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Issue No.: 559 | January 2014

Tarun Tejpal: How Have the Mighty Fallen

Firoze Hirjikaka
Once upon a time there was an ambitious young crusader who was determined to take investigative journalism in India to a new level. When he started his quest, tales of political leaders accepting wads of cash in return for political favours- strictly off the record and therefore unaccounted for - were already legend.  Everyone knew this, but the politicians concerned were least perturbed since there was no admissible evidence. The journalist shattered this complacency by implanting his own people impersonating favour-seekers and secretly recording the transactions. Confronted with the damning truth, a few ministers of the ruling dispensation were forced to resign. The party was livid at this unmasking, but the general public approved and applauded. The crusader's star was in the ascendancy and along with accolades, his personal wealth also accumulated. Then one day, either through lapse of judgement or raging hormones, tried to impose himself on a young female employee - confident that his charm and authority would carry the day. The young journalist was made of sterner stuff however, and decided to fight back. That is when things got ugly.

Tarun Tejpal was living the good life. Tehelka, the publication he started, was doing very well commercially and financially. Possibly it had many well-wishers - with activities they preferred to keep out the pubic gaze - who deemed it prudent to keep him in good humour. Whatever the reason, Tejpal amassed enough wealth to buy a palatial villa in Goa, among other luxuries. Typical of tycoons who get bored with just making money, he decided to set himself up as a cultural and literary icon by organizing an annual Thinkfest in Goa which was touted as an eclectic gathering of eminent writers and thinkers, with Tejpal as the presiding deity. Also present was one of his employees, a pretty young journalist (PYJ) who also happened to be a good friend of his daughter. One evening he found himself in the hotel lift with the young lady. Perhaps as a result of being somewhat tipsy or over confident, he tried to get amorous. The PYJ must have been initially stunned, then bewildered and finally outraged. This guy was her best friend's father, for god's sake. Possibly if he had left it there, the young lady might have taken it as a manifestation of momentary madness and let it slide. But such was Tejpal's arrogance that he probably could not believe any woman could resist him. Perhaps he thought she was playing hard to get. Throwing caution to the winds, he tried it again; and that is when things got out of hand. The PYJ shot of a letter of complaint to Tehelka's managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, and upon getting a less than satisfactory response, complained to the police.

Initially, Tejpal made a show of contrition by heroically admitting that he may have misread the "signals" sent out by the lady and offering a guarded apology. He no doubt presumed that the PYJ would be overwhelmed by the magnanimity displayed by her mentor. She was not. By this time moreover, the media smelt a juicy story and they pounced. Never foregoing a chance at gratuitous publicity, the politicians got into the act too. Tejpal soon realised that his grand gesture was not going to fly; and he reverted to type. In the revised version, he declared that although he may have got a bit carried away, the initial invitation was extended by the lady. To buttress his claim, he stated that the lady appeared reasonably cheerful after the alleged assault. It was a flawed strategy. To start with, it lost him any initial sympathy he may have garnered, particularly from the set that indulgently believes that 'boys will be boys'. He also failed to appreciate that Tehelka had been a thorn in the side of politicians for so long that they were not likely to forgo this heaven-sent opportunity to stick it to him. The police too, realising that for once they were on the same page as the politicians lost no time in registering a case of sexual assault. At the time of writing this, Tejpal is in a Goa prison - although I suspect he will shortly make bail.

Meanwhile the PYJ shot off a detailed email to her immediate boss, Shoma Chaudhury, comprehensively relating the sequence of events. Since Chaudhury had been projecting herself as a champion of feminism, the PYJ probably expected a sympathetic response. Choudhary initially tried to shield her boss. However, when she realised the public outcry against her misguided loyalty, she put on a show of impartiality and support for the PYJ. But the damage had been done. She got an unexpected boost when a clownish BJP politico, appropriately named Vijay Jolly, descended on her house with his loutish cohorts and defaced her property, but it was too little too late. Choudhury has now resigned from Tehelka.

Tehelka is now virtually buried, which is a pity because it has been doing a fairly good job of keeping politicians looking over their shoulders. Whether a single indiscretion by one individual, even a powerful one, justifies the demise of an institution is debateable. Tehelka's downfall is being accelerated by the media blitz, which I believe is unwarranted. It is time the media was shaken out of its smug superiority. The media's primary purpose is to report the news, not to set themselves up as moral crusaders. We have enough self serving politicians to do that. In this case, they are destroying one of their own merely to improve their own ratings. 

As for Tejpal himself, he will now have plenty of time to reflect on his folly. He could not have imagined that what he regarded as an act of harmless flirtation would snowball into grounds for criminal action. He had relied on his sense of authority and entitlement; and failed to appreciate the public's growing appetite for scandal. Once the media got the bit between their teeth, he did not stand a chance. How the mighty have fallen.

FIROZE HIRJIKAKA is a retired civil engineer, a blogger
and a freelance writer and a member of the Advisory Board of 
Freedom First.





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