Will Tarun Tejpal open a can of worms?

The manner in which the case of the editor who sexually exploited an intern is being played out one would imagine that people never had a low opinion of the media. From the looks of it, they expect the highest standards of propriety, chastity and morals from the news purveyors.

Tarun Tejpal, founder and editor of Tehelka, the investigative and sometimes controversial magazine, forced himself upon a young reporter from his office during the recent ThinkFest organised by the magazine. He wrote a letter to the managing editor; she, in turn, forwarded it to the rest of the staff with a short note.

Not noteworthy

The letter has been taken to the cleaners, and rightly so. But, let us pause and think. What could he have said? I am surprised he put anything on record at all. Why is nobody suggesting that perhaps he has been forced to by one or two of the many who are supposed to be sponsors or 'well-wishers' of Tehelka?

In the note, he does a promo for his mag. Let us look at it from the long-term perspective. He has to keep his best people around, and ensure that they are not affected by the scandal. It is part patriarch and mostly self-interest. The financial stakes are not to be sniffed at. His mention of a six-month leave is probably a face-saver. Or, perhaps, someone up there has provided some sort of guarantee?

Tejpal, of course, attempts to cover his tracks:

"It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles. Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me."

This is all about him, and not a thought for the young woman, the daughter of his old colleague, his daughter's friend. However, the quibble over his use of terminology has revealed something: most have played right into it by getting moralistic themselves rather than treating his behaviour as a crime that needs to be tried legally.

Shoma Chaudhary in her letter to the Tehelka team has called it an "untoward incident". Again, much as this term is reductionist, did she have a choice if she had to forward a note? Could she go beyond the mandate, that too when she was to be in charge of the team?

On NDTV last night, she came across more strongly, and spoke about treating this case as sexual harassment at the workplace.

One needs to broadbase this, to include SH in other work-related environment too. Women journalists have to conduct interviews that are often not without the uncalled-for attention they receive. I am deliberately being euphemistic here, because adding to the sexual connotations just gives those looking for a high a talking point and little else.

Look, who's talking

This incident, like many others, has become about scoring over an opponent. Tehelka was supposedly a magazine with Congress leanings, so the opposition is quick to bring in references to Asaram Bapu and even the stalking by 'Sahib' in Gujarat, as though one evil cancels the other. Then there are competitors in the media, who have found a wonderful opportunity to pick holes at everything Tehelka has done, as though their own house is clean.

Should this incident be an example for exposing the media? Yes. But, if anybody thinks it is an isolated incident, then they are wrong. The assumption behind wanting such an exposé is that the public really did not believe such a thing was possible and the media was above-board. I doubt if it is naïveté. It seems more like the feigning of innocence so that they can now concentrate, rather lasciviously, on a case study.

However, can one entirely wipe out the work of many of its reporters only because of what their boss did, unknown to them? Now that they know, should they be punished for being part of the organisation?

The problem here has ceased to be about sexually abusive behaviour. Tejpal is the right candidate for pillorying. Brash, flashy, and sanctimonious. Even a letter written by an environmentalist made a mention of him and his red Pajero.

To be noted therefore: If a person in a position of power is not brash, flashy and does not have a red Pajero there is a better chance of his crime being less eyeball-grabbing. Tejpal had plans to start Prufrock, some sort of elite club. Where did he get the money, how can he do such elite things after claiming to stand up for investigative journalism...such questions are posed by those who seem clueless about the media, or think it better to go along with the flow.

The whole corporate structure works on barter, and as has happened often power is abused. It would not help to indulge in innuendo or even give random examples.

In some cases such abuse is passed off as consensual. This sort of consent is as forced as molestation. Besides media heads, there are the sponsors, the businessmen, traders, film stars, PR agents, and even colleagues that follow a pecking order. Women are used as bait, if not a straight honey trap. Go fly a kite if you did not know about this.

The Tehelka ThinkFest has been in the news regarding some of its sponsors. Again, I have an issue with all such fests because they only dumb down intellectual/literary exchange and compromise them at the altar of the highest bidder. For the critics to now use unconnected material from the past is sheer opportunism and will do nothing for the crime for which Tejpal must be tried.

Is anybody really interested in the victim or justice for her? Does it matter whether or not she covered cases of exploitation for the magazine? What if she wrote a gossip column or about fashion or sexy things — should we then judge her differently?

If anything, Tehelka was given a halo by the readers, mainly for its over-emphasis on sting operations that became trendy. Now, they are treating this as the story of the fallen hero.

Justice is not about self-righteous indignation.

© Farzana Versey


Also read my 2003 essay (from an anthology on the media): When puppets hide behind pomposity


Update on November 23

Although most people are in the loop of who said what, just to put on record what the girl said:

In her complaint to Tehelka Managing Editor Shoma Choudhary, the victim says, "It is extremely painful for me to write this email to you – I have struggled with finding an easier way to say it, but there isn’t one. The editor in chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted me at Think on two occasions last week. From the very first moment, I wanted to call you, or find you and tell you what he had done to me – but given how absorbed you were at Think; preparing for and conducting sessions, and the fact that it was impossible for the two of us to get even a minute alone together, I could not. To add to this, I had to process the fact that it was Tarun who molested me — my father’s ex colleague and my best friend’s dad, and someone I had so deeply respected and admired for so many years."

“I hope you will also understand how traumatic and terrifying it has been for me to report this to you — and yet how critical it is that Tehelka constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines immediately, to investigate this matter. At the very least, I will need a written apology from Mr Tejpal and an acknowledgement of the same to be circulated through the organization. It cannot be considered acceptable for him to treat a female employee in this way.”

And here is Shoma Chaudhary's statement


  1. The thing that amazes me is, that we as masses are so so quick to paint someone either black or white. Shades of grey do not work for our psyche.
    When he was doing sting operations (even if it is not righteous within the legal arena)he was God. Now post this incident, he is devil.
    We are so quick to judge! And in a hurry to close the chapter.

  2. Well personally I don't suddenly think that his or thelka's past work is suddenly meaningless or he is the devil. But from from what I read from a copy of the email posted by the victim (which I am almost certain is legitimate), it seems like Tejpal is a sexual predator, and this is not the first time he has been involved in something like this. Does that make him a bad journalist? No. Does that give me the right to (metaphorically) spit on him when he postures about women's rights? Yes.

    However, what baffles me about this entire episode, is Shoma Choudhry's reactions. Why does she still insist on covering this up when almost all the details are public, and it looks really serious? She is very close to destroying her career and credibility for a long time, why would she do this willingly?

  3. I think there are some really great points made in this point. I admire your writing for its balanced, unbiased and thought-provoking prose. I think what most of the men and women on twitter have forgotten is the fact that there are two sides to a story. A mail exchanged between the two editors and among the staff is hardly proof or has offered any detail to the incident. Even the mail sent by the girl isn't publicly available. Most of us have come to know about the incident from the snippets provided by some more-than-eager journalists who felt the need to disclose this information on Twitter. How I see it is -- is a hurry to defame Tejpal. Also, to be fair to the girl in question, I think she must file a formal complaint instead of sending mails to journalists who are trying to sensationalize the issue and gain a quick ticket to fame for their respective newspapers.

  4. First the girl should come forward and file a complaint. Why is she not doing that will lead to some other questions? Tejpal might have sent a mail. Thats not enough.i am sure there will be more tejpal stories tumbling out.

  5. Your article seems to suggest such things are quite common in the journalistic field.isn't that a bit too much generalisation? Such incodents amy happen in any field but you cant say it is a general happening.

  6. Aborrowedbackpack:

    I think I took th grey route, although how blacker or whiter is grey depends on perception.

    The problem is with people rushing to create heroes. Period. Had they not, the counter-reaction would be less frothing and more cogitative.

    Something similar is happening with Vinod Mehta trying to defend what now looks indefenisible.

    And I do not think anyone is in a hurry to close the chapter. It is all abput making the most of it while it lasts. It is imperative to differentiate between intent and output, though.



    {it seems like Tejpal is a sexual predator, and this is not the first time he has been involved in something like this. Does that make him a bad journalist? No. Does that give me the right to (metaphorically) spit on him when he postures about women's rights? Yes.}

    Ae with your views. However, I do not think the qualitative aspect of a person's work ought to be brought in here. I wrote similarly about the victim. She need not have produced great work, or wrtten about women's or social issues. The crime has to be treated separately.

  7. Shubhra:

    Thank you. I have been given to understand that outrage is important. I beg to differ. I have never written for Tehelka, do not know Tejpal, and personally none of the journalists there. As I said in an earlier comment too, the is no sense of proportion. I have clearly laid the onus on the man and am on the side of the girl.

    Re your point about police complaint, she probably felt the need to sound off her colleagues. Isn't Tejpal doing something similar by sending emails to his friends, who then speak up for him on television?

    My issue, as it seems yours, is with going overboard in using the incident to score. That is as predatory as his actions.

  8. Riyaz:

    Stories should not "tumble out"; they should be investigated.


    {Your article seems to suggest such things are quite common in the journalistic field.isn't that a bit too much generalisation? Such incodents amy happen in any field but you cant say it is a general happening.}

    We talk about corruption in politics, unfair practices in business, the casting couch in films. Why treat the media as a holy cow? Where is the generalisation, anyway? Are you a part of the media? I was in the mainstream for years.

    It is time to look within.

  9. Have updated the post to add the girl's letter, the managing editor's statement and a few thoughts.

  10. The offense is perhaps universally understood; but there would seem culturally peculiar ways of addressing it. And, certainly, as Farzana attests (both here and in her 2003 essay), media is itself a peculiar culture, however uniquely flavoured *Indian* media may be.

    I found this excerpt from the young lady's second paragraph interesting:

    "I hope you will also understand how traumatic and terrifying it has been for me to report this to you — and yet how critical it is that Tehelka constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines immediately, to investigate this matter . . ."

    Apparently -- her personal trauma and terror notwithstanding -- she is content to abide with an internally distributed written apology from the offender; that is, provided Tehelka "constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines".

    If I may, what are "the Vishakha guidelines"? A Bing search took me to an astrology website.

    Perhaps I should have used google?


  11. Mark:

    I'd imagine that different countries/cultures might take different legalistic views, but the social expectations might not be too dissimilar.

    There is more that has come out about this case.

    Regarding the Vishaka Guidelines on sexual harassment, he is a link:


  12. >>There is more that has come out about this case<<

    Indeed, Farzana, not least a veritable cloud of ink. It seems Tehelka is intimately connected to the Trinamool Congress through Kanwar Deep Singh? Perhaps this is what Tejpal meant, according to an accompanying article by the Business-Standard ("Tejpal booked for sexual assault, rape," November 23, 2013), where he offers:

    “There have been serious allegations cast on me in this last week, and unfortunately as sometimes happens in life, the complete truth and the need to do the honourable thing can come into conflict. In this case this anguish was accentuated by the fact that very many intimate people, professional and personal, were involved.”

    It's a bit confusing, but I'm assuming he means the subsequent damage control and not the alleged sexual assault. In light of the Vishakha guidelines (thank you), certainly there ought be questions as to why Tehelka, apparently founded in 2000 (some three years after the Vishakha guidelines were laid out) has yet, more than a decade later, to "constitute an anti sexual harassment cell," as the young lady has pointed out, describing that oversight as "critical." Indeed, some may go further and inquire as to how it was the the "appropriate" Government department had neglected to notify Tehelka of their failure to constitute said anti sexual harassment cell, most particularly in that, according to the guidelines:

    The employers and person in charge will also report on the compliance with
    the aforesaid guidelines including on the reports of the Complaints Committee
    to the Government department.

    Surely the absence of this *annual* report of compliance ought have long ago raised a flag there, and thus have spared this young lady (and, it seems, the principals at Tehelka) her trauma?

    >>I'd imagine that different countries/cultures might take different legalistic views, but the social expectations might not be too dissimilar.<<

    One would think, but I'm usually reluctant to comment on Indian matters nevertheless. That said, I will offer that it is the young lady and her apparent solicitude for the well-being of the company in the face of her own private grief that has struck me as most "honourable," however that may translate across cultures . . .

  13. Hello FV, mstaab,

    Just like everything else, the entire crime has been hijacked as sticks to beat various ideological opponents, just like other crimes in the past. It is a little distressing to see that media personalities and student union leader (those bright harbingers of wisdom and reality to the younger generations) are a little iffy about the notion of "public prosecution" in a constitutional republic. Now, people who normally have regressive views on women's rights are in the forefront of fighting for womens rights....sort of like how the Pakistani army was in the forefront of the "war on terror" while it was sheltering Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad...but I digress as usual.

    Such behavior makes me want to give up my membership in the human race...'tis more honorable to be a rat than a human these days...if only we could hear what the rest of the animal kingdom has to say about us.


    PS: good to see you around this side of the interwebs, mstaab. Hope this finds you well.

  14. Mark, Al:

    I will probably be writing something. There are too many technical/legal details that do not consider anything from the humane perspective.

    PS: The human race also has people who do stand up for something, although seeing us from the animal pov has worked well in literature!

  15. FV: "The human race also has people who do stand up for something, "

    FV, Problem seems to me that a lot of people stand up for "something"s that are not entirely helpful from a global perspective. For example, religious fundamentalists and their cronies stand for things that are regressive. In the end, it all appears to be chaotic where ideologies win or lose by some random freak of nature, rather than their inherent goodness or badness, or so it seems to me.


  16. Howdy AI,

    Quite well, thanks; although, like you, I've been around, if not altogether visible.  : )



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