Tejpal assault: Why the media reaction disgusts me

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 23, 2013 01:24 hrs
Tejpal not a fugitive: Shoma Chaudhury

Since the sexual harassment case against Tehelka boss Tarun Tejpal came to light, we in the media have been congratulating ourselves on how we haven't protected one of our own, and how we are all taking a high-profile editor to task.

But, in celebrating this so-called achievement of ours, we have behaved reprehensibly, and done all we could to fail another one of our own - the girl who accused Tarun Tejpal of assaulting her.

The actual horror of the case has almost been buried under voyeuristic details of what Tarun Tejpal did to the girl, discussions on the larger issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, inane pontification about patriarchy, and recommendations by self-appointed expert panels as to what the victim must do now.

First of all, let us stop pretending that the fact that we know all the details is what is making us angry. For one, we should be ashamed if we need those titillating details to get angry about the fact that a man used his position, power, reputation and influence over a young journalist to take advantage of her. Secondly, whoever leaked her personal email and the details of her assault on the internet effectively betrayed her trust.

Since I started tweeting and posting about the incident, several people have asked me whether I know who the girl is. It should not matter. If I did, and even admitted that I did, it would go against every notion of her right to privacy.

Why do people need to know her identity? So that they can be sure that she isn't someone whom they know? So that they can visualise what happened to her better?

The point is, she could be anyone. She could be someone they know. Everyone working at Tehelka had Tarun Tejpal for boss, and he could have taken advantage of anyone in the manner that he did of this particular employee.

Secondly, why are we deciding what course of action the victim must take? Whether she chooses to file an FIR, or chooses to be satisfied with a written apology from Tejpal, or chooses to continue working in the same organisation, or chooses to leave, is her decision.

It cannot be easy to come out and accuse someone whom she has known since childhood, and who is a family friend, of sexual harassment. If we want to be supportive, it might be a good idea to recognise that whatever course of action she chooses to take is valid, and that we have no say in it.

The third aspect of the media reaction that I find revolting is the frivolity of the entire exercise - the 'Us' and 'Them' stance. Women against men, the upright against the crooked, the honourable against the lascivious. We have pounced on the issue, and decided to grab eyeballs by using such words as 'patriarchy' and 'abuse of power'.

To blame it on patriarchy, to broaden the issue to the entire media, and term it endemic, is to deny the editor in question agency of his actions.

Yes, it's obvious that this happens in several media organisations. I was shocked by the number of my friends who tweeted about personal experiences with sexual harassment from bosses or colleagues, and I realise how lucky I am to have never had to deal with that.

But, to look at it as a systemic problem rather than an individual crime irritates me as much as the pattern of poverty and upbringing being blamed for the behaviour of rapists following the Delhi bus rape.

Every rape is personal. Every case of sexual harassment is personal.

And if it happens across the board in media organisations, chances are that it happens in corporate organisations too. We cannot see this as a pattern, but as a collection of individual cases of assault and harassment.

Fourth, why are we looking at whether an internal committee was formed or not to study the issue? From my knowledge of how these committees work, there is really no point in constituting an internal committee. If Tehelka does not have one, yes, they are flouting the law.

But, after Shoma Chaudhury's assertion that this is "an internal matter" and will be handled by the organisation, why are we still looking at whether there is a committee, rather than whether such a committee really serves its purpose?

In an article I had written about the line between flirting and sexual harassment at the workplace, I quoted a news anchor who spoke about how a woman who complained to one such committee was humiliated by the questioning she was subjected to.

The questioner was a senior female employee in the same organisation, and she asked the victim why she chose to speak about the harassment to another colleague before bringing it up with the committee.


We need to look at the way in which victims can be made to feel like they have done something wrong, or that they have "misunderstood" the situation. We need to look at the way in which members of these committees, in trying to be "fair" or "play devil's advocate", can end up browbeating the victims into withdrawing their complaints, or quitting the organisation, rather than bring a senior colleague disrepute.

There is the other issue of confusing sexual harassment with sexual relations.

It's very difficult to make rules when it comes to personal-professional boundaries in office. One way of looking at things is that, as long as a relationship is consensual, it's fine. But then, how does power structure come into play in such a relationship? What are the motivations behind such a relationship?

The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal started off as a consensual affair, and nearly got the President of the United States impeached.

How do we figure out the lines? When your boss is your boyfriend - or girlfriend - is it possible to keep the personal and professional relationships separate? Do we need regulations that prohibit dating or sexual relations between people working in the same organisation?

Half the happy marriages and partnerships I know of would not have happened if that were the case.

The fact is, we are not direct parties and we should not be dissecting certain aspects of this case as if we were stakeholders.

This is not a time for outrage. It's a time to be shocked before we are angry. It's a time to reflect.
If we want to use this as an opportunity to speak about other cases of sexual harassment, let us do it with some decorum. And within that collective rot that we speak of, let us treat each of these cases as individual violations.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at
http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com and tweets at  @k_nandini

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