[First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]
It was almost a decade ago. The very year, Tehelka had conducted the Operation West End. I heard him speak in one of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, classrooms. My teacher had invited him to address the undergrads. (I was conducting research in the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences.) The BJP government had already started hounding Tehelka after the sting in defense deals. In his trademark kurta, he looked clam and composed. But you could feel a welter of emotions underneath. Once he started speaking, he was as forceful as ever. I still carry the memory of a harried sailor, who was desperately trying to hold on to the control of his ship.
After that fateful year, Tehelka has gone out of business and come back with a bang. Tarun has attained a cult status (before the rape allegations, of course). I have never seen him or heard him speak up-close again. Sometimes, I have been a little discomfited by the methods his magazine adopted for conducting stings. But that was that.
Sitting miles away now, I have only second hand knowledge of the events that unfolded on the seventh and eighth of November at the THiNK Fest, 2013, in Goa, which Tehelka organized (or a company owned by Tejpal). Here I don’t argue anything specifically. I merely sum up what appears to me as some of the points of contention in the whole affair.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went full throttle demanding the filing of rape charges against Tejpal. BJP has its own political axes to grind because of Operation West End, a sting operation in 2001, which had exposed corruption in defense deals. The damaging sting operation had caused the then Defense Minister, George Fernandes, to quit his post for a while. And the then president of the party, Bangaru Laxman, was caught on camera taking a bribe of one lakh rupees, which earned him a conviction of four-year jail term twelve years later. The Tehelka defense sting was the first to hit the right-wing government. There could be no doubt that this sting operation contributed to the undoing of its government in 2004.
Its chances of coming back to power were further compromised by Tehelka’s 2007 sting operation on the Godhra riots in 2002. This sting revealed how many of the BJP state and party functionaries were hand-in-glove with the rioters. Tehelka tried to debunk the theory that Muslims were behind burning that train that had supposedly set off the riots. This sting contributed to the party’s lack of credibility before the elections in 2009. The timing of the sting operation made many wonder if it was conducted on the behest of the Congress party.
Arun Jaitley, a BJP member and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, termed Tejpal’s sexual assault a rape: ‘The victim’s complaint makes out a clear case of rape.’ That the Goa police framed suo moto rape charges against Tejpal adds a political twist because Goa is ruled by the BJP. While it is not uncommon for the police to take suo moto cognizance of a rape charge, it does not happen often that the police go out of their way to register such cases. In the Justice Ganguly sexual assault (?) case, some of the prominent lawyers have already questioned the logic of a suo moto charges against the judge when the complainant is perfectly capable of doing so.
Much of the noise on twitter and other social media have been driven by Tehelka’s ex-employees or current employees, who have had differences of opinion with their boss over killing stories that didn’t suit Tejpal and his associates’ corporate interests. For example, Tejpal had recently shot down an investigative story that one of its reporters did on the Goa illegal mining, where tons of iron ore have been mined without necessary government permission. Tejpal supposedly didn’t allow the story to go public because THiNK Fest was sponsored by the mining company. The aggrieved reporter quit Tehelka and joined another news portal, Firstpost.
Revati Laul, a senior journalist at Tehelka, was one of the first to put in her papers and accuse Tejpal of wrong-doing. Claiming to speak on behalf of the victim, she was critical of the managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury’s support for Tejpal: ‘Truth is out there for all of us to see, I feel shattered. It’s an open-and-shut case of rape, why is Shoma using words like ‘lapse’ and ‘incident’”.
Three other journalists, in whom the victim supposed to have confided right after the assault, put in their papers as a gesture of empathy with the victim and over the alleged mishandling of the affair by the managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury.
That the Tehelka employees themselves were divided is evident in the manner a senior editor, Rana Ayyub, put in her papers. For the first few days, she defended Tehelka, the brand, and insisted that there was no need to join the ‘bandwagon’ of employees who were leaving the organization, but finally discontinued her association with the organization, citing mishandling of the situation by the managing editor. Here it’s not entirely clear if it’s the mishandling that propelled the senior editor or an anticipation of reprisal by the vociferous social media, which has the power to stigmatize one for life.
That the email the victim had sent to the managing editor was leaked immediately to media shows that there was certainly a lack of trust within the organization itself. The ‘leak’ might not have been entirely driven by a desire to secure justice for the victim. If that was the case, the name of the victim would not have been callously disclosed to the media, along with steamy details of what had supposedly happened inside the elevator.
Apart from the political rivalry and discontent among Tehelka employees, a third element of his critique has emerged from Tejpal’s erstwhile friends and acquaintances. Binoo John, who once worked with Tejpal at India Today, has been vitriolic in his attack against his former friend. He has gone so far as to suggest that sexual assaults of this kind might not have been very uncommon for a man like him (if I read John correctly, that is): ‘Generous and loving to a fault, he later became a killer of stories and careers. I cannot fathom all this. I am utterly broken. I knew early this year that his end was near. If you hit a bank once, you don’t stop with that. You always want a second hit. It is the same with assaults and one-night stands.’
Another former acquaintance and Booker Prize winner novelist, Arundhati Roy, whose first novel, The God of Small Things, was published by India Ink, which is partly owned by Tejpal, has hit back by questioning Tejpal’s moral integrity and termed his self-defense ‘a second rape.’ Explaining why it took a while to break her silence over the Tejpal issue, Roy claimed that while she didn’t want to hit a drowning man, she was finally compelled to do so because, otherwise, her silence would have been misconstrued. Like the senior editor, Ayyub, Roy’s decision to ‘speak up’ makes it very clear that there is a huge amount of public pressure to prove one’s moral integrity. Or make a public display of morality.
Social Media: ‘Speaking Up’ Dangerously?
If one feels outraged, how does one ‘speak up’? Writing in one of the portals the very next day after the incident, one journalist claimed that this year has been a year of ‘speaking up’ for women in India. (It’s besides the point that the piece never presented any worthwhile argument apart from self-congratulatory back-patting.) However, the modes of ‘speaking up’ were left vague in this piece. And who speaks using what medium? And whose voices are heard? And what’s the purpose of ‘speaking up’? Is the ‘speaking up’ always for seeking justice or sometimes to settle a score (to put it crudely, take revenge), prove a point, malign deliberately, and play a game of one-upmanship?
The Tejpal issue once again brings to light that for the urban middle-class in India, twitter (and to an extent Facebook) is the preferred medium for ‘speaking up.’ The twitter reactions in the first couple of days following the incident have been one of sophisticated lynching by the twitter-mob. While Tejpal has been criticized for playing the guilty and the judge at the same time, the twitterverse did no different. It argued a case with endless passion (and often without nuance) and passed a judgment, irrespective of one’s crime in the eyes of the law. ‘Speaking up’ is nothing but, at least in the Tejpal case, speaking mostly on twitter.
A minuscule segment of India’s population, many of whom are arm-chair ideologues and activists in the cybersphere, (who often forget that there is a world outside twitter) ‘speaks up’ with élan and passes a judgment. In recent times, the speaking power of media has influenced the verdict in some of the critical cases. This trend has been termed a ‘media trial’. A vociferous urban media already pass judgment on cases, packaging their demand on the basis of the popular pulse in social media.
But why is the ‘speaking up’ so selective? Even if one leaves aside cases of rapes in the rural areas and those perpetrated by the Indian Army, what about the gruesome rape cases and killings during the Muzaffarnagar Riots in early-September, 2013? Almost three months have passed since the Muzaffarnagar Riots, has the social media ‘spoken up’ for the rape victims? Where is the outrage against those who still roam free after raping and burning young girls and women alive? (Watch a documentary here and read fact-finding committee reports.)
Without taking anything away from the willingness and the courage to ‘speak up’ after the Tejpal issue, it’s reasonable to claim that some rapes are worthy of ‘speaking up’ while others are not. The urban middle-class will ‘speak up’ if it’s one of their own. Rapes occurring during communal riots and army actions are better dropped like hot potatoes, however gruesome these offenses might be.
Some claim that it’s the social media which spurred the police to press charges against Tejpal. I am afraid that sets a dangerous precedence. Does that imply if there is no middle-class outrage over social media, rape charges won’t be pressed in other cases, like in the case of Muzaffarnagar Riot victims? Does that also imply, we as a society, are moving to a direction, where the urban middleclass would abrogate the leadership for all other sections of the society, by virtue of their soft skills (esp. English language) and mastery of the cybersphere?
The way the public trial has been conducted by the social media, the mainstream media, and some of Tejpal’s former acquaintances, it makes us almost forget the legal framework within which the case must be understood. Kavita Krishnan, the noted feminist and anti-rape activist, has pointed out that there is ‘a due process of law’ that must take its own course and punish the guilty.
For her part, the victim has already agreed to record her statement with the Goa police. For his part, Mr. Tejpal has appealed to a Delhi court for an anticipatory bail and it has been rejected. While writing this, he is already being interrogated by the Goa Police. He might also appeal to move the case out of Goa: a demand not completely unfounded, considering the political vendetta of the BJP ruled government in the state.
According to the new rape law, an assault in which there is a ‘penetration with finger’ would also be considered as rape. Since there was no CCTV inside the elevators, the police and the court would have to depend on circumstantial evidence and the victim’s testimony. It’s not certainly going to be an easy task to prove the actual occurrence. What might go against Mr. Tejpal, though, are his multiple contradictory statements: from ‘lapses’ to ‘sexual liaison’ to ‘playful banter’ to ‘consensual act.’ The victim has mostly stuck to her version that it was a case of sexual assault over two days.
Beyond political vendetta, grievance in the workplace, and personal grievance of former friends and acquaintances, there is a due process of law which concerns two individuals – the perpetrator and the victim. The case should be essentially left at that: a legal process in which the law will take its own course and punish the guilty. This is what a former friend of Tejpal meant when he very succinctly put it: ‘He was never a saint and neither can be a rapist.’ Certainly, not until the law has condemned him as one. To pronounce a judgment even before the legal proceedings are complete would be an act of vendetta.
Fall of the Mighty-Identifiable?
In his theory of tragedy, Aristotle had said that the ideal tragic hero is one who is already exalted, one who belongs to the noble class. The fall of an ordinary person would hardly evoke any desired response from the audience because there is nothing grand in the fall of an ordinary person. Whoever talks about the fall of the guy who cleans the neighborhood streets or a clerk in a government office?
Everyone cringes to see a mighty one fall. And when the mighty one falls, it is pity and fear which make us act the way we do. We transfer our own guilt and fear on to the perpetrator, thereby relieving ourselves of any fear of wrongdoing.
However, Tejpal’s tragedy requires a slight modification of the Aristotelian theory. The hero of a modern day tragedy, while being an exalted person, must also be one who is identifiable. In his success, Tejpal’s appeal stemmed from the fact that he was a middle class guy (his father served in the military and I have never read anywhere that he was born with a golden spoon) who had stood up to the system. In his fall, Tarun Tejpal evokes strong response because he has breached the limits of middle class morality.
Tarun is exalted but Tarun is identifiable. Tarun has become the site of collective middle class anxiety. Tarun is the limit of success and failure. Tarun is one of us because he rose through the ranks by sheer professional gumption. Tarun is not one of us because we refuse to recognize his moral transgressions.
Tarun Tejpal is the classic protagonist of a tragedy, a mighty-identifiable man with a hamartia that would ultimately bring about his downfall.