Us And Them

44 Comments

Being a very filmy person (but you already knew that I suppose), my ideal of a reporter was the character played by Sekhar Suman in “Tridev” whose murder, while doing investigative journalism piece on the dangerous Bhujang, let loose a sequence of spectacular events, that included but was not limited to Sunny Deol looking at the camera and saying, in a deadpan voice, “Ek aur sipahi desh ke liye shaheed ho gaye”.

In real life, the only people who came close to that khadi-clad, jhola-carrying ideal were the guys at Tehelka. Or that’s the way I saw things when they did the match-fixing sting, blowing the lid off the conspiracy of silence in a most spectacular way. And if that was not enough, then went up against the might of the NDA government and in the process was almost finished off by them.

This was brave stuff. They wrote their pieces well. True they came across as  a bit  too sensational and full of themselves at times, but then again with that name what else could you do.

Then, over the years, I began to see a pattern.

That Tehelka chose its targets selectively. While the facade of fairness was sought to be kept, it was obvious which side of the political spectrum Tehelka was. Their editorial tone, over the years, became increasingly fundamentalist, which I define as those who split the world into “us” and “them”, with different standards for “us” (people who are ideologically aligned with our idea of the world) and different standards for “them” (those that are not).  In their defense, they couldn’t even lay claim left-wing counterculture street-cred any more, with what their big-ticket, big-business-sponsored “thinkfests” and the perception of them being aligned in pushing the agenda of the ruling party. Tehelka was big media now, and the edgy-independent paper posturing had worn thin.

And now the Tejpal story has broken, as grave charges of sexual assault have been levelled against Tarun Tejpal by a Tehelka staffer.

I was shocked.

Not so much by Mr. Tejpal, though definitely disgusted. This is not the first time that  powerful men have been accused of considering themselves above the standards of behavior that apply to mere mortals (after all, who would “sting” the “stinger-in-chief”) and it won’t be the last.

I was shocked by Shoma Chaudhury. While I have always found Tarun Tejpal’s prose, both in articles as well in fiction, to be overwrought (somewhat like Nana Patekar’s Krantiveer speech) and the acclaim that he has received largely a function of being a valued member of the expensive-shawl-on-shoulder, rural-handicrafts-bag-carrying, champagne-stem-holding literary closed social network of New Delhi (and yes please feel free to call me a philistine for not being able to appreciate his style), Shoma was different. She wrote well, with emotion but with clarity, especially on women’s issues.  And while one could call into question her neutrality in politics, her commitment to feminism was beyond doubt.

Till now.

When I read Shoma Chaudhury’s mail and Tarun Tejpal’s mail appended below, once I got beyond big words like “atonement” and “laceration” and other Tejpalisms, that are nothing but the literary  equivalent of bashing ones finger with a rock and screaming “yeh Hindu ka khoon yeh Musalman ka khoon”, out of the way I was shocked by the gall of both Shoma and Tejpal in that they wanted to make us believe that a six month paid vacation is “atonement” for an act of what I thought then, was of sexual harassment. And even this agreeing to wear the sackcloth of penance, like kings of yore, was not warranted but was being undertaken because Tejpal  such a noble and ethical man.

The way the mail trivialized what had happened (“untoward incident”) one would have thought that Tejpal had farted in polite company and was now making the point “See I could have stayed silent or looked accusingly at someone else. But I have come forward.” Reading between the lines of course, I had thought that this must have been a proposition to a female staffer gone bad, and now the married Mr. Tejpal was quickly “recusing” himself from work to mollify the said female and prevent civil action.

As the details came out with the mail sent by the victim to Shoma becoming public, it became evident that was being accused was full-fledged sexual assault, not once but twice, one that would no longer qualify as a “lapse of judgement” or “aweful misreading of the situation”. And that since the victim’s mail had been addressed to Shoma, she was well aware of the full set of accusations before she forwarded the “atonement” mail from Tejpal, and that her claim that the victim had been satisfied by the action taken, and the issue closed was patently false. [Exchange of mails between Tejpal and victim clearly shows this.]

Things only get worse. She snaps at a journalist for asking questions, and asked the media “Are you the aggrieved party?” presumably meaning that since they are not, they have no right to investigate or question her. I won’t even spell out the irony, except to say that all of Chattisgarh would fall short on the iron content. She mentions the lady not wanting to seek vengeance, which is how she now refers to “justice”. She says that there are alternate versions of the story (which there well may be), which of course weakens her case because it means an investigation was necessary, one which she said there was not. After much outrage after her “it’s all closed” first stance, she backs down, constitutes a sexual harassment investigation body, (which she is legally required to do), and in it is is someone from Tejpal’s circle of associates. (pictured with him) and even then, her attitude is “We have done more than we should have.” And to add, some of their circle-friends have remained muted on social media (they are usually voluble on any perceived crime against women), instead choosing to concentrate on the schadenfreude of “Sanghi trolls”, as if that was the most important issue, or on drawing parallels with Amit Shah “Saheb” case, though there really is none.

Which brings me to my point. This kind of behavior, regrettable though it is, is to be expected. This is what happens when  we fall prey to fundamentalism (the irony is that these people call themselves “liberal”), when the world is split into convenient “us” and “them” compartments with us=good, them=conspiring against the good.

If Shoma could see herself as a third person, she would see that her sequence of actions and her public pronouncements are identical to a Khap head or a matriarch heads trying to hush up “that incident” involving pervy uncle.

It has been settled. This is all internal to us. It’s none of your business. There are alternate versions. We will deal with it. She does not want revenge.

Exactly the same playbook. Except this time, the accent is impeccable and titles of Ian McEwan books are being used.

I would like to believe that Shoma does not even realize how outrageous her own behavior has been.  That’s the thing about fundamentalism. It blinds. Even the best and sharpest of people. And in the end, they controvert everything they have worked their lives for.

In a way it’s as sad as it is infuriating.

What will happen? The cynic in me kind of knows the answer. Nothing much. Tejpal has already accused “political forces” which, we all know, given that this is Tehelka, who they are alluding to. Which means he will get away free. And with an internal committee being made by the circle and of the circle and for the circle, I won’t hold my breath waiting them for them to give a verdict against Tejpal.

At the very very worst, Tejpal will lose his job. He will take that vacation. He will return as a head of a publishing house or the head of some other media. The circle-people either staying silent or being critical of him will fly back like an extended elastic band. Somber panels at litfests and thinkfests, with cameras and flashes and somber faux-serious faces, will discuss threadbare the evils of Indian patriarchy and the conspiracies of silence.

The ripples will die down, the leaves will once again cover the water, and everything will go on just as it happens.

And the ideal of the upright journalist pursuing truth fairly and without bias.

Well, we always have Hindi movies for that.

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44 thoughts on “Us And Them

  1. As true as the last bit is, it’s sad nevertheless.
    As long as the Shoma-s of the world enable em Tejpal-s incidents like this will keep occurring.
    Nice work Miss Choudhary.
    I really had a lot of respect for the tehelka fraternity. How the great fall!
    And all the perpetrator has to do in the name of self-acclaimed ‘Atonement’ is go on a sabbatical for a period he’s decided for himself. And he admits to being lewd and pervy instead of playing dumb, so he’ll get away with it. Just like they all do. Even if there’s a lawsuit there’s always Mr Jethmalani to the rescue of the likes of these perverts!

  2. “I won’t even spell out the irony, except to
    say that all of Chattisgarh would fall short on
    the iron content.”
    EPIC.
    How do you manage to be so heart touching and so witty at the same time?

  3. I once used to envy the power the journalism holds onto society but now I am relieved that my job does not involve speaking something & doing something else, or god forbid defending it on national teevee !

  4. You shocked and disgusted at Shoma bcoz she a bengali? Or bcoz she acted like a bengali? You not like tejpal and his writings coz he punjabi? Y u so bias?

  5. Are you unaware of similar behavior of Western feminists? Compare the Anita Hill manufactured brouhaha (against Justin Thomas) with the real offenses of President Clinton. There are actually too many stories to list, and newsrooms are the least of them. Leftist men crusading against right-wingers are allowed a large leeway.

    • Why was Anita Hill a ‘manufactured brouhaha’? And who is Justin Thomas? Any relation to Clarence Thomas, US Supreme Court judge?

      • He probably meant Clarence Thomas. Yes, the Anita Hill case was manufactured brouhaha. Anita Hill followed Clarence Thomas when he switched jobs. So her accusation does not hold water.

  6. The liberals (and by association Congress and its associates) have lost whatever moral high ground that were trying to occupy vis-a-vis the BJP. Snoopgate, Asaram et al have been totally neutralized with the Liberal Poster Boy’s self-sex-sting. The massive coverup being indulged in, with new Tejpalisms and twists being churned out everyday to obfuscate the incident, will only cause more outrage. A week is all it took to dismantle a decade of Tehelkas.

  7. A blind guess is that this is not the first time this is happening for Shoma, otherwise she would have been as shocked as the rest of us are…

  8. The entire media fraternity is the aggrieved party here.Indeed.
    Shoma is nothing but working as a patriarchal police,trying to save the institution that has lost its credibility.But the greatest irony is the rapist deciding his own punishment,claiming he was a sorry victim of his own base instincts! A well-worded letter of atonement to hide behind words like politicians…media is a watchdog,but a dog after all.

  9. “drawing parallels with Amit Shah “Saheb” case, though there really is none”

    “It has been settled. This is all internal to us. It’s none of your business. There are alternate versions. We will deal with it…”

    No. No parallels at all. None.

  10. Character is not easy to come by. To uphold the values one passionately believes in even when it is coming at a great personal cost is not common. Intellect might convince us that certain ideas need to be promoted but it takes something else to stand by them at all times. It requires a spirit of sacrifice – a value that rests beyond the rationale of individualism (a principle I have seen Ms Choudhary vehemently defend) , of “khud jeo auro ko jeene do”. Unless we believe there are things that are more sacred then our personal well being the best of characters will only be found in movies.

  11. Arnab

    Interesting article. I would say that there is still some hope left due to the ‘public soap opera’ nature of the incident (kinda like Jessica Lal case) and the visible outrage of the public opinion. The boot may also come on the other foot if the government changes next year.

    Even though I acknowledge that I am a Modi supporter (and in some sense of the BJP too as the lesser evil in Indian polity), I believe you will agree with me that the pattern you mentioned started when Tehelka was resurrected once the UPA came to power.

    Since then it has been a story of men of the establishment (likes of Sibal, Tiwari and perhaps the Gandhis too) slowly creeping in as stake owners, Tehelka adopting the dubious nature of occasional extortionists (somewhat like in the movie ‘love, sex and dhokha’) and becoming an asset of the ruling establishment.

    Would appreciate your response on this.

  12. The double standards are jarring.
    Tejpal, is the son of a Partition victim. His father worked with the RSS in feeding thousands of refugees and providing them protection during the dark days of 47-48. Tejpal however, changed sides at a young age when he realized that in order to succeed in Delhi, he had to be a certain way. Then ofcourse there was the pseudo-secular education and the pseudo-liberal lifestyle.
    This one got exposed…many more out there to come.

  13. One can’t even begin to imagine what Tejpal’s daughter, and the victim’s friend ,must be going through.Her mind must have turned into a hell-hole,the sins of the father.

    • Why discuss what daughter is going through? Encourage her to assist the victim to fight against her father. If she does it, it will be great service to the mankind.

  14. This notion of Tehelka being an “institution” has to stop once and for all. It must be called for what it is, a family-run yellow paper, indulging in the lowliest form of smearing under the guise of journalism (using unethical recordings, luring with prostitutes, indulging in innuendo, gossip). It has been in existence only 13 years, and our commentariat speaks of it as the fifth pillar of democracy. Look at their track record. The match fixing expose was nothing but a load of hot air (in one sequence there was Bindra suggesting Sachin was match-fixing!), and today the match fixers are either honourable MPs or commenting on NDTV. In the West End case: there was not a shred of evidence against George Fernandes. The ‘expose’ against Bangaru was an open and shut case of entrapment, and in US/English/German law such entrapment cases would have been thrown straight into the dustbin (it’s another thing that the cowardly BJP dumped Bangaru and the man is left to fight his own cases). In the Naroda Patiya expose, they blew up the boisterous ramblings of a fanatic only to tarnish Modi, and later it was all proven to be falsehoods. Should we dignify them with such words as “institution”? More like dirty tricks department! Now that they are falling like a pack of cards, It is time to clean up the media of all these shady characters including that despicable Vinod Mehta who we all saw on tv trying to muddy the waters for the victim. Enough of these political surrogates masquerading as journalists. We have to bring back honest hard hitting journalism through rigorous analysis, such as the Indian Express of yore or the Harshad Mehta expose.

  15. I remember an excerpt regarding Yasser Arafat and the PLO from Tom Friedman’s book ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, a work written before he metamorphosed into a know-it-all soothsayer for neoliberalism. In this, Friedman explains how Beirut’s lifestyle, easy cash, and other luxuries corrupted the hard-scrabble and honest PLO. The same applies, I think to Tehelka. Indeed, it served a great purpose against the NDA and was, subsequently, attacked by the BJP. However, Tejpal apparently came to the unfortunate conclusion that political patronage was the only sure-fire way to protect himself and Tehelka. It was perhaps a case of an ethical Stockholm Syndrome. It’s tacit alliance with the UPA government has been well known. This patronage allegedly drove away respectable journalists from the new avatar of Tehelka, as some commentators have noted. Yet, not only did the new Tehelka flourish under Congress patronage and became a willing attack dog, it also turned into a vehicle of Tejpal’s ambitions and a platform for glamor bugs who typify champagne socialism at its worst. Thus, Lord Acton’s insight that ‘power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’ also applies to Tejpal and the institution that became an extension of his viewpoints and ambitions.

  16. This might sound cynical but given that she’s being the mom or sister who believes her son/brother could do no wrong, I’m glad more and more of such female hypocrisy about sexual harassment is exposed. I hate the idea of card-carrying feminists who take it upon themselves to decide what behavior is misogynistic and what is okay.
    To those who say that Shoma Chaudhury is facing the media brunt, I doubt she’s facing a thorough meta analysis of how she would’ve dealt with this had a male head of a Hindutva-based organization glossed over what is at least a matter worth investigating.
    Also, people forget that sexual harassment isn’t like a fender bender where someone can choose not to press charges. It’s a crime against all citizens, and once a matter has been brought forward, it needs to be investigated—even if the girl takes back her accusation.

  17. I have long given up on Indian media particularly the louder posers like the NDTV group, their spin-offs, etc. I’ve also given up wondering how people who in their “news” programs come across as bonafide sub-par intellects like Karan Thapar, Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh, Arnab Goswami etc. have gotten degrees from prestigious universities on their resumes. Makes me wonder about the global education system but then what good would that do? I’d better let my little grey cells rest and rejuvenate. I think the only ethical journalists in India are working for magazines like Frontline or so I’m starting to think but maybe they too are just a mirage borne largely out of my own need to see some ethical journalists at work. Great read!

  18. I’ve given up on Indian news media and am now finding solace in fiction by reading Frodo’s adventures. The world in general, and Indian media personnel in particular, could take a lesson from the heroism of Hobbits like him.

  19. I agree with most things you said, except for the fact that nothing will come of it. We Indians don’t like people preaching to us, and if they turn out to be hypocrites, we love the the tamasha that ensues. Not many people are surprised about Tejpal doing what he did. I think the surprise is with respect to Shoma (a broad daylight between bat and pad, in cricketing parlance). I expect the law to catch up with Tejpal, but, even if it doesn’t, Tehelka as a magazine will suffer. Its USP is its self-righteousness – in this sense, it is very different from Outlook, etc. I don’t think that the repercussions would be as light as it would have been if Tejpal was an infamous politician and the girl involved was poor and employed as his housemaid.

  20. I’m not too sure if Tarun uncle has the same luck and clout as PJ Kurien. Anyways…it’s yet another sad and shocking chapter of sexual assault in high places… Its also a reminder that unless the victim is professionally well off or articulate enough to express her grievance, backed up by a charged-up media, such offences literally remain non-issues.

  21. At first glance it may seem that Shoma and Tejpal are hypocrites of the nth degree. I detest this pseudo secular leftist liberal crowd however in any legal matter of this kind there are two sides of the story.
    Tejpal is likely to be the scum of the earth as exposed here however a thorough investigation into the victims background and circumstances is warranted before we make judgements. Simple fact is once she was assaulted the first time why didn’t she raise a hue and cry. Why wait so long before raising your voice. Note she hasn’t yet filed an FIR for rape.

    • It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to admit you’ve been violated. It takes a lot of courage and time to gather your wits before admitting it even to yourself.

    • Moreover, given the victim-shaming attitude of people in India, I’m not surprised it took her all this time to reveal the crime. I mean pardon me, but your comment seems to reek a bit of it too. Trust me, sexual assault may be the hardest to reveal even to one’s closest friends and confidantes, let alone rank strangers. And the police in India aren’t the kindest to such victims as we all know too well by now.

      • I completely agree with you on everything you said. And nothing would actually make me happier than to see Tejpal get the full quota of justice. Had the person in question taken action earlier after the first instance she could have avoided the second incident. That was more what i was pertaining to. And now that there is an FIR lodged in this case it has taken away any doubts at all. The problem we have is a misplaced sense of forgiveness to slimeballs. From my personal experience i have noted that once you do not react to a slimeball the first time and try and dissociate yourself from them they will come after you again and again.
        This Lady was indeed in a really tight spot as i can see and i have every sympathy for her. Wish i could help out in some way. In any case there seems to be a slim hope that Tejpal will do Jail time here. Lets see how it goes.

  22. I think Tejpal has behaved abominably and deserves what’s coming to him, but what I find most compelling about Tejpalgate is how incredibly irrational even the smartest of males of the species can be. Just think of the consequences of Tejpal’s actions: Tehelka may well end up getting shut down (if not, it, at least, will see a serious loss in revenue), the lives and livelihoods of many journalists and their families in Tehelka will be affected, the Managing Editor’s career has received a major setback and she may even face charges, Tejpal’s name and reputation is in tatters, and he may well find himself facing jail-time. All of this just because of two 2 minute encounters Tejpal had in a lift with the woman journalist, who alleges that she made in clear from the outset that she was not interested in Tejpal’s advances! What kind of fool would jeopardize so much just for four minutes of “fun”? Keeping aside the moral and ethical aspects of the case for a moment, it’s the sheer stupidity of Tejpal’s actions that amazes me.

    This seems to happen again and again: important, powerful personalities are willing to squander everything just for that two minute high. Be it Warne, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Lei Zhengfu… the list is endless. Gives you an idea how we are complete servants of our impulses, against all better reason and judgement.

    • Is Tejpal that important a person in the political scene for any Congress rival to do that? I’d imagine it would be far more productive to carry out such a clandestine, unscrupulous operation on a direct rival, say a sitting minister or high-ranking official of the Congress party, like Tejpal allegedly did to the then-BJP head Bangaru Lakshman on his uncle Sibal’s behest.

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