By now the details are well known: a young journalist describes a harrowing encounter with Tarun Tejpal, owner and editor of Tehelka, in an elevator during Tehelka’s Think fest in Goa. The description of the incident alleges gross sexual misconduct and bodily violation of an aggravated nature. Her description does not make for easy reading: it clearly demonstrates the incredibly vulnerable position in which young women are placed when confronted with the sexual misdemeanors of powerful men in positions of managerial authority. Indeed Mr. Tejpal says as much, that to cooperate with him is the best way for her to keep her job. She writes to Ms. Shoma Chaudhury the managing editor describing the incident and asks that she be tendered an official apology, and that Tehelka’s senior management constitute an enquiry and anti-sexual harassment committee as per the Vishaka guidelines. Instead what she is offered is a pathos-laden tale of fall and redemption: directed by and starring Mr. Tejpal, producer Ms. Shoma Chaudhury. There has been near continuous discussion across the web and the news and it can get difficult to keep track of all the various versions being produced on an hourly basis by Tehelka’s bullshit factories. So at this stage it might be useful to simply collate and compare various accounts.
So to begin with, it need not have been this way, at least as far Ms. Chaudhury’s role in this whole sordid affair goes. Mr. Tejpal relinquished any and all moral locus standi the moment he chose to violate the bodily integrity of his young colleague. However Ms. Chaudhury could have chosen to do right by the complainant rather than attempt to defend the patently indefensible. All Ms. Chaudhury had to do was to state in 3 plain lines: “We condemn what occurred. We want the law to take its course. We will support the complainant in whatever course of action she chooses to undertake.” We are told she was advised as much by senior feminist lawyers. That Ms. Chaudhury finds herself unable to say even this little, is incredibly saddening. Instead now Ms. Chaudhury too has trotted out a story of different versions and has begun questioning the journalist’s account in the interests of the ‘institution’. So abrupt has been Ms. Chaudhury’s about-face in the last 24 hours, that a lesser woman would have sustained whiplash. Clearly there are advantages to be had from the absence of a spine. So let us look at the chronology of events, since Ms. Chaudhury seems to place such great importance on when events occurred and what (non) actions she took in response.
Journalists, we are told, are exceedingly keen on ‘facts’. So let us stick to the facts:
There are currently five emails in public circulation. The first is a letter of complaint written by the journalist describing what occurred in the elevator of the Grand Hyatt in Goa on the 7th and 8th of November 2013, dated 18th November 2013. Kafila will not link to this letter out of respect for the privacy of the complainant. The second is Mr. Tejpal’s ‘unconditional apology’ to the journalist, dated 19th November 2013. The third and fourth are, respectively, Mr. Tejpal’s letter of ‘atonement’ to Ms. Chaudhury, and her letter informing the Tehelka office of Mr. Tejpal’s recusal from editorship for 6 months, both dated 20th November 2013. The fifth is an email/sms purportedly circulated by Mr. Tejpal presenting his version of events. A version of that email/sms is available on The Hoot and finds mention in this morning’s Indian Express. This sms/email is dated the 22nd of November 2013. We also have two statements by Mr. Tejpal: an official statement released yesterday, and an interview (presumably over email) with the Indian Express dated 23 November 2013. The Managing Editor of Tehelka, and, as her immediate superior, the first person the journalist turned to, Ms. Shoma Chaudhury has also made several appearances on various television channels.
Ms. Chaudhury claims that the first she heard of the incident was when she received a complaint from the journalist on 18th November in an email describing what occurred on 7th and 8th November and asking that the management respond by immediately setting up an anti-sexual harassment cell and enquiry committee as per the Vishaka guidelines, and which Tehelka as as institution was legally enjoined to do. Ms. Chaudhury has claimed that when she received this mail she was shocked and distraught by the nature of the allegations. At this point, she claims, she did not question the journalists account, did not cross-check it with the account of the colleagues mentioned in the complaint, suppressed Tejpal’s version of what occurred and an official apology from Mr. Tejpal was tendered the next day i.e. the 19th of November to the journalist concerned. Nowhere in this “apology” was the word sexual harassment used, rather Mr. Tejpal represented what occurred as an attempt to form a “sexual liaison” suggesting a proposition made and rejected.
On the 20th of November Ms. Chaudhury responded to a query from the Indian Express with the astonishing statement that the journalist was satisfied, that this was an ‘internal’ matter and that no further questions would be entertained and that Tehelka was not going to investigate the incident nor go to the police. On what basis did Ms. Chaudhury decide that the journalist was “satisfied” when in fact none of her demands had been met? Remember till now Mr. Tejpal is still functional in an editorial capacity at Tehelka. The only response thus far to a complaint that alleges sexual violation and misconduct of a grievous nature and has demanded the immediate institution of a sexual harassment committee as per the Vishaka judgement, is a pompous advertisement to Mr. Tejpal’s own greatness masquerading as an “apology”. We will turn to the obfuscatory flatulence of this “apology” in a minute. Moving along, the journalist responds contesting Mr. Tejpal’s characterization of what occurred as a “sexual liaison” (which suggests consent) and clearly naming it “sexual assault”. She again demands that Ms. Chaudhury set up a committee as per Vishaka. This demand (compliance with which should have been the first and immediate step taken by Tehelka’s management as per the law) has now been made for the third time. With the matter having gone public, it is at this point that two emails are circulated to the Tehelka office. The next day, i.e. the 20th of November Ms. Chaudhury circulates a letter describing what had occurred as an “untoward incident” and appending Mr. Tejpal’s letter of recusal. She asks the office to stand by the institution. Again no mention is made of sexual assault, nor is a committee set up. By now every news channel had gotten hold of this story, Mr. Tejpal is being flayed alive on Twitter and it is at this point on the 22nd, four whole days and three requests after she heard of the incident that Ms. Chaudhury finally announces that an internal committee will be constituted as per Vishaka. While Ms. Chaudhury has subsequently attempted to represent her initial actions as if they were oriented solely toward addressing the incredible hurt and trauma sustained by the complainant, it is crystal clear from the sequence of events that she would have much preferred the matter to die a quiet death within the “cocoon of the institution” (as she so charmingly describes Tehelka’s eyewash of an internal “procedure”). Indeed she said as much in an interview with Nidhi Razdan on NDTV on the 22nd of November. Managing to hold on to several contradictory and impossible descriptions at the same time, seems to be a special talent of Tehelka’s senior management. Consider below this fragment of a conversation between Nidhi Razdan and Shoma Chaudhary:
Ms. Chaudhury begins by trying to justify why she did not immediately go to the police in contradiction of the new Sexual Harrassment law which clearly require an employer to report incidents which fall under the rape law to the authorities, while simultaneously seeming to support the complainant. In her short explanation she insidiously slips in the word “consent” several times: ” Even if it were consensual, ” she says , ” he would have still transgressed as a leader of the organization’ and thus she ‘over-ruled his version which differed significantly from hers’. However now the incident is in the public domain, she adds, I would have to add the word ‘allegedly’ as a prefix to what transpired. She goes on to say that she did not contest the journalists version while it was restricted to a discussion within the institution because it was still not a question of “criminality or legality”. “Now however that he is accused of rape, he has the right to defend himself”. She also mentions that the defendant never used the word “rape”. She only says “sexual harassment”. The word rape is one that has emerged from “outside Tehelka”.
Nidhi Razdan then asks Chaudhury “If the girl’s version were proved, would you consider it rape”? To which Chaudhry replies, “Yes I would. If it were proved legally and criminally I would.”.
Exactly what does this mean? It means quite simply that in the space of three short statements Ms. Chaudhry not only contradicts, but also criminally implicates herself. Firstly, the word sexual assault was not used even once in either Mr. Tejpal’s apology to the complainant, or Ms. Chaudhury’s letter to the office. Second, how the complainant chose to name what occurred is completely irrelevant. Over and above a description of what happens to one, ‘rape’ is a legal definition. The complainant described what happened, it is for the law, not the complainant or Ms. Chaudhury, to decide what these actions comprise. Third, Ms. Chaudhury herself admits that she too viewed the charges as indicating rape, or at the least attempt to rape when she first received them. What then is Shoma Chaudhury saying?
Ms. Chaudhury in essence is saying this: I received a complaint from a woman journalist within the organization which made allegations of a serious nature. I recognized that if these charges were true it would constitute rape as per the law. Instead of going to the police as I was legally bound, I instead attempted to contain the fall-out within the organization. I did so because till the news went public rape is not rape. It is rape only once other people get to know about it.
To turn now to Mr. Tejpal. His official apology has come in for enough ridicule and it need not detain us for long. However even this arrived only once it was clear to him that the journalist was not going to remain silent about what had been done to her. Far from being lacerated by guilt, his initial response was to turn viciously on the journalist and intimidate her when she told his daughter about the incident. The great thing about messages, as he will doubtless soon discover, is that there is no ambiguity about them. Either they were sent from his phone or they were not. And what were his messages? Here is a small sampling:
“I hope you told XXX that it was just drunken banter, and nothing else”
“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.”
It is quite clear that at this point Mr. Tejpal’s concern was entirely directed at saving face before his daughter and not for the emotional well-being of the young woman he had violated. He would be singing an entirely different tune in his apology to the journalist and his letter of recusal to Ms. Chaudhury. While a thick skin presumably comes with the nature of the job, Mr. Tejpal must be an unusually gifted specimen: it took a whole ten days for Mr. Tejpal to be ‘lacerated by the guilt’ that apparently consumed him. If he was so why didn’t he apologize to her immediately? Anyway by the time we arrive at Mr. Tejpal’s apology he is now deeply contrite, lacerated by guilt, profoundly sorry etc etc.
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.
Couched in a hedge of “lapses of judgement” and “misjudging of the situation” what is of relevance is a) that Mr. Tejpal clearly states that he attempted to establish a “sexual liaison” with the journalist despite her “clear reluctance” b) that it occurred on two separate occasions, on the 7th and the 8th, c) that he recognized the seriousness of the offence in so far as he was tempted to describe it as a ‘moment of insanity’ and that he took full and complete responsibility for this ‘unconscionable lapse’.
In Kurusawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon, at least the versions were offered by four different people. Here in an astonishing quadruple role, Mr. Tejpal single-handedly (and four-facedly) assays the parts of an entire courtroom: Victim, Defendant, Prosecutor and Judge. Truly a character artist of rare talent. Fallen Hero, Suffering Patriarch, Self-flagellating Jogi. Having decided what had occurred, what he’d done, where his culpability lay, he magnanimously pronounced on himself a punishment befitting his crimes and misdemeanors: a paid sabbatical of 6 months. When it became increasingly clear that no one was willing to buy this bullshit, and only in the strange universe of Mr. Tejpal and Ms. Chaudhury could the punishment for gross sexual misconduct be a self-imposed sanyas, Mr. Tejpal retracted all his previous statements.
And yesterday the character we have all been waiting for finally made an appearance, the one hiding in the wings all along: the silent victim of a malicious “politically motivated” campaign to slander his good name and great work (peans to which comprise the bulk of his “unconditional apology”). In a statement sent to the Indian Express, Mr. Tejpal, in an astonishing volte face, now describes what occurred as a fleeting totally consensual encounter. He has also circulated emails saying as much to people in the media fraternity. He would now have us believe that his initial breast-beating was obtained under duress to assuage Shoma and protect the ‘dignity’ of the complainant. So we are lead to two logical conclusions: a) If he had nothing to apologize for, what then prompted his initial maudlin out-pouring of remorse and contrition? b) Since he now disavows them, and claims they were made only on Ms. Chaudhury’s insistence, Mr. Tejpal is a complete liar and his apologies purportedly made in good faith mean nothing. In which case why is Ms. Chaudhury continuing to cite them as an example of due process?
“It is a totally mendacious account of what happened, in its details, in its tonalities, in its very suggestion of non-consensus,”
Surely a description of an incident cannot both be ‘mendacious in its suggestion of non-consensus’, and also ‘clear reluctance’ at the same time? Surely it cannot be “incredibly fleeting” and also stretched across “two occasions”? If Mr. Tejpal now insists her version is a “complete lie”, why then did he hold himself “first and last accountable for an unconscionable lapse” in his official apology? Mr. Tejpal seems to subscribe to the Humpty-Dumpty school of semantics: a word means exactly what he wants it to mean, neither more nor less. That which one day by his own admission is ‘clear reluctance’, is ‘totally consensual’ the next.
Mr. Tejpal’s latest missive to his friends and well-wishers is reproduced below. Let us parse it carefully in light of the ‘facts’ of which Mr. Tejpal is so fond. Since we have already seen that for Mr. Tejpal words mean exactly the opposite of what they mean (no means yes, non-consent means consent and so on and so forth) its full meaning can only be appreciated in obverse:
Subject: Taruns msg
Sent: Nov 22, 2013 12:48 PM
“I want you to know the facts. Out of an attempt to preserve
her dignity (my own posterior), and on Shoma’s adamantine feminist principled insistence (craven attempt at a cover-up) that I keep correct form by apologizing (admit ting to nothing), I did so (produced a pathetic pompous slew of verbiage about my own suffering as opposed to what I had done to her). The truth (complete lie as my own admission of guilt in my first email indicates) is it was an incredibly fleeting (sustained over two days on two separate occasions as I admit in my apology), totally consensual (completely non-consensual as I myself admitted) encounter (assault) in a lift (of a two-story building!). Now that a committee has been announced the truth will come out (yes it most definitely will Mr. Tejpal). My life and work have been trashed (built) on a total lie. Its been such a gratuitous nightmare (for her).”
Let us take a moment here to fully appreciate the particular species of invertebrate with which we are dealing: Having abused his power in the worst possible way, he now turns around and claims to be acting to preserve the dignity of the young journalist. Read against his own previous statements, Mr. Tejpal’s new account of what occurred is entirely unconvincing to him let alone anyone else. At this point one may enquire who is giving Mr Tejpal legal advice and whether he might not be better served by a confessor and make good his professed desire to atone for his sins.
It is now clear why Tejpal and Chaudhury refused to use the term sexual assault in either his email to the complainant or her email explaining his recusal to the office at large: they were clearly aware that acknowledgment of what had actually transpired in the elevator constituted a serious criminal offense under the law. And Ms. Chaudhury acknowledged as much in her interview with Nidhi Razdan. Mr. Tejpal has placed at what might appear at first sight a farcical faith in the contents of the CCTV cameras. In his interview with NDTV the GOA CM, Mr Panniker has stated that the footage has been acquired by the police. Mr. Tejpal is very well aware that there is no camera inside the elevator itself. And the footage from outside the elevator corroborates the journalists’ contention that she was dragged into it on the second day.
What ‘political motives’ could a young journalist have in bringing down the editor of a magazine and workplace she was deeply committed to, a man who was a friend of her father’s, the father of one of her closest friends? What possible motive could she have for turning her world upside down, jeopardizing her career, subjecting her life and body to public speculation? What could she possibly derive from falsely “framing” a man who in her complaint she herself says was a father figure to her? The short answer is no motive at all except to not stay silent and accede to the violation of her body by a man drunk on his own power. No one believes you Mr. Tejpal. Not your family, not your friends and not the professional fraternity to which you belong.
UPDATE Sunday, November 24: There has been some discussion on Kafila and in the press at large about whether Shoma Chaudhury must be held accountable for not reporting the incident to the police. We wish to clarify our position on this. We absolutely and completely support the right and agency of the complainant to her privacy and to determine the course of action she wishes to pursue in consonance with her vision of what would constitute a just outcome in this instance. Thus it is for her determine whether she wishes to initiate and/or co-operate with criminal proceedings or not. The discussion of Ms. Chaudhury’s legal duty in this post is directed at clarifying the seriousness of the charges that came to her, and point out the discrepancy between the gravity of the offense and her response to them. While Ms. Chaudhury has continually insisted on the complainant’s rights as justification for why she did not report the incident to the police, the truth is that Ms. Chaudhury did not take any of the actions that the complainant did demand. If at the moment Ms. Chaudhury received her complaint she had done what was legally required of her, namely immediately institute a committee as per the Vishaka guidelines, issue an apology in which the nature of the charges were made explicitly clear, and clearly and categorically offer the complainant hers and the support of the office in deciding what course of action she wished to pursue, there would not today be this discussion about Ms. Chaudhury’s complicity. If Ms. Chaudhury had at that point done what was legally and ethically required of her, namely ensure that the complainant felt supported in her bringing to light a serious allegation of sexual misconduct by immediately instituting an enquiry, perhaps the complainant would have felt that justice had been done. Doubtless the law would have still taken its own course, and the police might have still taken suo moto cognizance and it would be up to the complainant to determine how she wished to relate to these processes. The difference would have been that Ms. Chaudhury’s role in the whole affair would not have come under the scrutiny it is receiving now. Not going to the police is not the singular (and ambiguous) lapse here. It acquires its meaning and importance only in the context of all the other procedural and ethical lapses and attempts at covering-up an incident of grave sexual misconduct.
[Mr. Tejpal’s official apology, his letter of recusal and Ms. Chaudhury’s letter to the office and the complainant’s response to the apology may be found here.]