High-profile media scandal poses first major test of India’s new sexual assault law

November 29, 2013
Tarun Tejpal, the 50-year-old founder and editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine Tehelka who is accused of raping a colleague, speaks with the media upon his arrival at the airport on his way to the state of Goa on Friday. (Anindito Mukherjee REUTERS)
Tarun Tejpal, the 50-year-old Indian magazine editor who is accused of raping a colleague, speaks with the media upon his arrival at the airport on his way to the state of Goa on Friday. (Anindito Mukherjee REUTERS)

NEW DELHI -- A young journalist has accused the editor of a leading investigative magazine in India of sexually assaulting her, creating a scandal that has transfixed the country for the past eight days and reignited debate about violence against women here.

On Friday, Tarun Tejpal -- the well-known ponytailed intellectual who edits the weekly Tehelka -- arrived in the western seaside state of Goa to respond to a police summons after a young colleague said he sexually assaulted her during a conference sponsored by the magazine in Goa earlier this month.

The 27-year-old journalist, whose role at the conference had been to host presenter Robert De Niro, alleged that her boss drunkenly grabbed her in an elevator and sexually assaulted her even as she tried to resist and pleaded with him to stop.

If he is officially charged Saturday, Tejpal's case would be an early test of India's stringent new rape law, passed earlier this year in response to the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi last December.

The young reporter said Friday in a statement that this case is the new law's first big test.

"Now that we have a new law that broadens the definition of rape, we should stand by what we fought for," she said. "We have spoken, time and again, about how rape is not about lust or sex, but about power, privilege and entitlement. Thus this new law should be applicable to everybody -- the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected -- and not just to faceless strangers."

Tejpal has apologized to the reporter, describing the incident as “drunken banter” in a text message shortly afterward. He later called it “a bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation.”  But he has also claimed he is the victim of a political conspiracy, and his attorney has called the new rape law “draconian."

Tejpal has offered to step down as editor for six months, which critics say would be a woefully inadequate punishment. In any case, the authorities have now stepped in and are to take a statement from the editor Friday. He is free on anticipatory bail until Saturday.

The case now threatens the future of Tehelka itself, a previously well-regarded magazine known for its hard-hitting investigative pieces and liberal bent. The scandal has tarnished the magazine’s carefully constructed, decade-long image as an advocate of women’s rights, human rights and marginalized groups. Its managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, who initially tried to defend Tejpal, quit this week, and other staffers are reportedly leaving.

Although it often published pieces advocating women's rights, critics have noted that Tehelka did not have a sexual harassment committee or a grievance redressal system within its organization, now mandated under a new law passed by Parliament in April.

Other media outlets are increasingly focusing on Tehelka. An article in the Indian Express on Wednesday said that Tejpal had worked with a controversial liquor baron to host exclusive, salon-like events. Other stories have reported that Tejpal owns a villa in Goa and a resort in the Himalayas and has built up a lucrative business empire.

In a statement to Outlook magazine, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy also criticized Tehelka for organizing conferences sponsored by mining companies that displace tribal communities from their homes, at one of which events the alleged rape took place. She then zeroed in on "the big political wheels" that have begun to spin on Tejpal's behalf.

"The evidence against Tarun suggests that he has grievously sexually assaulted a young colleague of his," Roy wrote. Now, that young woman "is not just a loose woman, but an agent of the fascists? This is Rape Number Two: the rape of the values and the politics that Tehelka claims it stands for, and an affront to those who work there and who have supported it in the past."

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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