Delhi’s journalism circuit went into a tizzy on Wednesday night when it became increasingly apparent that a top editor could soon be facing charges of stalking, attempted rape (at the least), intimidation and in all probability, a prison term.
That Tehelka magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal was still a free bird for a crime committed in Goa a fortnight back was, because the survivor, an employee of the magazine who claimed to be not only his daughter’s age but also her friend, was yet to lodge a police complaint. This, a friend of hers told Delhi Durbar, was only because she cared for Tehelka as an institution and was conscious the magazine may not survive this jolt.
The friend agreed there was enough evidence that could put Tejpal in serious trouble if legal recourse was taken. This evidence allegedly includes Tejpal’s text messages to the survivor sent both immediately after the incident and then a week after that. It also includes CCTV footage of the elevators of the five star hotel where the incidents allegedly took place, two days in succession, on November 07 and 08.
Tejpal admitted to the crime in an email he sent Tehelka Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhary, and now his successor, around 03 pm on Wednesday (20th November). In his email Tejpal termed the incident “tragic” and “a lapse of judgement”. He said that as “atonement” he was “offering to recuse” himself “from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months”. In turn, Chaudhary wrote to all Tehelka employees at 07 pm on Wednesday that Tejpal was leaving for six months because of an “untoward incident”.
To the survivor and her friends, Tejpal’s apology has come across as half-hearted. What has hurt more is Tehelka‘s failure to institute an inquiry into the incident even three days after the survivor wrote to Chaudhary demanding such an inquiry. The incident has highlighted how leading media organisations like Tehelka are yet to constitute the Supreme Court-mandated Sexual Harassment Committees as per the 1997 Vishakha judgement of the apex court.
Important voices within the media like The Hindu‘s Vidya Subramaniam and others hoped the survivor would find the courage to file a criminal complaint. “Girl’s friends must help her out of her trauma & persuade her to file criminal complaint against Tejpal…,” tweeted Subramaniam. CNN-IBN‘s Bhupendra Chaubey felt it was the Nirbhaya moment for the media.
Most in the industry were aghast at the nonchalance that both Tejpal and Chaudhary betray in their emails to serious allegations of sexual harassment by a young girl. It is also something that made one Tehelka employee, Revathy Laul, quit in disgust. A source said that Laul already had problems at Tehelka but this was the “very last straw that pushed her over the edge”. The disgust could be gauged from the fact that it didn’t take minutes for Tehelka employees to let the world know through social media of Tejpal and Chaudhary’s chicanery in the face of a young girl’s serious allegations.
The incident relates to Tehelka‘s Think festival from November 08 to 10 in Goa.
In her email the survivor wrote to Chaudhary that “the editor in chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal sexually assaulted” her “at Think on two occasions last week”. Her letter was written earlier this week to Chaudhary. The survivor further claimed that it took her time to tell Chaudhary about the incident as she had to “process the fact that it was Tarun who molested me — … — someone I had so deeply respected and admired for so many years”.
According to the survivor’s friend, the first instance took place on the opening night of Think on November 07. The survivor, who is in her late 20s, was responsible for chaperoning Hollywood star Robert De Niro and his daughter.
De Niro was one of the guest speakers at the festival. The young journalist survivor spent the entire day taking De Niro and his daughter Drena De Niro sightseeing and ensuring that they were not inconvenienced in any way at a place that was new to them. According to her friend, whom the survivor recounted the incident later, Tejpal and she accompanied De Niro and his daughter to their hotel suites to wish them goodnight.
The survivor told her friends that Tejpal, whom she had known since she was a child and who had offered her first job and was a paternal figure to her, allegedly molested her in the elevator of the five star hotel when they were returned from De Niro’s hotel suite. She told them that she resisted. She reminded Tejpal that his daughter was her best friend, that the two families were close and that he had known her since she was a child. Her entreaties fell on deaf ears. According to the survivor, Tejpal allegedly “penetrated” her with his hands. The young journalist escaped somehow when the lift stopped on the ground floor.
Well, this is the easiest way for you to keep your job.
Tejpal followed the survivor as she walked out of the elevator. According to her friend Tejpal even threatened to sack the journalist if she didn’t play along. “Well, this is the easiest way for you to keep your job,” he allegedly told her as she walked away from him. The survivor then caught a taxi and returned to her hotel where she recounted the incident to three of her closest friends. Around this time, an hour past midnight, Tejpal texted the survivor which had reference to the incident in the elevator. “The fingertips,” it read.
The next morning and afternoon, that is November 08, passed off normally. The survivor did discuss the incident with her friends but continued with the tasks assigned to her. In the afternoon she accompanied De Niro, his daughter, Sir VS Naipaul, Lady Naipaul and Tejpal’s wife to the Goa Governor’s bungalow for lunch. But the survivor didn’t mention the incident to Tejpal’s wife.
After returning to the hotel, Tejpal instructed her to ensure that De Niro attended Amitabh Bachchan’s session in the evening. Tejpal said he wanted the two giants of cinema to meet. The survivor escorted De Niro and his daughter to shop at Panjim and brought the two to the hotel to attend actor Amitabh Bachchan’s session. The survivor then went back to her hotel room to change when she received Tejpal’s text messages, as well as a phone call from another employee’s number inquiring about her whereabouts and asking her to return to the hotel where the main event was taking place.
Tejpal then, allegedly, asked her to accompany him to De Niro’s room as the actor, or so Tejpal claimed, wanted something from the room. The survivor later told her friends that she resisted entering the elevator as she was afraid it would lead to a repeat of the previous night’s incident. She alleged that Tejpal took her into the elevator forcefully and molested her again despite her protests.
The journalist somehow extricated herself from Tejpal, who, she claimed, had by then became wary, realising that the survivor was on the verge of hysteria. She walked out of the elevator and immediately told one of her friends that Tejpal had molested her again.
The survivor met her friend Tejpal’s daughter and recounted her the incident. The survivor told her friends that Tejpal’s daughter was extremely disgusted. When the survivor met Tejpal later to convey De Niro’s complaint about him having been mobbed badly, Tejpal told her that she made a mistake telling his daughter about the incident. It seems his daughter had shouted at Tejpal, asking him to keep his pants up.
The survivor told her friends and her mother about the incident and was sure she would lose her job. She stayed the next day to chaperone De Niro and his daughter when she started getting text messages from Tejpal.
In one message Tejpal allegedly told the survivor he hoped she conveyed to his daughter that it was “just a drunken banter, and nothing else” between the two of them. A second message followed: “and just banter, and nothing else”. Two more messages followed which conveyed that Tejpal was the least bit sorry about his act. “I can’t believe u went and mentioned even the smallest thing to her. What an absence of any understanding of a parent child relationship,” Tejpal texted her (sic).
The survivor claimed to her friends that she did have phone conversations with Tejpal about De Niro’s travel plans on November 09, but generally stayed away from him. According to the survivor, Tejpal didn’t mention the incident during these calls. She had no contact with Tejpal, she claimed to her friends, after she dropped De Niro and his daughter to the Goa Airport at 4.30 pm on November 09.
Tejpal texted the survivor again half dozen times on November 16. Tejpal inquired from her whether she had spoken to his daughter and if his daughter was okay.
“Why would she be ok about the fact that you sexually assaulted her best friend, that is me?” texted the survivor.
But according to her version to her friends Tejpal continued to evade. “What’s with saying this awful stuff??” he texted back. The survivor replied:”Do not send me any messages. You are lying and you know that.”
But to Tejpal the incident was nothing but drunken banter. “Oh is that so? I cherished you like one of my best kids always, all these years; and because of one drunken banter you so easily say these awful things.”
The survivor persisted that “it was twice Tarun, not once and it was no banter. You did the most horrible things to me and I certainly was not drunk. I asked you to stop repeatedly.”
The Editor-in-Chief was still trying to browbeat her. “Oh so that’s what you told XXX (Tejpal’s daughter). No wonder she’s so madly upset. Its ok. Am not going to contest anything with her. Will let time and my love heal what it can.” and “Don’t think I’ve been more saddened in the longest time.”
In her letter to Chaudhary sent earlier this week, the survivor stated that Tejpal’s text messages on Saturday evening insinuated that she “misconstrued “a drunken banter”. That is not what happened. Banter does not involve forcing yourself on someone, trying to disrobe them, and penetrate them with your fingers despite them pleading for you to stop.”
The survivor said it has been “traumatic and terrifying” for her to report this to Chaudhary “and yet how critical” She demanded 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.”
However, Tejpal’s wasn’t much of an apology. In an email to Chaudhary at nearly 03 pm on November 20, Tejpal showed little realisation of the gravity of his crime. “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,” he stated.
He claimed that he has “already unconditionally apologised for” his misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further.” He said that in a “lapse of judgement” he has hurt Tehelka‘s “high principles”.
“I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months,” Tejpal said.
At a little past 07 pm, Chaudhary emailed the rest of the employees about the “untoward incident”. She appended Tejpal’s email to her letter stating that “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.”
But two public statements by Chaudhary on Wednesday seemed to raise questions as to her bipartisanship in this matter. “It is an internal problem and we are not setting up any enquiry into the matter,” Chaudhary told the Business Standard.”
And when questioned by the Indian Express, she said, “I don’t know how this concerns you…I don’t think you can ask me these questions.”
This isn’t the first such instance of sexual harassment in the media. There have been well known incidents in the past in both print and television journalism. In all of those case, the perpetrators were punished only because one brave survivor decided to stand up. It wasn’t as if it was the first transgression for any of these editors. However, the editors have soon found cushy jobs or assignments elsewhere.