-in-chief, would she have gone on record with a detailed description of how she was molested by her boss on two consecutive nights? I think not. Most likely, nor you.

Third, is this a case of Tejpal being proven guilty by the people, well before a decision is arrived at by the criminal court? Yes, perhaps so. But everything that Tejpal and his loyal managing editor Shoma Chaudhary have done since the victim’s first email to the latter suggests sweeping things under the carpet — using smartly crafted words to obfuscate facts, claiming that it is politically motivated by the BJP and in creating a veneer of upper class PLU (people-like-us) atonement to an act which was grossly immoral and certainly criminal. In such a situation, print media and television news have every right and duty to up the ante to bring Tejpal to justice.

Let me remind readers of one of the finest hours of the fourth estate — that of bringing the killing of Jessica Lal to the forefront after the shocking acquittal of the murderer Manu Sharma, the son of a Congress MP from Haryana in February 2006. A sustained television campaign released pent-up frustration of the capital’s middle class. Rallies, candle-lit vigils at India Gate and daily protests forced the case to be taken up at the Delhi High Court.

Incidentally, Tehelka played a big role with a sting operation proving that the witnesses were bribed and coerced to retract their testimonies. In December 2006, the High Court turned a guilty verdict, and Manu Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment.This too is the time for another great hour for the press. Until proven otherwise, a young girl seems to have been sexually molested by a powerful PLU journalist chief with connections in high places. The Visakha judgement of the Supreme Court clearly lays defines sexual harassment. It includes (i) physical contact and advances, (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours, and (iii) sexually coloured remarks. The facts which exist as of now suggest that the molested had to suffer all three from Tejpal.

Manu Sharma was a non-PLU goonda. It was easy for the middle class to be united to get him to justice. Tejpal is a PLU. But an alleged sexual assaulter nonetheless. Let not his PLU-ness grant him our pardon.

Published: Business World, December 2013


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