In 2006, influential British publication The Guardian named Tarun Tejpal as one of "India's elite", for being a 'pioneer of a brand of sting journalism which has transformed Indian media'. In 2009, Business Week named him among 'India's 50 Most Powerful People' for that year. In 2013, as editor-in-chief of investigative news magazine Tehelka, Tejpal was in jail, accused of rape and repeated sexual assault by a young female colleague at a company conclave in Goa.
On Friday, 21 May 2021, a District and Sessions Court at Mapusa, Goa, acquitted him of all charges.
There will be an appeal, perhaps even several, with Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant already declaring as much. Notwithstanding these pandemic times, Tejpal's many detractors " of whom the BJP and its student wing the ABVP took to the streets in 2013 to demand his arrest " are unlikely to let the acquittal pass quietly either. Though this last is in the realm of speculation, Friday's verdict is likely to be a beginning, rather than an end.
For the present, however, Tejpal has doubtless won himself a breather. Arrested on 20 November 2013 by Goa Police, which took suo motu cognisance of media reports about the case, he spent nearly seven months in prison before the Supreme Court granted him bail on 1 July 2014 and asked him to submit his passport to the court. His trial began in September 2017. In August 2019, the Supreme Court denied his appeal that the charges against him be quashed, but directed the lower court to complete proceedings within six months, which the latter deferred citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
So here we are at the end of seven-and-a-half turbulent years, with Tejpal currently a free man. Presumably, he is also free to resume his duties at Tehelka, the institution he founded and built, and whose controversial sting operations gained him as many powerful enemies as it did admirers. Tejpal himself has in the past termed the entire scandal as a BJP conspiracy, stemming largely from the fact that Tehelka has repeatedly targeted the party with reports such as 'The Truth: Gujarat 2002' about the Gujarat riots, published in 2007, or 'Operation West End' in 2001, a bribery scandal implicating the BJP-led NDA government, which led to the resignation of BJP leader Bengaru Laxman and then defence minister George Fernandes.
Irrespective of the truth of his claim, the question is simple: no matter what the law says, will the 58-year-old Tejpal be defined by this one case for the remainder of his life? Every time he is mentioned, will the sexual assault allegations be the elephant in the room? Given the intense media and public interest in the case when it first broke, and given Tehelka's image as a champion of gender equality, will we remember the fact that Tejpal initially appeared to be acknowledging his role in the matter before backtracking and coming up with a different narrative?
The accusation and Tejpal's subsequent decision to 'step down' from his post for six months to "atone" for an "unfortunate incident" made international news. "I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on November 7 and November 8 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me..." is part of what he wrote in a letter of apology to his accuser, days after the alleged incident. Her own letter of resignation to Tehelka's former managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, recounting her accusations in detail, is freely available in the public domain. This correspondence formed part of the nearly 3,000-page chargesheet that Goa Police filed against Tejpal.
Will all this be forgotten? It is not unusual for such things not to be. Consider a few recent examples. Accused of rape and sexual assault by a well-known writer-producer in 2018, popular actor Alok Nath's career appears to have taken a fairly long-lasting dive, though in 2019, Mumbai Police had said they were closing the case against him owing to lack of sufficient evidence.
Again, the #MeToo allegations against MJ Akbar, yet another doyen of Indian journalism and erstwhile minister of state for External Affairs in the BJP government, are yet to be proved. However, he has all but disappeared from the public eye, not to mention the corridors of power, since the allegations surfaced in 2018. His defamation suit against Priya Ramani, one of his accusers, was dismissed in February this year.
The list of powerful people, an overwhelming majority of them men, accused of sexual assault or worse is a tragically long one. With very few exceptions, they continue to be defined by the cases that made them notorious, irrespective of what they may have achieved before or after. What is to say that Tejpal will not have a similar fate? The thing about sexual assault is that it is one of the hardest crimes to prove, and the accuser must be taken at her word in the absence of more concrete evidence. Since the law operates largely on evidence, it is perhaps society that plays an active role when it comes to those let off by the courts. When it comes to reinstating a public figure, the question is how much the public memory is willing to forget. Remember the nationwide outcry in 2006 in the Jessica Lal murder case, which prompted a retrial of principal accused Manu Sharma, who had been acquitted of all charges. On that occasion, too, the public had stubbornly refused to forget.
Over the past two decades, the realisation that being rich or powerful does not necessarily shield one from karma has gradually taken hold. The legal outcome notwithstanding, the very fact that influential people have been dragged to court and ostensibly brought to their knees socially, has been a significant development in itself. Some of them may have become collateral damage in the battle for greater accountability, but isn't that the case with all battles?
So Tejpal may have won this battle, but the war, one suspects, remains to be fought over a lifetime.
Yajnaseni Chakraborty is a veteran journalist, freelance writer and translator, with two published works to her credit. She lives and works in Kolkata.