Chronicle of a collapse foretold

First there is this, from Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, now in the dock after a young journalist accused him of sexual assault, in a letter to Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka: “A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident ... I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further ... I must do the penance that lacerates me.”

Guilty as charged? If Tejpal was indeed innocent as he claims, there was no need for all that turgid prose about atonement and penance

Then there is this, a letter to the accuser, who has since resigned, “It wrenches me beyond describing ... I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on November 7 and November 8, 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.”

And this is from Tejpal’s bail application: “That on 07/11/2013 ... the applicant had a meeting with one of his female colleagues. It is pertinent to note here that the said encounter was only light-hearted bantering which lead to a moment of privacy between the two individuals...

“Applicant was shocked. The applicant categorically and immediately refuted each and every allegation. Applicant denied the said allegation. The managing editor refused to even listen to the applicant’s version and overrode him and the managing editor told the applicant that she was making the decision in Tehelka’s interest ...”

Herein lies the sad, sad story of what happens when an intelligent man in a position of power and influence is accused of wrongdoing. The atonement that was sought in the first letter made public has now become a forced document that he was prevailed upon to write by Chaudhury. That is, a grown man (he is apparently 50) was forced to take responsibility, by an employee, for something which he now says he did not do to another employee.

The victim’s own complaint letter is very disturbing and suggests that what occurred was sexual assault, not even sexual harassment let alone “light-hearted banter”. If Tejpal was indeed innocent as he claims, where was the need for all that turgid prose about atonement and penance? He could have claimed that the victim had misunderstood “light-hearted banter” from day one. Instead, he painted himself as a martyr and then ran cravenly in the opposite direction the minute he caught sight of the cross he might have to carry.

After the Delhi gang rape of December 16, 2012, there has been an outcry in India, demanding stricter laws for violence against women and even the death penalty in extreme cases. But not all those accused as we see here are necessarily bus cleaners and bus drivers. They can be anyone - especially people who are used to getting away with a particular kind of behaviour.

Preying upon women in the workplace is hardly new and in usually it is not even news. Most women just put up with it and most work places do not even have a clue that there are Supreme Court guidelines about how to deal with sexual harassment. Tehelka, which has done extensive work on crimes against women, does not have one.

Tejpal has also accused the BJP of being against him since Tehelka had long ago exposed its party president Bangaru Laxman and others taking bribes in a fake defence deal. This is desperation in the extreme. Goa may be a BJP-run state and the BJP could be internally thrilled at Tejpal’s downfall but the Goa police has only followed the new laws on rape. The implication that the young woman accuser is a political pawn is even more horrifying and completely unsubstantiated.

Certainly Tejpal is entitled to a defence. But there is something that speaks to the character of a man who goes from wanting to atone to making accusations within the space of week. Or that is, a man who changes his tactics when the road ahead starts to look rocky. The victim has stood firm and not capitulated as was perhaps expected. The penance that lacerates now comes back to bite. There is a new lesson for women here: stand your ground. And invariably, one for men too: take a close look at what happens when you cross the line. 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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