Last December, a girl in Delhi was brutally gang raped in a bus by six people including the bus driver. She passed away 13 days later in a hospital in Singapore. India has never been the same. There were large scale angry protests across the country. Eventually Sonia Gandhi had to attend the funeral of the victim to pacify her voters. The protests took the form of a social movement and the four adult accused were sentenced to death in September 2013. The event was so terrifying that even the managing editor of ‘Tehelka’, Shoma Chaudhury, was forced to ask: “Why did it need an incident so unspeakably brutal to trigger our outrage?”
This is precisely what we loved about Tehelka — its activism, sprawling investigations that lasted for weeks, its commitment to social issues and clear support to humanitarian causes which newspapers cannot afford. Tehelka team did stunning ground work on the Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai gang rape cases.
Tehelka was founded in the year 2000. By 2001, Tehelka had become a household name because of its sting operations (Operation West End) which exposed the graft involved in the defence deals in the capital. The exposition led to the resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes and also the BJP chief Bangaru Lakshman.
Ironically, Tehelka was new-age media, one of the first of its kind in this part of the world, apparently fighting the age-old discrimination it is now accused of embodying. Its main attraction was its website, laced with Thinkfest videos, interviews and other multimedia content. It gave the magazine cheaper space, more colour and longer investigations. Indeed Tehelka was creating a tehelka with its activism and investigations.
The Indian newspaper fraternity says this activist journalism was spearheaded by former editor and now rape-accused Tarun J. Tejpal himself.
Tejpal started his career in the 1980s with the ‘Indian Express’ and remained unnoticed. Later he joined ‘India Today’ and in 1994 helped set up the ‘Outlook’ magazine. In 2000, he founded Tehelka, the modern sting operation master and a byproduct of the dot-com revolution. Tejpal became the rags-to-riches dream editor, often cited as one of the most powerful men in the industry.
After the recent assault case, this power makes one cringe. Powerful men have slipped down this slope many times. Recently, the mayor of San Deigo stepped down due to 18 harassment charges. Dominic Strauss-Kahn famously lost his French presidency bid because of rape charges that led to conviction. In fact, when in 2008 President Zardari told Sarah Palin that “she is even more gorgeous in real life” among other things, the famed human rights activist Asma Jahangir said that had the woman been of a lower social rank, it could have been construed as harassment.
Another former Tehelka employee, who also worked with the ‘Outlook’, said she was harassed by Tejpal. The Tejpal-Chaudhury duo played a questionable role in her case too.
When you hear that the big boss said “do this or lose your job”, you wonder if this had been going on for a long time. Perhaps it was one reason why so many promising journalists kept bidding Tehelka adieu after sometime.
Hartosh Singh Bal, the well-known editor from ‘Open Magazine’, was at one time working with Tehelka. He recently described it as an organisation that “eventually became a shrine to the cult of Tarun with Shoma as its high priestess”. He said it’s all about the sources of funding (for Tehelka) and that the ad revenue model needs to be replaced with funding by readers. Tehelka is allegedly funded by the mining mafia of Goa and a controversial company Essar from Chathisgarh.
Activists pointed out during the Delhi gang rape outrage that the case became popular because it lacked the complexity of most rape cases — no family members were involved, no caste or community politics, no family revenge or honour issue.
The Indian Penal Code then upgraded the definition of rape to all kinds of penetrations, because many abusers were taking advantage of this legal gap — committing sexual assault without actual intercourse and escaping the grip of justice.
Indeed. Even Shoma Chaudhury didn’t know at the time that next year, around the same time, she will be defending her boss’s rape attempt as an ‘internal matter’, ‘untoward incident’, and walk around falsely claiming the victim is ‘satisfied’ and refrain from initiating a police probe.
This time things are different. There is CCTV footage showing Tejpal chasing the girl into the lift twice and her escaping it on both occasions. The string of emails, Tejpal’s apologies and her responses are all public record. The colleagues she went to after the second assault have testified and their witness testimonies match her account now.
Today, it doesn’t matter what Chaudhury says about the incident or Tejpal tries slandering the victim by saying she was smiling and partying till late at night. The famous gang rape cases and the debate following them have cleared the public mindset. Nobody is ready to buy Tejpal’s attempt to declare the BJP is vindictively chasing him.
Many think this fall was engineered by none other than Tejpal himself. His associate, Shoma Chaudhury, who has now resigned from her post as Managing Editor Tehelka, co-owned the profitable ThinkFest with him. She had come under media scrutiny for hindering/delaying the investigation.
At this point, if anything is struggling for life, it is the vivacious Tehelka. Historically, magazines like the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’, ‘India Today’ and even the iconic ‘Pakistan Times’ and ‘Viewpoint’ on this side of the border became extinct. Or should we say replaced by their more timely counterparts.
Tejpal might face up to ten years in prison. Maybe it’s time for him to sit in jail and write another sequel to his novel ‘The Alchemy of Desire’ where a young reporter legally brings a media scion ( and his sexist desires) down to his knees. This would be different from the sequels he has done before.