The law finally caught up with Tarun Tejpal, the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka. He became one of the first big names in India to be arrested under the stringent new rape law that the Indian government passed after the infamous December 16th gang rape case that shook the country. A local court in the western Indian state of Goa rejected his bail plea and placed him under six days of police custody in an incident that stirred the conscience of the nation, dominating headlines for more than a week.
Tejpal’s arrest is an ignominious denouement for a man who not long ago acquired the halo of a conscience keeper in Indian society. His downfall tarnishes the future of an institution he assiduously built over a period of years.
Tejpal is no ordinary name in the Indian media. He became a sensation in the early part of last decade when he exposed a major match-fixing scandal in cricket. Subsequently, he exposed the murky world of defense deals through a series of sting operations which trapped the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading coalition government in New Delhi at the time. His exposé led to the resignation of the Defense Minister. It also dealt a heavy blow to the reputation of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, from which the right-wing party has not been able to recover, even after a decade.
Tejpal and his colleagues involved in the sting operation faced constant persecution from the NDA government for their audacity. This face-off between Tejpal’s team and the establishment propelled the former to the top of the media world. He became an overnight sensation and representative of a new kind of investigative journalism. He transformed the moral universe of Indian journalism and his English-language magazine Tehelka (meaning “sensation”) became the epitome of this worldview. The publication became a byword for alternative journalism, taking up issues no other media house would touch.
But 2013 is not 2000 and Tejpal has changed with the times. He now faces prosecution for sexually assaulting a female reporter in the elevator of a five-star hotel during a conference in Goa.
When the news broke about Tejpal’s alleged sexual assault, it was received initially with utter disbelief. But as the details became public, the aura that had been built around the celebrated journalists and authors of India suddenly evaporated. Tejpal’s story is at the top of the news in India as the country heads to the polls. He dominates the political discourse. Both the Congress Party and the BJP have also joined the debate surrounding Tehelka and its prominent founder.
The controversy became public after the leak of the letter of apology that Tejpal wrote to the magazine’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. In the letter, Tejpal talked about “recusing” himself from the post of editor-in-chief of the weekly for six months. The letter went viral on social media and in a matter of few hours became the top headline across the country.
Subsequently Tejpal tried to retract his statement and blamed a political conspiracy against him. Chaudhary attempted damage control by announcing the formation of an internal committee to address the grievances of the victim, who is also a Tehlka employee. But it was too little, too late. Many think Chaudhary should have acted firmly and dismissed the founding editor at the outset. She was blamed for protecting Tejpal, which ultimately led Choudhary and several other Tehelka employees to resign.
In a hard-hitting column the left-wing author-activist Arundhati Roy, once very close to Tejpal, called the flip-flop “Rape Number Two.” She writes in Outlook that “outrageously, it is being suggested that Tarun [Tejpal] is being ‘framed’ for political reasons — presumably by the Right-wing Hindutva brigade. So now a young woman who he very recently saw fit to employ, 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.”
This is the sort of outrage that avid readers of Tehelka and admirers of Tejpal feel today. They feel betrayed and hurt by the news.
Whatever the debate, no one can deny that Tarun Tejpal misused his power as an editor. He abused the trust of a junior colleague who was not only close to his own daughter but also was full of the idealism that he and his magazine claimed to represent. He has lost the trust of many who looked up to him and the progressive values he represented. His downfall has hurt India’s conscience.