(First published in The Express Tribune on 21 February 2014 under the headline ‘The editor’s media trial’.)
t is a test of the fairness of a country’s criminal justice system if it applies the same standards of justice, mercy and efficiency to the rich and the poor. A criminal justice system that works better for the rich is not a just one. To the extent that the rich can always hire the best lawyers, we’re never going to have real equality before the law. But we must still try.
The voices are growing louder and are no longer limited to drawing room outrage. More and more people are gathering the courage to publicly defend Tarun Jit Tejpal, former editor of Tehelka news magazine, who has been in jail since November 30. The real problem that these people have is that Mr Tejpal is one of us, or that he was a good guy who stood up against the Hindu right or that they don’t see sexual assault and rape by Mr Tejpal as a serious matter. Such matters become serious only if a lower class person does them.
But since these arguments can’t be made publicly, the insidious reasoning goes something like this. Firstly, we are told about trial by media. What’s funny here is that when the Indian media began its culture of doing campaign activism for one or two cases, Tehelka had a key role to play. It was Tehelka that mobilised youth and TV cameras at India Gate to ask for justice for a murdered model, Jessica Lal. Tehelka even did a sting operation on the issue. Nobody wondered how the accused felt about such a trial by the media.
Secondly, Mr Tejpal wants a trial by media. Since his legal case is so weak — he’s admitted his crime on email — he knows the only battle possible to win is the media battle. His friends and family are going around meeting editors and opinion-makers to argue their case. They’ve also taken to Twitter to argue their case. A mass email was sent out by someone who used the victim’s photograph to say that she looks okay and suggests her allegation is false. Why would his reporter, who worked with him for four years, accuse him of rape?
So, while the Tejpal campaign has the right to make its case before the media, the media does not have the right to ask tough questions of him? You ask him why his versions have been changing and it becomes trial by media? He wants the CCTV footage released to media and public so that we can voyeuristically watch and decide if the victim looks traumatised or not? That’s not trial by media?
Then there is the issue of bail. Mr Tejpal has been in jail since November 30 and hasn’t got bail. That is because bail in rape cases is difficult in India, for everyone. Asaram Bapu, religious guru far more popular than Mr Tejpal, has been in jail without bail for far longer on rape charges. Why should the law make an exception for Mr Tejpal?
Mr Tejpal and his friends think the law should be nice to him because he’s a champion of secularism. This is amongst the more disgusting things said in recent times about India’s religious minorities. Allowing Mr Tejpal to get away with sexual assault amounting to rape is not going to prevent Narendra Modi from becoming the prime minister of India. The fight against fascism, communalism and other bad-isms of our times would benefit much more if we were consistent in condemning wrongdoing, regardless of whether the wrongdoer is secular or communal.
Moreover, Mr Tejpal claims the Goa government has unfairly put him in jail because Goa is ruled by the BJP. Does he mean that if Goa was under Congress rule, the police would have been soft on him? Which means the victim could not have had justice if Goa was ruled by the Congress? The Congress party should condemn the suggestion that its cronies in the media have the right to rape women in Congress-ruled states.
Lastly, the new Indian rape laws are not draconian. Even Tehelkamagazine had supported them. They are merely in line with rape laws in many developed countries. Would we be calling these laws draconian if the accused was a watchman?