Journalists and analysts in India often commented that economic liberalisation, ushered in in the early 1990s when present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was finance minister, brought about a fundamental change in the nation’s value system: money-making stopped being a dirty word and those in pursuit of mammon were no longer considered as enemies of people. As the notorious license-quota Raj (euphemism for state control) was defanged, businesses ventured into areas that were not their core specialisation. First generation entrepreneurs also stepped outside the confines of secure jobs to chance luck, abilities and tenacity to make inroads into what had until then been a closed club. Over time, the first-timers also included media entrepreneurs who launched ambitious projects.
Tarun Tejpal was among those few journalists and writers who stepped into a realm where few of his tribe had. Riding on the first wave of the Internet boom, he launched a website in March 2000 which showed its capacity to sting with an explosive story based on clandestinely recorded interview with cricketers and officials to unearth the dirty business of match fixing in India and abroad. A year later he was back with a similar sting operation showing the murky world of defence deals. It showed the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which headed India’s coalition government at that time, as accepting a wad of currency notes from decoy reporters who posed as representatives of an arms manufacturer.
In the 13 years since its inception, the website has transformed into a weekly magazine and has positioned itself as a moral authority in India. It is called Tehelka – a Hindustani word loosely translatable as uproar, storm or furore. For over a week this is exactly what the magazine has created, but for non-journalistic reasons as celebrity editor and promoter of the magazine, Tarun Tejpal, has been accused of rape by a female colleague – also a close friend of his eldest daughter – still in her early 20s.
What makes matters tougher for Tejpal is that he is accused of sexual predation in Goa on the night when he was flanked by Robert De Niro and Amitabh Bachchan at the THiNK 2013, an orgy of intellectual platitudes by lavishly hosted celebrities and thinkers with tabs picked up by a bevy of corporates. Tehelka’s female staffers chaperone guests and the girl who has survived Tejpal’s assault was a reporter assigned to escort De Niro and his daughter. She has since resigned her job to join the growing list of colleagues who have put in their papers in protest.
Tejpal faces torturous months – probably years – in police stations, lockups and jails as India made its anti-rape laws more stringent after the gang rape and murder of a young girl in capital, Delhi, in December 2013. The amended law, whose rules are not yet formally notified, widens the definition of rape and this includes the acts which Tejpal’s colleague has accused him of. A basic reading of the amended law reveals that any person found guilty of the charges that Tejpal is accused of would face anything between 10 years to a life term in prison.
Tejpal and Tehelka’s story is not just a narrative that began as a considered sexual harassment and later snowballed into gory rape where two basic power equations have been used to subjugate a victim: the relationship between an employer and a subordinate; and the other with a woman who was both a friend’s daughter and a daughter’s friend. In the Indian context, the latter borders on incest, which though widely prevalent is not approved.
While the Tejpal case has focussed attention on sexual harassment so rampant in Indian media with few institutional avenues of redressal, the issue has also brought to fore several dubious business deals of the promoter who it now transpires is no longer the majority shareholder of the magazine he started. Instead, the onetime loss-making venture is now bank rolled by a businessman who has also reportedly bought his way into Indian Parliament. It has also come to light that though Tejpal used the infrastructure and brand name of Tehelka for the Goa bash, it was organised by a firm in which he hold eighty percent of the equity. The other 20 percent was split evenly between his sister and his managing editor, who is among the few senior colleagues who have stayed on since the magazine’s launch. It is this company which pockets the handsome profit it makes.
Tejpal also partnered a liquor baron who was murdered in 2012 in an internecine feud. The partnership was for an elite salon in India’s capital where select well-heeled Indian urbanites could share “great intimacy” with important people amid flowing fine drinks and exquisite cuisine. This club, currently being renovated in an upmarket Delhi locality, is to be named Prufrock – probably after TS Eliot’s poem..
The Tejpal case also has its share of political controversy because of the pronounced anti-BJP stance of the magazine and its role in shaping the discourse after the 2002 Gujarat riots. This was done with the help of several watershed reports that pinned the blame on the administration led by the party’s prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi. Supporters of Tejpal have argued that there is a BJP hand in his woes and the BJP is claiming that there is a Congress party-driven cover-up operation being mounted.
Regardless of the course of the legal travails of Tejpal, Tehelka’s public image has been badly dented and the crusader has been presented as morally corrupt. Ironically, the day after the first of the two episodes of alleged sexual aggression by Tejpal, the Goa bash was deliberating on the trauma of rape and on stage were some rape survivors in a discussion moderated by Tehelka’s managing editor, who though being a woman, has been accused of attempting to hustle together a private treaty between Tejpal and the young journalist. It surely will be a long haul for Tejpal, but it’s too early to say if Tehelka will be able to recover and regain its moral authority. Reports day it is not yet clear if the next issue will be published soon.