Tehelka founder-editor Tarun J. Tejpal has been in jail for over 80 days now on the charge of “raping” a junior colleague during an event organised by the magazine at a Goa resort. The Goa police have charged him on seven counts under the new rape law that came into effect after the Delhi gangrape in end-2012.
Meanwhile, there is a subtle but noticeable shift in the discourse in drawing rooms on the plight of the high-profile journalist, as the words “witchhunt” and “political vendetta” are bandied about loosely.
Is “a 10-year prison sentence for three minutes of non-penile misconduct in a moving lift*” just? Is politically correct India making a big issue of a “small offence”? Is the new law too harsh and far removed from the emerging male-female relationship in the modern Indian workplace, etc?
Those questions which were being asked sotto voce, have found open expression in chain e-mails and posts on social media. A former Tehelka journalist writes in a Pakistani newspaper that Tejpal’s “friends and family are going around meeting editors and opinion-makers to argue their case”.
Those questions also reveal ignorance and incomprehension of the new rape law, which, as The Times of India story (in image, above) demonstrates is being applied not just on Tarun Tejpal but also on other sexual offenders since it came into force in April 2013.
The women’s rights lawyer Vrinda Grover explicates Tejpal’s case in a column in Outlook*:
“In the case of Tarun Tejpal, it’s an aggravated rape because, by his own admission and by the statement of the complainant, he was in a position of dominance, trust and authority having known her father, as well as being her boss. These are statements of fact.
“The law has expanded the coercive circumstances to include these categories. Nothing dramatic has happened now, but everyone is getting very anxious.
“I’m very puzzled at the high level of anxiety from men in all professions. Is it really that men are doing this so rampantly that they are suddenly in panic mode? That they have been putting their body parts into women without their consent?
“In that case I have a word of advice to them: now this is the law, don’t do it, and if you do it, you will be arrested. And if the courts deem it fit, you’ll be punished. That’s a hard-won reality. The new law just clarified what consent meant. It said there has to be an unequivocal, voluntary agreement by word or gesture.
“In the case of Tarun Tejpal, the victim is saying to him, ‘Don’t do it, stop it’. How can that message not go across? If you continue to do it, then I’m sorry, it’s a crime.”
“Firstly, we are told about trial by media. What’s funny here is that when the Indian media began its culture of doing campaign activism for one or two cases, Tehelka had a key role to play. It was Tehelka that mobilised youth and TV cameras at India Gate to ask for justice for a murdered model, Jessica Lal. Tehelka even did a sting operation on the issue. Nobody wondered how the accused felt about such a trial by the media.
“Secondly, Tejpal wants a trial by media. Since his legal case is so weak — he’s admitted his crime on email — he knows the only battle possible to win is the media battle. His friends and family are going around meeting editors and opinion-makers to argue their case. They’ve also taken to Twitter to argue their case. A mass email was sent out by someone who used the victim’s photograph to say that she looks okay and suggests her allegation is false. Why would his reporter, who worked with him for four years, accuse him of rape?
“So, while the Tejpal campaign has the right to make its case before the media, the media does not have the right to ask tough questions of him? You ask him why his versions have been changing and it becomes trial by media? He wants the CCTV footage released to media and public so that we can voyeuristically watch and decide if the victim looks traumatised or not? That’s not trial by media?
“Then there is the issue of bail. Tejpal has been in jail since November 30 and hasn’t got bail. That is because bail in rape cases is difficult in India, for everyone. Asaram Bapu, religious guru far more popular than Tejpal, has been in jail without bail for far longer on rape charges. Why should the law make an exception for Tejpal?”
* Disclosures apply