When an Organization That Fights #Rape, Also Perpetuates It: The Tehelka Saga
In November an article circulating on the net about a bogus ‘rape festival’ in India upset many because it seemed to make a mockery of rape!
Yet, the irony is, at the same time, a premiere event with the likes of Robert De Niro and other celebrity guests, the ‘THINK’ festival in Goa, was doing exactly that – making a mockery of rape and rape victims!
The ‘THINK’ festival was organized by Tehelka, one of India’s most radical, liberal magazines. But for India, this institution is more than that. The word ‘Tehelka’ has become synonymous with revolution and public outrage for justice and equality.
Tehelka’s reach is immense. It holds enormous clout both nationally and internationally. Its THINK festival this year boasted of guests and speakers like Robert Di Nero, Amitabh Bachchan, Medha Patkar, Garry Kasparov, Tina Brown, Mary Kom, John Pilger, and many others.
Rape was one of the big issues of this year’s THINK festival. Rape survivors and activists from India spoke out ona platform titled “The Beast in Our Midst.” There was Suzette Jordan, who had been gang-raped at gunpoint and counsels survivors even as she still fights for justice; Harish Iyer who had been raped as a child by relatives and spoke of how rapists are not all strangers but often those we know and trust; Sandhya a 16 year old gang rape victim whose mother was also gang raped and killed when the family filed a complaint; Ima Ngambi who is part of Meira Paibis, mothers who have stripped to protest systemic rape and violence on women by the Indian army in Manipur; Sister Jesme who has exposed systemic sexual abuse of nuns within the Catholic church in India; Manisha Devi who talked of how the worst part of rape is how the legal, police and social systems further inflict injustice on victims.
There was yet another rape story unfolding during the festival that would emerge in the public domain a few days later. It shocked the nation and forced it to question why Tehelka perpetuated the very cause it said it was fighting against.
Tarun Tejpal, the founder, editor-in-chief, and main proprietor of Tehelka, forcefully undressed and sexually molested one of the younger Tehelka journalists on two occasions during the course of the festival. The journalist had been assigned to chaperone Robert Di Nero at the festival. It appears Tejpal used a visit to Di Nero’s room as an excuse to get the victim into the elevator where the incident took place. When she resisted, and begged him to stop, he told her that that was the best way for her to keep her job! Details of the attack later revealed in an internal email leaked into the public domain, clearly showed that the nature of the attacks [insertion of fingers into the vagina] is classified as rape under India’s new rape law, where any kind of penetration is rape.
The victim immediately confided this to three of her colleagues and Tejpal’s daughter who happened to be the victim’s close friend, all of who were at the festival. A few days later she complained to Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Choudhary, a fire-brand feminist who, had moderated the ‘rape victims’ panel at the festival, and who has, like Tejpal, also written and spoken out stridently against rape and violence on women in India.
Tejpal basically confessed to rape in an email, an ‘apology’ of sorts to the victim, where he admitted trying to “force” a “sexual liaison” on her even when she refused. In another email he dismissed it as a drunken ‘banter’ and said he’d ‘atone’ for it by taking six months off from the office. In his email to the victim, Tejpal wrote, “You are a young woman I have been very proud of, as a colleague’s daughter, and then as a colleague in my own office. I have watched you grow and mature professionally into a journalist of great integrity and promise. It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me. I know you feel I used my position as Editor, Tehelka to force my attention on you, and I acknowledge that I did at one point say to your contention that I was your boss, “That makes it simpler”…”
What followed thereafter is even more shocking. The two central authority figures of Tehelka, Tejpal and Choudhary, went on an offensive, trying to foil the case. They kept changing their stance and used every dirty strategy that all rapists and rape accomplices use including discrediting the victim, and slandering her.
The case of rape against Tejpal is essentially water-tight. The details of the victim’s statement have remained consistent, and have been corroborated by other employees at the festival, and partial CCTV footage from the hotel where the incident took place. And Tejpal who initially evaded arrest, and remained in hiding speaking through Shoma Choudary and his lawyers, has now been arrested on charges of rape.
Since this is custodial rape committed by a person who is an authority figure and has power over the victim, Tejpal is looking at 10 years minimum to life in prison. The irony is the very law (Section 376 C) that Tejpal and Tehelka pushed for the protection of rape victims in India, is now being trashed by Tejpal’s lawyers as “draconian!”
Suzette Jordan, a gang rape survivor, who spoke at the THINK festival has talked of how upset she is. She said she felt very “cheated.” In an NDTV interview she said she felt “dirty” and used. She said it seemed like they had put her on stage just to laugh at her!
In her resignation letter to Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhuri, the victimized journalist wrote, “Over the past years, we [at Tehelka] have collectively defended the rights of women, written about custodial rape, sexual molestation at the workplace, spoken out harshly against the culture of victim blame and the tactical emotional intimidation and character assassination of those who dare to speak out against sexual violence. At a time when I find myself victim to such a crime, I am shattered to find the Editor in Chief of Tehelka, and you – in your capacity as Managing Editor – resorting to precisely these tactics of intimidation, character assassination and slander…Given the sequence of events since the 7th of November, it is not just Mr Tejpal who has failed me as an employer—but Tehelka that has failed women, employees, journalists and feminists collectively.”
This rape case however seems to be a can of worms, unraveling a string of dirty secrets, including garnering of wealth by the top bosses through undisclosed, murky business associations. And while Tehelka’s shareholders were earning rich dividends, the treatment of the employees was shoddy. It’s reported they did not get basic provisions like medical insurance, gratuity and provident fund. Often the salaries were 2-3 months late.
India’s liberals and leading feminists, who have been part of Tehelka’s elite, self-righteous network claiming to defend women’s rights, are either silent or have come out in full force complaining bitterly about “excessive” public outrage or media coverage of this case. Many of these feminists have asserted that Shoma Chaudhuri should not be seen as an accomplice to Tejpal’s crime of rape and it cover-up.
For me, this is the biggest concern. Why would top feminists and liberals, both in India and the west, who are friends of Tejpal, refuse to see or angrily condemn as they normally would in other cases, this rape or recognize Shoma Chaudhuri’s complicity in it? Why does it not upset, anger and bother them the way it does the raped journalist and other rape victims who’ve participated in this festival? Why are they bending over to ignore and/or defend it?
How deep does the exploitation of rape and and violence on women as social ‘causes’ go? Have these simply become easy issues for personal and economic exploitation across NGOs and organizations, among feminists and liberals? Is Tehelka only the tip of this ice-berg? Is that why the Tehelka rape makes a vast section of feminists, liberals, activists and intellectuals uneasy?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder ofThe 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies,‘ is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website iswww.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Revolutions in my Space and tweets at@Rita_Banerji