New Delhi: The man who aimed to set himself up as the standard bearer of crusading journalism in India, Tarun Tejpal, the founder and editor of Tehelka, has stepped down from his post for six months following charges of sexual assault.
The decision to "recuse himself" followed an email from his accuser - a Tehelka employee who reports says is also a friend of Tejpal's daughter - in which she charged that “the editor in chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal sexually assaulted” her at the Think festival (an annual event organised by Tehelka) "on two occasions last week”.
The victim in the email to the magazine's Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhary went on to demand that "Tehelka constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines immediately, to investigate this matter. At the very least, I will need a written apology from Mr Tejpal and an acknowledgement of the same to be circulated through the organization. It cannot be considered acceptable for him to treat a female employee in this way."
Chaudhary, who has taken over Tejpal's role for now, explained the charges to her colleagues in an email which said that “There has been an untoward incident and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months.”
She also clarified to Business Standard that "it is an internal problem and we are not setting up any enquiry into the matter."
The chain of events came to pass after Tejpal in a November 20 email to Chaudhary said that he had apologised unconditionally to the journalist concerned.
"I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for," Tejpal wrote.
"I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months," Tejpal went on to add.
Kushan Mitra, the Managing Editor of the Pioneer newspaper, tweeted his response to the sordid incident: "Those of us who aspire to be pompous pricks really ought to read Tarun Tejpal's letter."
Javed Akhtar, the writer and poet, was more forgiving: "It is a shame that someone with such impeccable values has committed such an act but unlike some he has the guts to accept and repent."
Bhupendra Chaubey of CNN-IBN termed it to be like the "Nirbhaya case", saying it had touched "a raw nerve with journalists across the board". He went on to tweet: "Difficult to sleep today, just going thru mail of what the girl at Tehelka went thru. Ashamed of this profession."
Suhasini Haidar of the same channel advised the victim to file a police case, tweeting "It is out silence that enables, emboldens offenders the most".
Tarek Fatah, whose Twitter handle proclaims himself as an Indian born in Pakistan, had this to say: "Prominent Indian editor sexually assaults female staffer. Gets no jail time; just 6 months leave. WTF? Unbelievable!"
Renowned journalist Madhu Kishwar tweeted: '"Error of judgment" phrase by #TarunTejpal most intriguing. Does it mean he thought, she would yield like many others?'
Tehelka Managing Editor's Shoma Chaudhary e-mail to employees (not released to the media by the magazine, but which is available on the internet):
From: "Shoma Chaudhury"
Date: 20 Nov 2013 19:03
Subject: FW: Atonement
Tehelka is an institution he has built, and which many journalists both current and former, have contributed to in the most profound ways. Throughout our 13-year career, we have proudly articulated and tried to live by the highest standards. We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only respond with right thought and action. In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the period mentioned.
This is a hard time for all of us, and I hope all of you will stand by the institution.
Email written by Tejpal (not released by Tehelka again):
From: Tarun J Tejpal [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 2:58 PM
To: Shoma Chaudhury
My dear Shoma,
The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.
I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further. Tehelka has been born and built, day on day, with my blood, toil, tears and sweat, and that of many others, against near-insurmountable odds. It has lived for and fought the big battles of our time, always on the side of the oppressed and the wronged, always on the side of equity and justice. Its voice has travelled the world and changed policy and perceptions. It has been a beacon for those who would do the right thing. Through bad, and worse, times I have protected Tehelka and its journalists from the inevitable demands of power and corporations.
I have always allowed every journalist's sense of the right to flower and express itself. No one has ever been asked to do what they don’t believe in. I have always held that Tehelka the institution, and its work, have always been infinitely more important than any of us individuals. It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles. Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months.
You have always been stellar, Shoma, and even as I apologise to you and all my other colleagues, for this unfortunate incident, I leave Tehelka in your more than capable and safe hands.
Sent from BlackBerry(r) on Airtel