Tehelka: a bad lapse of judgment and awful misreading of Vishakha guidelines

Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV

Tehelka stands on the wrong end of an outrage this time. Tarun Tejpal stands accused of sexual harassment of a young journalist during their iTHINK festival. While I don’t downplay sexual harassment, it is a very common crime. With 90% of women stating that they have been sexually violated at some point, and most sexual harassment not even being recognized as sexual harassment, there really remains no identity that can claim a halo.

Workplace sexual harassment is often hidden and suppressed in the name of the well being of the larger organization. Sexual harassers cross the line of personal boundaries routinely and it is not legal. However it falls on the organization to deal with these instances, punish perpetrators and make their workplaces safe for all. This has been clearly outlined in the Vishakha guidelines which state:

It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required.

When an action constitutes a crime as per Indian laws, the EMPLOYER is required to file a complaint. The employer is required to take disciplinary action against misconduct and provide proper mechanisms of redressal of complaints. The employer is required to constitute a complaints committee or counselling as appropriate.

[Tweet “What happens when the employer is the abuser?”]

As clearly seen in the shit storm after the incident became public, nothing much.

It is a fortnight since the said violation happened. No action. When the victim finally found her voice to make a louder noise, Tejpal wrote a letter of atonement offering to step aside for six months leaving tehelka to Shoma Chaudhary’s “more than capable hands”. How capable Shoma Chaudhary’s hands are in leading an organization that endlessly works with human rights related issues is abundantly clear when she immediately forwards that mail as an update on the changes happening in the organization. Tathastu.

Like a Khap Panchayat offering to “clear up” a rape by marrying rapist to victim, Shoma Chaudhary “clears up” this mess by giving her former boss a six month leave.

Many have found Tarun Tejpal’s stand “principled” in terms of punishing self for wrong he has done. I don’t quite agree with this. If at some point in his harassment, he had realized that he had done a wrong and tried to apologize and atone for it, it would have been an atonement. Instead, a news report based on a letter leaked by the girl shows that there were two incidents of molestation with one possibly being rape. There were repeated refusals, avoidance, confrontation of Tejpal by his daughter whom the victim confided in. All through which, he kept normalizing the incident, describing it as something she participated in (“banter”) and even blaming the victim for telling his daughter about it. This isn’t all that different from rape victims being told to “tell no one”.

What has the victim asked for? For proper process to be followed and for a written apology to her. The victim has not filed an FIR so far. She wants a sexual harassment committee to be formed and a proper public apology by Tarun Tejpal. I think she is right. It will be faster justice than over burdened courts (which undermines its power to deter). Though of course no one is stopping police from taking action anyway. Manohar Parrikar and National Commission for Women have indeed done so, as they should. Justice Katju should, as well, as Chairman, Press Council of India as this relates with a news publication being safe for women journalists.

[Tweet “Manohar Parrikar and National Commission for Women have taken notice. So should Justice Katju, Chairman of PCI”]

Action in a media organization against a sexual predator will go a longer way to detering sexual harassment at the workplace than a long drawn court case will. It will also be an important landmark in the much necessary and long overdue responsibility of people themselves in not tolerating sexual harassment instead of abandoning the victim to a delayed gamble at courts where they don’t have to oppose exploitation of women themselves.

It is a matter where the organization should be held responsible rather than the individual alone, particularly considering the blatant attempts to deny a crime by euphemizing it as misjudgment and so on. It isn’t just a matter of one person being tried in a court (which should be resorted to anyway, if Tehelka fails to act), but a matter of a work culture where sexual harassment at the workplace is not hidden but openly called to account and punished as appropriate including forcing an apology.

In essence, Tejpal is trying to avoid having to admit to sexual abuse by taking a six month vacation.

[Tweet “Tejpal is trying to avoid having to admit to sexual abuse by taking a six month vacation.”]

Tejpal’s letter is so inconsiderate of the significance of his actions, that his letter apologizes for harm to the values of the organization he built but not journalists for his treatment of one among them and for his appalling actions that will now shadow the fruit of *their* blood sweat and tears in exposing injustices by making them seem selective.

In this, Shoma Chaudhary and Tarun Tejpal have also wronged their staff by making their professional credibility subject to allegations of selective interest in human rights when it suits them. This, to any person interested in human rights is an insult that is hard to bear and an organization has no right to impose this on its employees. Revati Laul has quit Tehelka over this. The letters have been leaked within minutes of being sent. This clearly shows the unease among at least a few journalists with how this is going down.

[Tweet “Shoma Chaudhary and Tarun Tejpal have made Tehelka journalists vulnerable to allegations of selective conscience”]

I don’t see that Tehelka has any alternative but to institute the sexual harassment committee and hold Tarun Tejpal to account along with setting a punishment that isn’t just his chosen method of escaping the shame of his own actions, but something that is appropriate to the wrong he has committed in the eyes of people evaluating the situation.

Additionally, Shoma Chaudhary must step down from her newly inherited position for covering up sexual harassment in the workplace as well as refusing to constitute a committee as requested by the victim by terming it an internal matter.  Tarun Tejpal’s actions against another woman cannot be an internal matter between him and Shoma Chaudhary with the letter of explanation excluding the nature of the actions, refusal to constitute a committee to transparently investigate them, AND ignoring the wishes of the victim.

[Tweet “Shoma Chaudhary must step down as well for covering up sexual harassment and refusing SH committee”]

Does this mean that Tarun Tejpal can never be falsely accused? No. But it isn’t for Shoma and Tarun to call it an internal matter and refuse any oversight. Neutral investigation is important to find the truth and take appropriate action. If Tejpal is innocent (and it is looking highly unlikely at this point), then there will be evidence that the victim’s claims are fabricated, specially since the accusations involve actions like messages or misconduct in areas covered by CCTV.

Journalists at Tehelka who believe in the work the magazine does must put their foot down and insist on procedure being followed for the sake of the credibility of the organization as well as themselves.

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