Tehelka controversy: Can powerful editors get away with sexual harassment?

Published: November 21, 2013
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Tarun Tejpal, the patron of Tehelka magazine has 'recused' himself for six months as the editor-in-chief, following a colleague’s charge that he sexually assaulted her. PHOTO: AFP

For more than a decade now, Tehelka magazine has been respected by the media fraternity for its fearless coverage of illegal defence deals, land rights issues, gender equality and communalism.

Then, what happened two weeks ago in an elevator of the Grand Hyatt, Goa that not only shattered the reputation of the magazine, but blacklisted it for a long time to come?

Tarun Tejpal, the patron of Tehelka, is said to have sexually assaulted a female colleague during the annual THiNK fest that Tehelka organises every November. He sent an email yesterday afternoon to the Managing Editor of the magazine, Shoma Chaudhury saying that he has ‘recused’ himself as the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine for ‘six months’ following a colleague’s charge that he sexually assaulted her.

His email stated,

“The last few days have been most testing and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment and an awful misreading of the situation have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.”

Not surprisingly, Tejpal’s half-hearted apology has left the survivor of the sexual assault dissatisfied. Despite her seeking an inquiry into the incident, Tehelka’s failure to institute one has caused even more pain. The incident has highlighted how leading media organisations such as Tehelka, are yet to implement the Supreme Court-mandated Sexual Harassment Committees in their organisations.

A few media organisations that have constituted these committees are Kotak Mahindra’s Business StandardNDTV, the financial newspaper Mint and Network 18’s IBN.

However there is not much evidence to prove that these committees are actually more than an eye-wash and most senior journalists conceded that such incidences are commonplace in their profession.

Tejpal is said to have threatened the girl with her job. According to the girl’s friend, Tejpal threatened to dismiss the journalist if she did not play along. Two of my journalist friends wrote to me this morning saying that they had been through similar experiences in their respective places of work and were wondering if they could take up the matter with the authorities.

The question that arises then is why journalists choose to keep mum in most cases? Well, the journalist in question in the Tehelka case is the daughter of another senior journalist and has several friends in the media. She was a senior correspondent and wielded some influence within the media circuits.

On the other hand, several interns or junior reporters, with neither influence nor the ‘right’ connections, would be compelled to suffer the violence silently.

Another matter of concern here is that Tejpal is the owner-editor of Tehelka. Therefore, he took it upon himself to decide his own punishment. It seems to me that the Sexual Harassment Committees should be allowed special powers to take up cases against owners, especially since several editors own media outlets in India.

The power of an individual journalist’s pen weakens the minute the story is about the shortcomings of his/her own profession. Not many newspapers report scandals involving journalists or media houses unless a police complaint is filed.

However, in this case, senior journalists and common people alike pushed the media on Twitter to treat this like any other story. Hence, several TV channels and newspapers reported the incident last night and this morning.

Tehelka has been organising its annual conference, THiNK, every November for the past three years.  This event represents the leading figures of politics, economics, thought, art and films. Last year I helped in organising the event.

This year, it is troubling to be face-to-face with the dark underbelly of the conference.

Raksha Kumar

Raksha Kumar

The author is a Bangalore based video journalist freelancing for the New York Times and the BBC. She graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University in May 2011 where she majored in TV news. She is a Fulbright Scholar and has worked in various media outlets in India. She tweets @Raksha_Kumar.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Supriya Arcot

    I think since he has accepted his mistake and apologized, we should accept his ‘self -withdrawal- punishment ‘ now . No need to dig deeper.Recommend

  • Tenali

    Would you like this to be general rule going forward? If yes, we should make all the rape accused apologise for the crimes and free them from jails. We would be saving lot of money for exchequer.Recommend

  • Sanam

    I have been reading this news report on several forums but some important details seem to be missing everywhere.

    so what exactly has the victim described in her sexual assault episode? does she agree with Tejpal on the misreading and misjudgment of the situation? If not, how does he defend his statement?

    These updates are much-needed before any rushed conclusions.Recommend

  • Gurion

    Nobody is surprised. Under the excuse of “democratic values”, “freedom of press” and similar hog-wash journalists accumulate disproportionate amount of power sans any transparent review mechanism.Recommend

  • grandmasti

    i must say,young India is much better than older ones.look at this man.How corrupt he is ,he has no shame accepting that he has raped fellow journalist woman..Yes it is very true ,This can happen only in India..Since congress ruled india for most of the yrs after independence ,no wonder indians r following their legacy.Even pappu was mired into a rape case..read sukanya devi rape case.However the case was dropped by supreme court at the pretext of false allegation however it is hard to believe that he wouldnt have done it.PJ kurien a renowned rapist was never arrested coz he is trusted member of congress party.Rajasthan MP a member of congress party is also accused of raping a woman ,is being interrogated by CBI. Rape is congressian culture. I urge all indians male female to come united this time on election and throw out congress ..Et pl pass.you seem to block all my comment neither your moderator likes constructive discussion..Recommend

  • Tenali
  • Critical

    FYI,this is INDIA not medieval Europe where you can do a crime and then get a confession from a church pastor and are free to go home…..There is a reason why Europeans call that period as Dark Ages..

    I’m really surprised as a woman you are supporting…I sincerely hope u are a fake profile…Recommend

  • Guest
  • water bottle

    Is he your relative/friend/family?

    Why not dig deeper?

    Sometimes, women like you surprise me. I even wonder if everything is functioning properly in your brain.

    He should be dragged to the streets and punished with the full extent of law.

    If the girl who was assaulted doesn’t come forward, then a case should be registered against her for making false allegations.

    enough is enough.

    Slum dwellers get death sentences and rich powerful people ‘apologize’ and get on with their lives?

    We bleeding Indians are a 100 times worse than Pakistanis.

    At least they get American drones cleansing their society. What do we have? Nothing.Recommend

  • kafka

    Is this confined only to media? Is it confined only to India? Women are exploited everywhere. Mostly in the west, where they are treated as objects of amusement in the name of emancipation. The so called modern way of life has only increased women’s hardships.Recommend

  • gp65

    I hardly think this behavior is restricted to editors and those who are senior in media. With weak actions by corporations and virtual impossibility for an unemployed girl to get legal redress through our highly backlogged legal system – this issue is broader than abuse by an editor.

    As India moves ahead and wants to leverage its entire human resource, corporations will have to make the environment more inclusive with zero tolerance for anyone abusing their authority to gain sexual favors.Recommend

  • 007

    Wait a minute! What’s this story doing here? Is ET an Indian paper/website? I always wondered why do Indians spend so much time and effort posting their views on Pakistani blogs and now this is getting more senseless. It’s just like me writing an article about quality of loose milk being sold in Karachi at Hindustan Times’ blog.Recommend

  • grandmasti

    He should be jailed for at least 7 yrs and max life time imprisonment.There has to be zero tolerance against rape and rapist..Look at him ,..accepting it in public and fixing the punishment by his own..victim has been assaulted twice by him..It cannnot be a mistake..Recommend

  • grandmati

    so this newspaper is supporting a rapist..good ..By the way i like attitude of pakistani people towards rapist..this is evident from this newspaperRecommend

  • grandmasti

    and why did you publish this moderated comment..can you come on TOI see peoples reactionRecommend

  • grandmasti

    i m too amazed at this newspaper..ET india ko apni property samajhta hai..first They will publish article from india and will do moderation in pakistani style..You pakistani should stop peeping into indias matter ,focus more for your own womens cause,,I m sure she would not publish it as it will hurt her egoRecommend

  • True Karachiwala

    Actually media help coverup not just sexual harrassments but all types of crimes being committed, so its no wonder that within the community there is generally a hush up over such incidents as Raksha mentioned. But I think it’s the ultimate result of blind race amongst media groups for ratings that is achieved by sensationlizing and glamourizing the crimes, women, sex and make it a daily meal for a common citizen. I read TOI online edition ( I am not singling out TOI, others may be the same) and find it filled with stuff like these. The staff who are filling such things are after all human beings , they might too get carried away.Recommend

  • Naz

    This is the blog section not the main newspaper, people can write about what they want here. A journalist can write about how they enjoy cheese sandwiches if they want… Wait only Pakistani paneer, this is a Pakistani blog section after all.Recommend

  • Sanam

    Thanks! That really helps!Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    I mean its just another molestation. I never said TT is right or innocent . No need for politicians and ministers to step in . Scores take place daily. All I am saying is that many are using this to settle old scores too. This is being turned into a political situation . Of course he should be punished .And I am not saying ‘just-another-molestations’ is something to brush under the carpet.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Its a molestation PERIOD . Its undeniable that some people are using this as a platform to settle old scores. Some want this to be a big political pawn game . Treat it as just any other molestation case . Do ministers step in each molestation case ? No , then why are they all ‘dying to be heard’ in this case ? for gods sake ? I am BTW not saying that molestations are something to brush under the carpet.Recommend

  • Rakib

    Since Tejpal has admitted to it the crime is certainly condemnable & the criminal must have punishment after due process. However, I do see some merit in your argument that politicians shouldn’t jump in. Tejpal is hated by certain politicians, especially of BJP whose chief was filmed while taking huge bribes by Tejpal in a sting operation. But for Tejpal the real enormity of the carnage of Gujarat & role of Bajarang Dal (of extreme Hindu Right) in killing Muslims wouldn’t have been known. It went a long way in investigating Babu Bajarangi & many others. The glee of BJP-CM of Goa & others at his fall is therefore understandable but let us not forget the innocent lady in question. Tejpal assaulted & molested her & she must get justice. Human nature being what it is initial emotionally charged overreactions will evaporate & get compensated by disinterest & amnesia. In such a rational atmosphere the Courts may then render justice. And put him away.Recommend

  • Vikram

    I don’t think this girl want to take Tarun Tejpal to court. She shared this problem to few friends of her but did not report it to police. She wants some kind of disciplinary action taken against this guy friend of her.

    Things like this happen in Pakistan and most Muslim countries also. Boys have almost equal chances of getting raped as girls in most Muslim countries.Recommend

  • gp65

    ‘Just’ another molestation? That precisely is the attitude that needs to change. Men harassing women in workplace and elsewhere need to be made accountable.

    Fortunately this person is not going scot free. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/tarun-tejpal-sexual-assault-case-goa-police-files-fir-shoma-chaudhary-tehelka-defends/1/326022.htmlRecommend

  • gp65
  • gp65

    You may not be saying that all molestations should be brushed under the carpet but you are certainly wanting this one to be swept under the carpet.

    It is possible that other people have got away scot free in such a situation and if that is the case (which very likely it is) then that needs to change. As more and more of these cases come to limelight and as it becomes clear that public sympathy lies with the victim and not the oppressor, more girls and their families will have the courage to speak up.

    It is not a crime for a woman to step out of her home where she should then be willing to tolerate any rubbish that happens to her. On the other hand what Tarun did WAS criminal.Recommend

  • kanishka

    Read the “Victim’s account of Tejpal sexual assault” in her email to Tehlka managing director in the Goan newspaper Oheraldo dot inRecommend

  • kanishka

    Read the victim’s account of tejpal’s assault in Goan newspaper

    Oharaldo dot INRecommend

  • GV

    This is a rape not JUST molestation. Recommend

  • kanishka

    Read the actual “Victim’s account of Tejpal seekual assault” in her email to Tehlka managing director in the Goan newspaper Oheraldo dot inRecommend

  • Rakib

    (My earlier comment didn’t see the light.) You are not supporting this self-confessed criminal but you ask,”Do ministers step in each molestation case ? No , then why are they all ‘dying to be heard’ in this case ?” Unless you are far removed from Indian scene you would have known that Tajpal has stepped on quite a few political corns thru his “sting” operations catching even chief of a party on camera receiving huge amounts as bribe & on the role of some in riots. The political party involved sees this as an unsavoury but fortuitous opportunity to get even with the man, who all said & done has brought it on himself. Too, that’s how no-holds-barred politics works.Recommend

  • gp65

    Initially she was hesitant o file a case against Tejpal since he was the father of her best friend and she had respected him from childhood. Eventually however an FIR has been filed in Goa when it became clear that Tehelka wasn’t going to take any disciplinary action. This was not her boyfriend as you seem to think but her best friend’s father and also her boss.

    Unclear why you brought religion into this whole mix. It also does to matter what happens in other countries, in India we will not let that be a justification for a girl to be assaulted repeatedly by her boss and then be intimidated.Recommend

  • gp65

    It could be a tit for tat as you say OR it could be that times have changed and December 16 2012 was a defining moment and after the Nirbhaya case people are increasingly intolerant of cases where sexual harassment comes to light. After all media also went after Asaram Bapu and he too has charges filed against him does he not?

    Unlike you, I think times have changed and that is a good thing. These public debates will help empower women and bring some fear into the minds of those who are drunk with power and abuse it with no fear of consequences.Recommend

  • grandmasti

    BJP has not told him to rape a woman.OK.This immoral has to face the trial for the crime he has committed..Fact is that he wants to gain some sympathy by accepting crime, by the time victim was unsatisfied with shoma choudhary’s act to hide entire incident and terming it as companys internal affair.This guy was in fear that eventually victim will go to court for justice.So he accepted the crime by himself and fixed a lovely penalty for himself that he will not be visiting media house for next six month..great..But alas his every attempt failed. and now he is where he was supposed to be…Recommend

  • grandmasti

    I m too amazed at this ridiculous comment..why did he bring pakistan and muslim country..India is not..Recommend

  • grandmasti

    I m quite happy that rape cases became political .It will ensure justice for victims at least..Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    I never said TT is innocent . I am saying now that he is guilty as slowly now more stories are emerging on this case. Its also true that some people are using this to settle old scores (unfortunately ) . 2 days back when I first posted my comment , very few details had come out and many ( like me ) felt that he was kind of innocent . Now of course as we see, he is not . He looks super shrewd and cunning me . Well rape or molestation will be decided by the hotel camera tapes. I think its still not clear if its R or M.Recommend

  • Ammar

    You clearly have never been to a western country. Only desis even in the western country look at women as an object/sexual toy. For every body else they are just human beings and life moves on.Recommend

  • gp65

    Thanks for clarifying. It takes courage to change your opinion as new facts emerge.Recommend

  • gp65

    you say politicians jumping in was a bad thing – I say it is a good thing. Indian middle class is up in arms against sexual harassment and rape of women. If politicians pick up these cues that is a good thing. Politicians responding to people’s concerns and hopefully translating it into governance priority is a good thing for democracy.

    Did Congress not politicize communal riots in Gujarat? To the extent that the politicization helped bring riot perpetrators to justice, don’t you think it was a good thing?

    Same thing with AAP and it’s advocacy of LokPal bill – another issue that is important to middle class. Sooner or later a good Lok Pal bill will pass.

    When middle class protest is ignored by politicians for example the Balochs who have walked hundreds of miles to Karachi for their cause of missing persons) – I consider it as a failure of democracy.

    Recommend

  • Vikram

    Unclear why you brought religion into this whole mix………..well that was my response to WatWe bleeding Indians are a 100 times worse than Pakistanis. Bottle’s statement “We bleeding Indians are a 100 times worse than Pakistanis.”
    I read some where she considered him a friend.
    There is not justification for Tejpal assaulting and intimidating that girl. He should be punished according to the law.
    VikramRecommend

  • Nobody

    You want Pakistanis to stop peeping into India’s matters yet here you are on a Pakistani newspaper’s website.
    Furthermore, if you go back and read the author’s bio you’ll see she is an India based journalist. It’s her choice to write on ET’s blog as that is open to anyone and sexual harassment is certainly a problem women in Pakistan face as well. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Cheers.Recommend

  • grandmasti

    I m on pakistani newspaper only for India related article.As an Indian why I should have any interest in affairs of a foreign country ,same logic applies to pakistan.But it seems pakistani like you and this newspaper r over obsessed with india.why dont you stop publishing article from India first.I have only supported that pakistani guy above but It seems that you like Indian trolls like me to be continued on this site..cheers..On a serious note,i have seen so many articles about delhi gangrape,harassment of women in india but i never saw a single article about pathetic condition of women in pakistan..Dont you think that you guys r more interseted in india than pakistan..Recommend

  • Vickram

    In order to understand, why the exposure of a fraud on sexual molestation charge (Indian laws call it ‘attempt to rape’) should give so much happiness to people, one has to see this in perspective.

    India is the only democratic country in the world, where the Mainstream media function as Opposition to the Opposition parties. Tejpal’s magazine may have circulation between 5000-10,000 but he was soaring high. His paper, employed call girls to trap people and get some stings for his publication. Not even once, Tejpal has targeted the present ruling party, which is said to be the fountainhead of corruption. There are many who say, Tejpal was not running a magazine, but a racket.

    Barring the scotch-circuit leftist ‘intellectuals’, who are now wringing their hands in despair, everyone is happy that there is some justice in the world and charlatans are getting exposed.

    His many admirers are desperately trying to make light of his crime. Javed Akthtar has gone on record praising for his apology and all the people from left parties, advertising community, media houses are now shedding tears.

    From the Tejpal issue, one thing is getting clearer: the intellectual class who want to run the nation breathing ‘secularism’ day in and day out, care two hoots for moral values, and they condone promiscuity and licentious behavior.Recommend

  • Andrew Greenman

    You clearly have limited exposure to different races or have not travelled well enough. Blacks, arabs, Europeans also have these problems. Recommend

  • Indian Kashmiri

    India and sexual desperation/rapes, been hearing such news since over an year now. Exactly since backward hindu nationalist parties have started their nationwide campaigns. Indian currency is loosing its value and foreign companies running out. Ambanis’ building billion dollar houses right over the poor’s land, while government is only concerned about space program. Country is going down the drain and average Indian has no value !!!!Recommend