(First published in The Express Tribune on 22 November 2013.)
The most shocking thing about the revelation that the iconic editor, Tarun Tejpal, had sexually assaulted a woman journalist his daughter’s age, was that nobody was shocked. In the Indian media, we know these things happen. Through word of mouth, those in the fraternity know which editors have a ‘glad eye’. Some are more infamous than others.
“This may come as a rude surprise to many of you,” wrote Tehelkamagazine’s managing editor in an email to all its journalists, prefacing a note by editor-in-chief Tarun Jit Tejpal. The note said that Tejpal had made a mistake in an untoward incident with a journalist and he was not only unconditionally apologising, but was also going on a six-month leave.
In a few hours, it was all over the Indian media that it was a case of grave and repeated sexual assault of a woman staffer, who also happened to be a friend of his own daughter. A confidant of the victim told NDTV that the victim had been emotionally scarred, that her pleas to not be assaulted were ignored, that a half-hearted apology that did not even acknowledge the sexual assault wasn’t enough. And what a penance! A self-imposed six month leave — to write another book?
In the Indian media, we hear ever so often of such cases but nothing happens. That’s because sleazy male editors lead a male-dominated profession where sexual harassment and assault of women journalists is an act of power. Such is this power that women are forced to submit quietly. Will they get another job? Won’t the editor tell other editors she goes around making ‘false’ allegations of sexual harassment? Won’t she be seen as a troublemaker?
In saying that he had ‘misread’ the situation that led to the ‘incident’, Tejpal is doing the same victim-blaming. This is an issue far more serious than one editor or one incident. The way some male editors behave in the office leads to a sexual politics that vitiates the office environment and hurts the practice of journalism. One reputed editor makes it very clear by being rude to male journalists and extra nice to women staffers.
It is clear that the male order will be preserved. As Tejpal hands over charge to his woman colleague Shoma Chaudhury, the latter has refused to follow the Supreme Court judgment that says every organisation in India has to have an internal anti-sexual harassment committee. Chaudhury has told the rest of the media that this is Tehelka’s internal matter. The same Chaudhury had tweeted in April this year, “Most rapes are by family or neighbours. They are mostly not reported to protect honour.” Perhaps, that is what she is trying to protect, rather than women’s right to bodily autonomy, when she refuses to institute an internal inquiry.
Very few Indian media organisations have the mandatory anti-sexual harassment committee as mandated by the Supreme Court. Why, the Supreme Court doesn’t have one for itself! A law graduate recently revealed she had been molested by a Supreme Court judge she was interning with.
Institutions that the people have some faith in, institutions that have been standing up for women’s rights, such as the media and the judiciary, are themselves keen to protect the ‘honour’ of sleazy old powerful men, who think it’s their right to molest women colleagues.
Meanwhile, audio tapes have been put out showing the former home minister of a state ordering policemen to organise complete surveillance of a young woman. She was followed by the police everywhere she went. In the flight, in the malls, everywhere. Every phone conversation she was having was tapped. Why? For ‘saheb’. The saheb in question could be India’s next prime minister!
Despite having strict laws at their disposal, women are afraid of these men in power. Of long-drawn legal battles and social stigma. It may be easy for a man to say this, but changing the situation needs more women coming out and taking on the sleazy men in power, legally or just by naming and shaming. Every example will tell these men, it’s an equal world. And every example will inspire other women to speak up.