The rape reality check

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Tarun Tejpal is escorted by police officials from court after he was remanded in police custody in Panaji on December 1. Photo: AFP

IRRESPECTIVE of what the law, when it has taken its course, may or may not do to him, what Tarun Tejpal did was downright despicable. His pre-emptive half-baked admission —a self-serving attempt at cover-up premised on the fatuous calculation that a show of contrition will fetch forgiveness and a quiet burial of the whole affair—does not, any more than evocations in his favour of his purported role in building the Tehelka brand and its trademark, if indiscriminate, sting and sting-type journalism, or his creative literary achievements, in any way diminish the moral enormity of his crime. He has, on the face of it, misused and abused his authority and power as an employer, cheated a friend, betrayed the trust of an unsuspecting and believing employee. His idea of “recusing” himself from the editorship of his publication—for six whole months!—as penance for having attempted twice to force himself sexually on the woman to whom he was, more than a boss, a father figure, would be laughable were it not so pathetic.

Recuse—what a grandiose self-important term of abnegation after such a lowly act. We normally hear the word used by and of judges who loftily opt out of a case for the reason that they know one of the parties to it or that there may be a conflict of interest. “Lapse of judgment” and “misreading of (the) situation” were among the other semantic proxies Tejpal thought up to give what, legally and with all the bullshit cut out, would be attempted rape a more graceful construct. Such deployment of language to bail himself out of a fix of his own doing has been characteristic of the man in this case and, whether tutored or off her own bat, of his lieutenant Shoma Chaudhury, the Managing Editor of Tehelka, holding the fort, or should one say the beleaguered pass, for him against the media assault that followed—that is, before and until she realised the futility of her exertions and decided to put in her papers instead.

It took a while before Tejpal, perhaps, began to realise that he could not strut his way out of a situation like this. That it does not do to speak as if from another moral universe. That the ethical brinkmanship he brought to investigative journalism by making sting and honeytrap its stock-in-trade does not lend itself to personal professional relationships. He once explained away the use of sex workers to get army officers to boast, on hidden cameras, about corrupt arms deals as “jumping the red light while chasing the murderer”. True, means such as these passed muster because they exposed sleaze and racketeering in public life and were seen as serving a larger public good, even if, in the process, intrusive hidden cameras became reductively synonymous with investigative journalism.

But this was a red light he should have heeded. He did not. He tried instead to reimagine, post facto, the signal as green, to reconfigure his act of sexual molestation as consensual sex. Shoma Chaudhury gave it credence by dropping hints of another version, and the duo followed this up with further innuendoes. Why was the woman continuing to party after her ordeal? Why did she get into the lift a second time with her molester? That she continued to attend to her work of looking after the partying VIPs at the Thinkfest jamboree with all the dignity she could muster —which must have been as trying as it was admirable—in the circumstances, now goes against her. All in all, the shamefulness of the offence was compounded by the shamelessness of the attempt to whitewash it by vilifying the victim. Another, equally reprehensible, tack was to try and create a smokescreen of political conspiracy in the hope that an ensuing slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress would distract attention from the Thinkfest crime.

Media coverage

The media dived headlong into the story. There was good reason, in this instance, if the coverage looked like a trial. After all, the man who had started out on the promise of unleashing an alternative journalism had ended up tainting himself and, by extension, and to an extent, the fair name of journalism itself. At the least it was now apparent that women working in the news media were as prone to sexual exploitation as in any other profession or sector of the economy, but their plight hardly ever made it to the news because that would require proactive confessional reportage practice by the media of the media. The media fraternity reacted forcefully with righteous indignation at this vicarious slight by not cutting Tejpal any slack, even if old resentment, enmity or envy against the Tehelka brand of journalism or its progenitor may also have played a part in some of the stridency in the chorus of denunciation that followed. Even so, the fierceness of the onslaught, especially on television, and the bandwagon effect it generated may, at the margins, have evoked a counter underdog ripple effect in Tejpal’s favour.

This often happens on television these days, particularly when an anchor on a news channel hounds a subject with single-mindedness, brooks no oppositional voice, shouts down doubting Thomases, sidesteps all counsel of caution, and bears down on him in such unrelenting prosecutorial mode that the man at the receiving end, although we know him to be a thorough blackguard or villain, instead of being confirmed in our mind as one, actually begins to earn our unintended sympathy. It was good that Tejpal was arrested when he was. The media could not have kept it up much longer without beginning to become counterproductive. Already reporters of channels who had rushed to Goa to cover the proceedings of Tejpal’s anticipatory bail plea had been reduced to mouthing incoherent inanities because the hearing dragged on longer than they expected, and they had run out of things to say, but the channels would not take their eye off the ball. However you try to hype it up, the effect of a camera eye on a ball that is stationary for hours on end can be desperately wearying.

Then there was the matter of whether what is sauce for the social media is sauce for the mainstream news media. The full text of the victim’s letter to the Managing Editor of Tehelka, Shoma Chaudhury, had already gone viral on the Internet and the social media, and some newspapers too published it verbatim (what fidelity to source!) in all its graphic detail. It was as necessary for the victim to record such factual detail in her letter registering her complaint as it was obligatory on the part of the media to respect its confidential nature and refrain from publicising it.

Disclosing the contents of the letter was repugnant to the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013. Yet discussions in the formal media, again primarily on television, were informed by the disclosures circulating in the non-formal media. Television panellists assumed in one another access to such information on the Net. It looked like they came equipped with information from cyber and social media to argue, among other things, against the same information being made public. That paradox apart, there were even reports of the victim’s identity being disclosed in the social media. The judge hearing the arguments on the anticipatory bail application in Goa had to pull up the defence counsel for mentioning her name.

On the other hand, the incentive for a sustained news angle, to keep it alive in the public eye, to build up and keep the pressure for action on the system may lie, much like the devil, in the detail—at least detail enough to drive the story beyond a simple allegation on the one part and clinical refutation on the other. This operative need for detail is, of course, very different from the kind that feeds the prurient interest or voyeurism in sections of the public and must not, of course, in any way tread on the dignity and sensitivity of the victim.

The “Nirbhaya” rape case in Delhi became as defining as it did in part because of the shocking nature of it, its sheer sickening barbarity that challenged human imagination. Who or what process should decide the extent of detail available and allowable to the media while reconciling a wholesome public interest with the need to protect the integrity and dignity of the victim seems the crux of the issue. Where the victim herself is in a position to take that call, it becomes that much simpler. For the better part, though, victims of rape come from already disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds and an agency becomes imperative in determining how much is legit for media consumption in the fair cause of the case, in a manner that is, at the same time, scrupulously fair to the victimised.

A grey area that emerges in the media discourse of the case is the role of another agency—that of the concerned woman’s informed discretion and decision to seek and apply closure through means short of the criminal justice system in force. Such agency perhaps also implies a shift in emphasis from crime and punishment to crime and justice. But there seem legitimate doubts about the extent to which agency can second guess the law of the land; about whether it can become a front for persuasion or pressure on the victim not to file a police complaint; or whether the internal committee or mechanism in an organisation set up in compliance with the Vishaka guidelines of the Supreme Court will tend to play safe and prefer the automatic route of a police complaint, lest it be seen as found wanting in its response.

These and other related aspects of sexual crimes against women are likely to increasingly occupy media mind space as women step out of the stigmatised victim stereotype and, instead, stigmatise and shame the offender. Another case, relating to charges made by a former law intern against a former judge of the Supreme Court and currently Chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, Justice A.K. Ganguly, is already on the boil. The media for its part needs to do better than to take up the refrain of rape for its sensation impact. They need to calibrate their response to allow for the sensitivities and nuances, the implications and precedents likely to be set as each case unfolds.