Tehelka's Tarun Tejpal: Sex scandal batters India's top investigative title

Andrew North
South Asia correspondent
@NorthAndrewon Twitter

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe sex crime allegations have already damaged Tehelka's credibility

If the editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper was accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague then offered to step down for six months "to do penance" you can imagine the outcry this would provoke.

That is a close equivalent to the crisis engulfing India's foremost investigative title Tehelka over sex crime allegations against its editor-in-chief and proprietor Tarun Tejpal, a media celebrity here.

It's even more acute for a magazine that has run hard-hitting exposes of high-profile figures involved in sex crimes but finds itself accused of double standards in the way it's treating its own famous founder, now he is an alleged perpetrator.

In the process, the scandal is reviving the debate about how India treats sex crimes in particular and women in general.

'Untoward incident'

Many are astonished though that of all organisations, it should be Tehelka - which means "sensation" - sparking this firestorm.

image copyrightAFP
image captionTehelka is especially unpopular among supporters of the BJP and its allies

The magazine is synonymous in India with campaigning investigative journalism, with a string of high-profile scalps going back 13 years.

It led the way in coverage of the Delhi gang rape case, with its managing editor Shoma Choudhury writing an in-depth piece on male attitudes to sex crimes.

Now she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being accused of glossing over such views, after her email to staff described Tejpal's actions as "an untoward incident".

And the magazine's same exacting standards are now being applied to Tehelka.

Under pressure, it has set up a committee to look into the allegations - a body it was already supposed to have in place under laws to prevent sexual harassment.

But that's unlikely to appease critics who have called its initial response of allowing Tejpal to apologise to the employee and then step aside for six months as a "whitewash".

Ms Choudhury released a statement saying she condemns sexual harassment and that she acted in accordance with the wishes of the colleague who made the accusation.

But she has also said that she will not co-operate with any investigation by police in Goa - where the assaults are alleged to have taken place in early November - unless the alleged victim launches a formal complaint.

But what made things even worse is the conditional tone of Tarun Tejpal's supposedly unconditional apology - in which he talks about "a bad lapse of judgment" and critically "an awful misreading of the situation".

It left the impression in many eyes that he was suggesting the woman bore some of the blame - echoing a mindset that Tehelka is usually the first to condemn.

He has said he will co-operate with the police and other authorities in their investigation, but urges them to examine the evidence so "the accurate version of events stands clearly revealed".

The crisis risks "tainting the whole Indian media", says Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of TV network IBN 18, who knows the key protagonists well.

Is this India's Dominique Strauss-Kahn moment, he asked on his television programme, to show that the powerful cannot get away with it?

The jury is still out. But with few friends coming forward to defend it, the many enemies Tehelka has made are circling, not least in the opposition BJP, the party of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a frequent target of its probes.

For now though it's Tehelka and its reputation that's in the frame.

Only two months ago, the magazine was running an expose of another personality, a well-known Indian guru called Asaram Bapu.

The "Saint and his Taint" alleged he had used his high-level contacts to shield himself from accusations of rape and other sex crimes.

Until Tehelka decisively restores its credibility, it's hard to imagine how it can run any stories like that.

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