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26 November, 2013

Sex, sting and videotapes

BRP Bhaskar
Sex crimes have emerged as a major challenge in India. Varied as the social landscape is, the nature of crimes against women and the attitudes of the authorities and the public also differ vastly. The death of a young paramedical student following gangrape in a moving bus in New Delhi last December made headlines around the world. The protests that followed in the capital and elsewhere in the country received extensive media coverage but that has not helped to reduce the crime rate. Against a total of 706 sex crimes in Delhi in the whole of 2012, as many as 806 were reported in the first six months of this year.

Currently public attention is focused on a complaint by a young journalist of Tehelka that her powerful editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, had sexually assaulted her when they were both in Goa recently for an event hosted by the magazine. The case has raised questions about goings-on in the corporate world in general and the media in particular.

In the absence of a specific law to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, the Supreme Court, in a 1997 judgment, had laid down certain guidelines based on the provisions of the Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international document India had signed and ratified. These guidelines required all authorities, public and private, to set up committees, which include women and representatives of non-government organisations, to receive and investigate complaints of sexual harassment.

Early this year Parliament enacted a law incorporating the court’s guidelines. It defines sexual harassment so widely as to include any unwelcome act or behaviour towards a woman like physical contact or advance, seeking sexual favours, showing pornography and creating hostile work environment or posing a threat to her employment status.

When a young law intern, in a blog, revealed that a Supreme Court judge had sexually harassed her about a year ago, it came to light that the apex court itself had failed to set up a complaints committee.

Tehelka took the first step towards the formation of a complaints committee immediately after the Goa incident in an obvious attempt to settle the matter internally with Tejpal tendering an apology to the woman for his conduct and stepping down from the top post for six months. The Editors Guild of India frowned upon the move, saying Tejpal could not be his own judge.

The in-house settlement plan has collapsed with the Goa police launching an investigation, invoking the new law which makes sexual assault a cognisable offence, and dispatching a team to New Delhi to interrogate Tejpal and possibly arrest him. During the weekend it took the testimony of Managing Director Shoma Chaudhuri, to whom Tejpal had handed over charge of the magazine. The police is also said to be examining whether she attempted to cover up the scandal.

Since the cause of action took place in Goa, the state police is the competent authority to handle the case. However, since the Bharatiya Janata Party rules the state there is ground to suspect political motivation. The BJP was the target of two major sting operations conducted by Tehelka, which has a firm reputation for investigative journalism.

In 2001, soon after its launch as a portal, Tehelka came out with videotapes showing Bangaru Laxman, then BJP president, and Jaya Jaitley, president of Samata Party, the BJP’s partner in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, accepting money from its reporters, who, posing as arms dealers, had offered them bribes to secure defence contracts. Laxman had to resign the party post. Last year a trial court sentenced him to four years in jail.

In 2007, Tehelka released secretly recorded conversations in which some leaders of the BJP and other Hindutva outfits spoke of their role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

“Fallen Heroes: the Betrayal of a Nation” was the title under which Tehelka published its very first investigative story, which exposed a cricket match-fixing scandal. It led to then Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin’s lifetime ban from the game. In 2009, Azharuddin was elected to the Lok Sabha on the Congress ticket from Uttar Pradesh. Last year the Andhra Pradesh high court quashed the ban imposed on him.

Tejpal, whom The Guardian once identified as a member of India’s new elite, has now joined the ranks of fallen heroes. He had worked with India Today and Outlook before founding Tehelka, with Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and writer Khushwant Singh as non-executive members of the board of directors. Three years ago the India chapter of the International Press Institute presented him with an award for excellence in journalism.

The possibility of a just resolution of the matter appears to be slim. The complainant has already resigned her job. Some of her colleagues too have quit in protest against Tejpal’s conduct. Whether or not the scandal ruins the magazine and draws the curtain on Tejpal’s journalistic career, he may have a future as a writer. He is the author of three novels, one of which was nominated for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award given for “the worst description of sex scene”. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 26, 2013.

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