NEW DELHI: The Tehelka case where a junior colleague accused the then editor Tarun Tejpal of sexual assaulting her on two occasions in a hotel elevator, surfaced on the internet last week when an email from a 23-year-old female journalist to her superior was leaked.
The incidents in Goa occurred during an event bringing together intellectuals, activists and celebrities, including Hollywood actor Robert De Niro.
The journalist did not press charges against Tejpal, but police launched an investigation based on media reports. Tejpal could be booked for outraging the modesty of a woman and rape.
Tejpal admitted in a leaked email to the magazine's management that an 'unfortunate incident' had occurred between himself and the journalist, describing it as "a bad lapse of judgment". But in a more recent statement to a Delhi court he called what happened consensual.
Here are some excerpts of the mail trail:
Tarun Tejpal's letter to Shoma Chaudhury:
My dear Shoma,
The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for. I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further.
Tehelka has been born and built, day on day, with my blood, toil, tears and sweat, and that of many others, against near-insurmountable odds. It has lived for and fought the big battles of our time, always on the side of the oppressed and the wronged, always on the side of equity and justice. Its voice has travelled the world and changed policy and perceptions.
It has been a beacon for those who would do the right thing. Through bad, and worse, times I have protected Tehelka and its journalists from the inevitable demands of power and corporations. I have always allowed every journalist’s sense of the right to flower and express itself.
No one has ever been asked to do what they don’t believe in. I have always held that Tehelka the institution, and its work, have always been infinitely more important than any of us individuals. It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles.
Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months. You have always been stellar, Shoma, and even as I apologise to you and all my other colleagues, for this unfortunate incident, I leave Tehelka in your more than capable and safe hands.
In apology, Tarun
Plaintiff's mail to Shoma Chaudhury alleging the assault:
It is extremely painful for me to write this email to you – I have struggled with finding an easier way to say it, but there isn’t one. The editor in chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted me at Think on two occasions last week. From the very first moment, I wanted to call you, or find you and tell you what he had done to me – but given how absorbed you were at Think; preparing for and conducting sessions, and the fact that it was impossible for the two of us to get even a minute alone together, I could not. To add to this, I had to process the fact that it was Tarun who molested me — my father’s ex colleague and friend, Tiya’s dad, and someone I had so deeply respected and admired for so many years.
Both times, I returned to my room in a completely distraught condition, trembling and crying. I went straight to **** and **** room, where I called **** and told them what had been done to me. (All three of them are copied on this email. You can contact them for any clarifications you see necessary). The second time he molested me, I even told **** what happened. When he heard I’d told **** (she confronted him), he lashed out at me, and I became truly terrified of what he would do. I avoided him in all situations except in rooms full of people, until I checked out of Think on Sunday.
As of Saturday evening, he sent me text messages insinuating that I misconstrued “a drunken banter”. That is not what happened. Banter does not involve forcing yourself on someone, trying to disrobe them, and penetrate them with your fingers despite them pleading for you to stop. As you read through the details of what happened in the attachment to this mail, I hope you will also understand how traumatic and terrifying it has been for me to report this to you — and yet how critical it is that Tehelka constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines immediately, to investigate this matter. At the very least, I will need a written apology from Mr Tejpal and an acknowledgement of the same to be circulated through the organization. It cannot be considered acceptable for him to treat a female employee in this way.
Tarun Tejpal's mail to the complainant:
This is not the formal apology you seek. That will follow in a few minutes too. This is the informal one, for you and me.
I am sorry at the immense distress that’s been caused to you by my lapse of judgment, but I want you to know its been totally devastating for me too, in every possible way (and since you know *** and *** well, you would know what I am saying).
This is for me to figure out how it went so terribly misunderstood and wrong. To begin with, for ten years at Tehelka one has ensured no shadow of anything limits or cramps the women journalists. At every forum, public and private, I have lauded the great work done by Tehelka’s women reporters and editors; and have personally always stayed at arm’s length. You yourself were always treated with the highest regard and accommodation and affection, and nothing ever asked of you save great work. Your continuous growth was always a source of pride. That you were tasked to escort De Niro was merely the latest token of our trust.
The context that ill-fated evening, of our conversation, as you will recall, was heavily loaded. We were playfully and flirtatiously talking about desire, sex; you were telling me the Bob Geldof story in graphic detail, and about ****, and the near-impossibility of fidelity; and of the aftermath of meeting me one stormy evening in my office when I was sitting watching the thunderclouds. I also want to clarify that yes, you did say at one point that I was your boss, and I did reply “that makes it simpler” but in the very same breath and sentence I said to you “I withdraw that straight away – no relationship of mine has anything at all, ever, to do with that”.
It was in this frivolous, laughing mood that the encounter took place. I had no idea that you were upset, or felt I had been even remotely non-consensual, until **** came and spoke to me the next night. I was shocked and devastated at the time. Both because you felt I had imposed on you (which had neither been my reading or intention), and because I felt I had been totally irresponsible and foolish to have anything furtive to do with my daughter’s intimate friend. At that very moment I was filled with shame, and still am. (And what is not true is that I ever, even remotely, whispered any word in intimidation.)
You have made it clear that I read it all wrong, and I will not dispute it, nor underplay your anger and hurt. This is easily the worst moment of my life – something ostensibly playful gone so horribly wrong, damaging of all that I hold dear in life, from people to principles.
I ask you to forgive and forget it. I will meet your mom and apologise to her too – and *** if you so wish. I also want you to keep working at Tehelka as you always have, reporting to Shoma as you do. Both Tehelka and Shoma have never let you down.
My punishment has already been upon me, and will probably last till my last day.
Tarun's email apologising for the assault:
This is the hardest thing I will ever do in my life. You are a young woman I have been very proud of, as a colleague's daughter, and then as a colleague in my own office. I have watched you grow and mature professionally into a journalist of great integrity and promise.
It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.
I understand the extreme distress you have been feeling and if regret could turn time back, the force of mine would surely place us all back in a space and time before this terrible lapse.
I know you feel I used my position as Editor, Tehelka to force my attention on you, and I acknowledge that I did at one point say to your contention that I was your boss, "That makes it simpler," but I do want to put on record that the moment those words escaped my lips, I retracted them saying "I withdraw that straight away – no relationship of mine has anything at all, ever, to do with that". I want to reiterate that again today: despite my colossal lapse, working and succeeding in Tehelka will never be predicated on anyone acquiescing to anything untoward. It never has and never will.
Having said that though, I acknowledge that there is an inherent disbalance of power in my position as editor-in-chief and you as an employee of Tehelka and there is absolutely no ground or circumstance in which I should have violated the propriety and trust embedded in that relationship.
Complainant's rebuttal of Tarun's mail:
1. The conversation from that night was not "heavily loaded" or "flirtatious" - you were talking about "sex" or "desire" because that is what you usually choose to speak to me about, unfortunately, never my work, which if you had had occasion to read, you might not have attempted to sexually molest me, and certainly would have known that there was no way that I would stay silent about it and just vanish. There was no "aftermath" of that evening with the "thunderclouds" - this is exactly what happened: I wanted to discuss the first story I had written about a rape survivor with you. Ritu called me to your office, I walked in and you were lying on the couch with the lights off. I asked you if you wanted me to turn he lights on, and you refused. You continued to lie on the couch. I sat on a chair across from you in the same room and told you the survivor's story. I wish again, that you remembered the professional reason I had met you that evening, instead of the storm and the thunderclouds.
2. This is what non-consent constitutes: the moment you laid a hand on me, I started begging you to stop. I invoked every single person and principle that was important to us - Tiya, Geetan, Shoma, (name deleted, the woman's father), the fact that you were my employer, to make you stop. You refused to listen. In fact, you went ahead and decided to molest me again on the following night. We have often spoken of "what turns men into beasts" at Tehelka edit meetings, you yourself have commissioned several stories on this. It is this - not being able to take no for an answer.
3. You never, even once uttered the following words: "I withdraw that straight away - no relationship of mine has anything at all, ever, to do with that". If your attempt at sexual molestation were really as consensual as you seem to imply that it was Tarun, why would you have suddenly switched to speaking in legal terms in a "frivolous, laughing" moment?
4. Not only did you lash out at me verbally for telling Tiya, you also sent me a text message the next morning saying "I can't believe you went and told her even the smallest thing. What a complete absence of understanding of a parent-child relationship".
Tarun, I can't believe you think molesting an employee your daughter's age, who is also your daughter's friend is something you'd describe as "the smallest thing". What an absence of understanding of what Tehelka stands for.
Unfortunately, your desire to apologize to (name deleted, her boyfriend) only reeks of your own patriarchal notion that men own and possess female bodies, and that since you violated what you recognize as his "property", you are in some way accountable to him. The only people you owe an apology to are your employees at Tehelka, for desecrating their and my faith in you. Please do not attempt any further personal correspondence with me - you lost that privilege when you violated my trust and body.
Victim's resignation letter:
Ms. Chaudhury, I am resigning from my position as ****** at Tehelka magazine, with immediate effect, because Tehelka’s Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal sexually molested me on two occasions in November this year.
I am deeply traumatized by the lack of support offered by the organization.
In such circumstances, it is untenable for me to continue to work for this organization. At this moment, I would like to present the following facts to support my claim:
1. I was sexually molested by Tarun Tejpal on two occasions, the 7th and 8th of November 2013 at the annual Think festival in Goa this year. In the emails of apology that followed my complaint to you about Mr Tejpal’s grievous sexual misconduct, he admitted to the fact, and apologized unconditionally.
2. I requested, at the very least, for Mr Tejpal to acknowledge this apology publicly to the staff and bureau of Tehelka. While I did not want this acknowledgement to have graphic details, I asked that the words “sexual misconduct” be included. In a phone conversation with me, you asked that he be recused from doing so because he had already admitted to sexual molestation in his emails, and because we needed to “protect the institution”. In this conversation, I said, “I trust you to do the right thing”.
3. In the public acknowledgement sent to the bureau, Mr Tejpal and you referred to his act of sexual violation as “an untoward incident”— this was not an attempt to “protect the institution” but in fact, an attempt to cover up what had really occurred—the act of sexual molestation, an admission of the facts that Mr Tejpal had “attempted sexual liaison” with me (to quote his email) on two occasions despite my “reluctance to receive such attention”. Further, in conversations with my colleagues, you admitted to them that you did not see the need to set up an anti-sexual harassment cell as per the Vishaka guidelines, because you did not contest my version of what had occurred on the nights of 7th and 8th of November.
4. In your appearances on national news channels, you first attempted to establish that I was “satisfied” with Tehelka’s actions, when only one of my immediate demands from the organization had been met—namely, that Mr Tejpal had unconditionally apologized for sexually molesting me in private emails to you and I. His public acknowledgement of the apology did not include any reference to his grievous sexual misconduct, and you had still failed to set up an anti-sexual harassment cell as per Vishaka guidelines. This could, in no way, have left me “satisfied”. Further, I had responded to both of Mr Tejpal’s emails (cc’d to you and the three colleagues I had confided everything to since the 7th of November) clarifying: that his behaviour could not be described as “sexual liaison”, and that was in fact an act of sexual molestation and a violation of bodily integrity and trust, since it occurred (by his own admission) despite my refusal.
A sexual act carried out without consent cannot be justified on any basis. That after Mr Tejpal (by his own admission) had referred to his position of power over me in the organization, he did not withdraw this statement as his emails allege. You continued to ignore my rebuttals to these emails, while insisting, in public, that I was satisfied.
5. You are now attempting to establish that Mr Tejpal has “another version” of events (as surely, any sexual predator does), and that the “encounter” may have been consensual or non-consensual. Meanwhile, on the night of the 22nd of November, an immediate member of Mr Tejpal’s family went to my mother’s house to ask her the details of my legal counsel, and what I “wanted” as a result of my complaint about being sexually molested by Mr Tejpal. In emails and text messages sent to his friends, read out on national news channels, Mr Tejpal is now claiming that what occurred was a “fleeting, consensual encounter”; and that he wrote his apologies to me because of your “adamantine feminist principles”.
Over the past years, we have collectively defended the rights of women, written about custodial rape, sexual molestation at the workplace, spoken out harshly against the culture of victim blame and the tactical emotional intimidation and character assassination of those who dare to speak out against sexual violence. At a time when I find myself victim to such a crime, I am shattered to find the Editor in Chief of Tehelka, and you—in your capacity as Managing Editor— resorting to precisely these tactics of intimidation, character assassination and slander. Given the sequence of events since the 7th of November, it is not just Mr Tejpal who has failed me as an employer—but Tehelka that has failed women, employees, journalists and feminists collectively.
Please consider my resignation effective immediately.
Shoma Chaudhury accepts victims resignation:
It is unfortunate that your resignation from Tehelka comes under these circumstances. As you have said, we have stood together for women’s rights, and today for me to be seen in opposition to you is a real travesty by any account.
In the absence of an existing official grievance redressal mechanism in office, along Vishaka guidelines, when this crisis hit, I acted on instant outrage and solidarity for you as a woman and a colleague. My responses may not have reflected the correct formal procedures but the intent cannot be doubted.
To feel a sense closure, you had asked for a written apology from Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal; an acknowledgement of this apology to be sent to office; and the setting up of an anti-sexual harassment cell in Tehelka.
Within one day of your complaint, you had the written apology. Tarun stepped down the next day. After this, the process of setting up the anti-sexual harassment committee was begun. I asked you to suggest names as well. You are yet to give names of your nominees.
There were only two days to act on your complaint before the story broke in the press. I believe the taken actions strongly count as my standing by you. Post this, things have been misconstrued and have snowballed exponentially in the media, based on half-facts and selective leaks.
In your initial conversations with me, you had wanted redressal from within the institution in a way that would acknowledge the gravity of your complaint, yet protect your privacy. I proceeded with this in mind. You, above all others, in the clamour surrounding us today, know the truth of my actions in support of you.
You have accused me of many things in your resignation letter. This is not the time to enter into a detailed point-counter point exercise with you. There are, however, a few things that must be set straight, particularly given that I am being publicly accused of a ‘cover-up.’
Firstly, the written apology was forwarded to your three journalist confidantes. This cannot be read as an attempt to hush-up things.
On 19 November, I called you to check whether you an acknowledgement of Tarun’s apology should now be sent to the Tehelka staff. I also strongly urged you to continue working in Tehelka, if you wanted to. You said you needed a week to think it through and asked me to hold-off the acknowledgment till then. This is the only reason an acknowledgement of the apology was not sent to the staff and bureau immediately.
Regarding your assertion in your resignation letter that I am only “now” attempting to establish that Tarun has “another version”: this is factually untrue. It was recorded in my first email that he said he had ‘misread the situation’. This ‘other version’ is also on record on 19 November in the personal email from Tarun to you, which you copied to the three journalists and me in your reply. Subsequently, this version was also discussed on the phone between you and me.
Questions have been asked about why I did not go to the police. In our conversation, you had mentioned that you had considered this option but did not want to go that route. I thought I should respect that and had no reason to disbelieve this, as you had already spoken to journalists about your sexual assault, and both they, and you, could have gone to the police in the ten days that transpired before you brought your complaint to me. Once the enquiry committee took the matter into its hands, its recommendations would have been followed and the course of law would have taken over.
In so far as the issues you have raised over Tarun’s recusal letter, and my use of the words “untoward incident” or “satisfied”, I have already been on national television both accepting and explaining how and why the vocabulary of this was inadequate. You also have emails from me, copied to the three journalists, on Thursday, 20 November, explaining this.
I accept that you may have found expressions I used, verbal or written, inappropriate. I am sorry about this, and only say that notwithstanding the mildness perceived in my language, I took strong steps to ensure that there could be no possible silencing of the issue.
Regarding your objections to the wording of Tarun’s written apology, you received this email on Tuesday afternoon, 19 November. You mailed wanting phrases changed on 21 November, after the press storm triggered by the leak. By then, events were too fast-paced, to address your concerns.
After Wednesday night, 20 November, we haven’t spoken or communicated in any way, other than through emails. The suggestion that I am involved in any attempt to intimidate you or your family is absolutely untrue and uncalled for. The same goes for your claims that I have indulged in character assassination or slander against you.
From the moment I received your complaint, my actions, were driven by outrage on your behalf, urgent concern for you, and a desire to assuage your sense of injury. In this, contrary to assertions in the media, I was, in fact, demonstrably driven to honour your word above any other. To this extent, I, rightly or wrongly, did not even cross-check your account with the other journalists you had confided in, until you had been given the official apology you sought.
At the end, you have accused not just Mr.Tejpal, but Tehelka of failing “women, employees, journalists and feminists collectively”. This accusation unduly extrapolates the events of the last week with an institution whose journalists, staff and body of work have nothing to do with it.
Today, despite my immediate and assertive actions in support of you, I stand wrongly defaced and accused of having abandoned the public values I uphold in my work. This leaves me inexpressibly dismayed.
I wish you well in the future.
Shoma Chaudhury’s Resignation Letter
This has been a damaging time for all associated with Tehelka. Since the devastating allegation was first brought to my notice on 18th November, I have taken a series of actions in response to this complaint. To my mind, I acted on instant outrage and solidarity for our colleague as a woman and co-worker.
After the first steps to immediately address her expressed needs, the process of setting up the anti-sexual harassment committee was begun. There were only two days to act on the complaint before the story broke in the press. Post this, things have been misconstrued and have snowballed exponentially in the media, based on half-facts and selective leaks. In the next stage, once the committee was formed, the law would have taken its course according to the findings and recommendations.
Over the past week, I have been accused of an attempt to “cover-up” and for not standing by my feminist positions. While I accept that I could have done many things differently and in a more measured way, I reject the allegations of a cover-up because in no way could the first actions that were taken be deemed suppression of any kind. As for my feminist positions, I believe I acted in consonance with them by giving my colleague’s account precedence over everything else.
However, despite this, as a result of what’s transpired over the past few days my integrity has repeatedly been questioned by people from our fraternity and, in fact, by the public at large. I would like to take cognizance of this.
I have worked hard for Tehelka for many years and what we have stood for is very dear to me and I hold it in high esteem. I do not want questions raised about my integrity to tarnish the image of Tehelka, which it has done in the past week. Therefore, I resign as Managing Editor with immediate effect.
There are many readers and colleagues who have believed in me and expressed their faith through this very difficult time. I am deeply grateful to them.
I will come in to office to close the issue and do the necessary handovers. I cannot express how painful this is for me. It has never been a part of me to give up midway through a challenge. I would have liked to continue at Tehelka to see us through this dark time, but I am no longer sure whether my presence is harming or helping Tehelka.
I deeply regret any inadequacies or lack of clarity I may have displayed in my leadership.
Victim’s public statement
Here is her statement:
I am heartened by the broad support I have received over the past fortnight. However, I am deeply concerned and very disturbed by insinuations that my complaint is part of a pre-election political conspiracy.
I categorically refute such insinuations and put forward the following arguments:
The struggle for women to assert control over their lives and their bodies is most certainly a political one, but feminist politics and its concerns are wider than the narrow universe of our political parties. Thus, I call upon our political parties to resist the temptation to turn a very important discussion about gender, power and violence into a conversation about themselves. Suggestions that I am acting on someone else's behest are only the latest depressing indications that sections of our public discourse are unwilling to acknowledge that women are capable to making decisions about themselves for themselves.
In this past week, television commentators who should know better, have questioned my motivations and my actions during and after Mr. Tejpal molested me. Some have questioned the time it took for me to file my complaint, more inquisitive commentators have questioned the use of the word "sexual molestation" versus words like "rape." Perhaps the hardest part of this unrelentingly painful experience has been my struggle with taxonomy. I don't know if I am ready to see myself as a "rape victim", for my colleagues, friends, supporters and critics to see me thus. It is not the victim that categorizes crimes: it is the law. And in this case, the law is clear: what Mr. Tejpal did to me falls within the legal definition of rape.
Now that we have a new law that broadens the definition of rape, we should stand by what we fought for. We have spoken, time and again, about how rape is not about lust or sex, but about power, privilege and entitlement. Thus this new law should be applicable to everybody - the wealthy, the powerful, and the well connected - and not just to faceless strangers. As seen by some of the responses to this case, instances of familial and custodial rape present doughty challenges to even the most adamantine feminists.
Unlike Mr. Tejpal, I am not a person of immense means. I have been raised singlehandedly by my mother's single income. My father's health has been very fragile for many years now. Unlike Mr. Tejpal, who is fighting to protect his wealth, his influence and his privilege, I am fighting to preserve nothing except for my integrity and my right to assert that my body is my own and not the plaything of my employer. By filing my complaint, I have lost not just a job that I loved, but much-needed financial security and the independence of my salary. I have also opened myself to personal and slanderous attack. This will not be an easy battle.
In my life, and my writings, I have always urged women to speak out and break the collusive silence that surrounds sexual crime. This crisis has only confirmed the myriad difficulties faced by survivors. First, our utterances are questioned, then our motivations, and finally our strength is turned against us: a politician will issue a statement claiming that speaking out against sexual violence will hurt our professional prospects; an application filed in the Delhi High Court will question why the victim remained "normal". Had I chosen silence in this instance, I would not have been able to face either myself or the feminist movement that is forged and renewed afresh by generations of strong women.
Finally, an array of men of privilege have expressed sorrow that Tehelka, the institution, has suffered in this crisis. I remind them that this crisis was caused by the abusive violence of the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, and not by an employee who chose to speak out.