On the heinous incident of sexual assault by Tarun Tejpal

By | December 1, 2013

Press Statement 28 November 2013

The heinous incident of sexual assault on a young woman journalist of Tehelka by its editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, at the ThinkFest, an event organized by the news magazine, in Goa and the course of events that followed over the last three weeks have once again foregrounded the sordid social reality of entrenched patriarchy and unequal relations between men and women that allows and sustains the dominance and abuse of power in our society. RDF condemns in the strongest possible terms the sexual assault on this young journalist and demands the immediate punishment of the guilty for justice to be done.

Sexual harassment in work places and educational institutions is one of the many spaces wherein patriarchal dominance over women manifest in overt and covert ways, lead to criminal acts of violence, abuse and intimidation, affecting the lives, mobility and dignity of women. The Vishakha Judgment of the Supreme Court recognized this in 1997 and was a result of a long struggle on the part of the progressive and democratic sections of society. It mandated the formation of anti-sexual harassment committees at work places and educational institutions where people could lodge complaints against such violations and harassments.

These committees were to be compulsory bodies in these public institutions, headed by a woman, with at least half its members as women. Despite this landmark judgment, bodily violence and other equally repulsive forms of sexual harassment in these institutions have continued unabated. In some cases, the forms of such violations have changed and the instances continue to grow, even as these bodies hardly function or even exist in most institutions. At places where they have been formed, it was only a result of protracted struggles by progressive forces, and even then, at most times, they stand sabotaged and undermined according to the whims of the governing body of the institution.

This incident within the Tehelka establishment, therefore, is neither an isolated incident, nor does it come as a shock to many who have been following the terms of the debate on the need for legislation to protect and safeguard women in this country. The incident took place in ThinkFest, a corporate sponsored event endorsed by some of the biggest mining giants known for illegal mining activities across the country and sponsored the extra-judicial vigilante group Salwa Judum like Essar and Tata Steel, big corporations known for land-grab like the Adani group and DLF, CocaCola, Unitech, defense equipment manufacturer Pipavav, major corporate owned and backed media-houses, some politicians, and well known leaders of civil society. The event itself boasted of speaking for the poorest of the poor but closed its doors to this very poor with its inaccessible entry charge.

Behind all the glitz and glamour of such events, what lies unveiled is the perpetuation and accentuation of the unequal power relations inherent in this semi-feudal Indian social reality. Moreover, these same notorious corporations have been the motive force behind Operation Green Hunt and other such brutal wars and counter-insurgency operations executed by the Indian state in which hundreds of adivasi and Dalit women have been raped and murdered. When the founders of an organization like Tehelka openly proclaim the same values as the sponsors of an event organized by it, it comes as no surprise that the same unequal man-woman power relations and social inequality will be perpetuated and defended by it.

The invoking of a self-ordained penance by Tejpal and the managing editor Shoma Choudhury’s defense of this man and refusal to go to the police by calling it a mere ‘untoward incident’ in light of his ‘unconditional apology’, and the act of recusing himself for six months smacks of the feudal loyalty to the tainted and fallen institution that has lost all journalistic credibility in its attempt to shamelessly cover up the incident as ‘an internal matter of the Tehelka family’. Instead of standing with the complainant in her struggle for justice, Choudhury did the rounds of the media defending her decisions to safeguard the interests of Tehelka. Rabid slandering, character assassination, intimidation of the concerned woman are all common practices in such cases of sexual harassments and a weapon with which patriarchal forces regularly operate and vilify women who dare to stand up against it. In this case, too, such smear campaign has aggravated the agony of the complainant.

Citing such slander, intimidation and lack of support, the complainant has resigned from Tehelka. Though initially he ‘accepted’ his crime and even decided to ‘recuse (him)self’ for six months to ‘atone further’ and ‘do the penance that lacerates (him)’, but in characteristic about-turn of a wronged patriarch faced with the possibility of answering to his crimes, Tejpal cries foul. After the filing of the police case, he has backtracked from his original stance and frontally attacked the woman by called her a ‘right wing agent’, ‘a conspirator’ and a loose woman who up until now he had no qualms employing within his organization. Swimming in turn-of-phrases and verbose statements, today Tejpal shuttles between consensual and non-consensual, misreading and misconduct, sexual encounter and rape. A man who, up until now, thought he enjoyed impunity from such accusations due to his position within the media and the corporate world, finds himself outraged at the isolation he enjoys in his ivory tower of paternalistic concern he extended to the journalistic fraternity.

At the same time, the sensationalization of this incident by the corporate media with no sense of responsibility, journalistic ethics or even sensitivity is condemnable. In a bid to raise their TRP ratings, different media houses covered explicit details of the complaint and other information regarding the complainant leaked to them at times directly by the Goa police. Despite knowing that such media trials and coverage of extremely confidential details only affect the complainant and the case, the irresponsible coverage of news ignores cases of sexual harassment that abound aplenty in these media houses.

Irresponsible coverage affects the complainant in this case and dissuades women from speaking up against such harassment generally. After the mass outrage and protests against the rape of a young paramedic student in Delhi last year, the discourse around preventing sexual violence, crimes against women, and gender justice has occupied the centre stage of various debates. The month of April saw the definition of rape being redefined to include a wider range of sexual assaults on women. Despite that, the various forms of sexual violence have continued unabated even as forms of violence within the household or ‘marital rape’ remains outside the purview of the law.

Rape as a weapon continues to be used as it was during the Muzaffarnagar riots though its coverage was atrociously lacking when compared with the sordid stories of rapes by self appointed god-men like Asaram Bapu. The coverage of the acquittal of the rapists and murderers of Laxmanpur Bathe pales in comparison to the distasteful coverage of the judgment on the Arushi-Hemraj murder in Delhi. While hundreds of stories of custodial rape like that of Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh, rape by armed forces in Shopian in Kashmir, Manipur; the right wing forces in Gujarat in 2002, Kandhamal in Odisha, dominant castes in Khairlanji in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu get lost in the pages of news as everyday occurrences, these debates on TV channels and newspapers bring us back to the reality of entrenched patriarchy that stares us in the face.

This violence against women reflects the inextricable alliance between the patriarchal structure of society and the unequal semi-feudal, semi-colonial relations that sustains it. The various wings of the state machinery have actively served to strengthen this social reality while thwarting and suppressing all struggles for democratization and gender justice. This extreme inequality between men and women is inherent to this system and all other forms of inequalities and oppression only strengthen it. Today, it is clear that only radical and assertive struggles that recognize patriarchal domination and all other forms of oppression embedded in society, and organize and challenge these structures, and unite to smash patriarchy will lead towards a gender just world. Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF) extends its solidarity with the complainant and all other journalists working in Tehelka who have dared to stand up against Tarun Tejpal. RDF pledges to be a part of the struggle to ensure justice to the concerned woman and for the punishment of the guilty.

Varavara Rao
G N Saibaba