An accused prisoner was brought to a court in Goa recently, so that he and his lawyers could argue for bail. The crime the man is accused of counts among the most serious but it is not murder. After hearing the arguments from both prosecution and defense, the judge refused to grant bail and the man went back to jail, where he has been for the last three months, in what in India is called “under-trial” custody. The man is accused of repeating the same crime against the same victim on two occasions, on two consecutive evenings, in an elevator traveling between two floors. Even according to the accusation, on each occasion the criminal act could not have taken more than a few minutes. The police, after months of investigation, released a charge sheet of 28,000 pages. Lawyers’ estimates vary, but if the man is found guilty people are guessing he could get anything from three years to life imprisonment.
Indian left-wing liberals tend to construct rape (and violence against women in general), as something carried out by men from ‘other’ segments of society. The feudal landowner using his power over the ‘lower caste’ peasant, the politician, the policeman, the god-man have all been classic figures; soldiers from the Indian army, shamefully but unsurprisingly, have also been widely accused (and rarely convicted) of raping women, especially in the border areas of the country. To these have been added the unemployed, disenchanted young men from different strata of the working class both rural and urban; the older male figures of the father, uncle, father-in-law, brother, male cousin in common joint-family situations have also been identified as the chief attackers of women relatives in sites where there are no public witnesses. Recently tacked onto this list are the go-getting corporate types and the sons of the nouveau riche. However, until recently, no one among the opinionati has pointed their finger at male ‘progressive’ PLUs (People Like Us, as the shiftable label used by this class goes). The leftist professor with a student, the head of an NGO with women activists in vulnerable positions, the senior ‘right-thinking’ journalist on an out-of-town assignment with a trainee, have all somehow been kept out of the narrative of attacks on women, excluded from the list of usual suspects.
After the Delhi gang rape of December 2012, the Delhi-based Tehelka was one of the news magazines that really engaged seriously in the debate over India’s “rape culture” and laws against rape. Tehelka was founded by journalist Tarun Tejpal over a decade ago and one of its first stories was a sting operation, complete with hidden cameras, that exposed a major betting scandal in Indian cricket. Many well-known cricketers, some of them national heroes, were caught making match-fixing deals. True to its name (the Hindustani word tehelka is roughly translatable as “sensation”), the magazine had arrived with a bang. Starting up as a magazine that upheld liberal, secular values at a time when India was ruled by the Hindu right-wing BJP, Tejpal’s Tehelka quickly made a name for itself as a courageous journal that was not afraid to take on the powers that be. Toward the end of the BJP’s tenure in government Tehelka did another exposé, its journalists this time luring politicians and officials connected with the Ministry of Defence and getting them to accept bribes from a fake international arms company. The secretly filmed sting was something that Tehelka introduced to India, and the results were often mixed. For many serious observers of corruption in the defense establishment the sting was sprung prematurely, allowing higher-level culprits to get away unscathed. However, the Westland Operation—as it came to be known, named after the fake company—did cause the ruling party and some of its ministers and office holders no little embarrassment, leading to resignations of high-profile party members. Shortly after that the BJP lost the elections and had to relinquish national government to their hated opponents, the Congress Party. Even though the right-wing party’s defeat was due to many reasons bigger than the Westland sting, the party was never going to forget the damage Tejpal’s magazine had inflicted on them.
Since then, Tehelka has grown from strength to strength, its loose cannon reputation was replaced by the acknowledgement that this was a place where young journalists could find the space to do complex reporting of difficult stories that were uncomfortable for the many arms of the establishment. Tejpal, in the meantime, also became a published novelist and began to straddle the conjoined worlds of journalism, TV punditry, and literature as a cheerfully glamorous figurehead of the left-liberati. (Disclosure: Tejpal and I were friends, though not close friends, and both of us inhabited the same circles and arenas.) A few years ago, Tehelka teamed up with other media partners to launch something called Thinkfest, an annual festival of intellectual exchange. Set in a swank hotel in Goa, Thinkfest brought together people from all over the world: high-profile writers, artists, filmmakers, academics, politicians, and such for panel discussions during the day and music and revelry at night.
Last year’s edition of Thinkfest was held as usual in November and seemed to have gone well. The reports spoke about the panel discussions, the musical acts, and the famous people in attendance. Among the celebrities visiting was Robert De Niro, who then made his way to Bombay to receive due adulation from the younger cine-erudite Bollywood directors and actors. All seemed good and the media’s attention, having momentarily swerved toward Goa, returned to the pre-election maneuvers that were heating up all over the country. A week later, though, all hell broke loose. The first bits showed up on Facebook and Twitter about a week after Thinkfest had ended. At first the word used was “molested”: Tejpal was being accused of molesting a Tehelka employee at Thinkfest. Then came the word “assault,” attached to the word “elevator”—“…accused of assaulting female journalist in a hotel elevator.” Then came the leaked internal e-mails. The first was from Shoma Chaudhury, Tarun Tejpal’s right-hand woman at the magazine, and she seemed to be both apologizing to the magazine staff and warning them: there had been an unfortunate incident, Tarun deeply regretted his misjudgment, he would be stepping down from editorship for six months; but implicit was the message that the matter was now closed and everyone should shut up about it and get back to work. The next leak was of Tejpal’s own e-mail to his subordinates, possibly one of the most unfortunate and risible letters of apology ever written, where Tejpal speaks of how he is going to “recuse” himself from his post and how “lacerating” that decision was to him. The next, most damaging leak was the initial e-mail from the young Tehelka journalist to her direct boss Chaudhury, detailing what (she claimed) Tejpal had done to her.
The shape of the accusation is public knowledge: the young woman was the chaperone looking after De Niro and his daughter; one evening Tejpal accompanied her and they escorted De Niro and his daughter to their hotel room. On the way down in the elevator, from the second floor to the ground floor, Tejpal allegedly made a serious attempt at initiating a sexual liaison despite the woman’s clear protests. According to the woman, Tejpal kept the lift ‘in play’ by pressing the buttons while carrying out acts that included partially disrobing the woman, digital penetration, and attempted cunnilingus. The woman escaped and made her way back to her room where she told colleagues present what had happened. She did not make any further complaints that evening. The next evening there was a repeat of the incident, apparently to a less extreme degree, when Tejpal allegedly grabbed the woman and pulled her into the same lift. Again, the young woman freed herself and escaped.
Being about the same age as Tejpal’s eldest daughter, and a friend of hers, the woman called her and told her what had happened, which, apparently led to repercussions for Tejpal, which in turn led to angry texts from Tejpal to the young woman accusing her of blowing “innocent sexual banter” out of all proportion and having no understanding of a father-daughter relationship. A week after the incidents, back in Delhi, what the young woman wanted was an apology from Tejpal and an acknowledgement that he had done something wrong and hurtful. In the domino sequence of leaked e-mails is the e-mail of apology that Tejpal wrote to his employee and his daughter’s friend.
Under normal circumstances, and without the leaks, this is the sort of matter that would have been hushed up in no time and forgotten by most people, except the victim herself. In the changed and charged atmosphere post the Delhi gang rape, with the new rape laws now in place, the whole thing was a time bomb detonated by the leaks. Tejpal and Chaudhury believed that the young woman would not bring charges if she received the apology she had demanded, and that the matter would be closed except that the management would initiate an investigation by outside experts. However, the state can take suo motu cognizance of a rape or assault, even if the victim does not make a formal complaint. The leaked e-mails from both sides provided the Goa police with enough evidence to launch an investigation.
So far, the story would form only a small part of a Bonfire of the Vanities sort of plot, but this is India. The state of Goa is currently under a BJP administration, the same Hindu right-wing party that suffered during the Westland sting. The police of each state can choose the degree of energy and diligence with which they want to investigate any particular crime; since police in each state report to the state government it is often not the police but their bosses, the politicians, who decide the level of enthusiasm that is to be deployed in a particular high-profile hunt for justice. It seems in the Tejpal case the Goa police have left no stone unturned in investigating what happened on those two November nights during Thinkfest. And, while they’ve conducted their no doubt thorough and meticulous inquiries, they have remanded Tejpal in custody, fighting tooth and nail against each appeal for bail, arguing and convincing the judges that a “powerful person” such as Tejpal could pervert the course of justice or, given the seriousness of the crime, choose to jump bail. Post Delhi 2012 and the new rape laws, the terms of the “seriousness of the crime” have also changed. Specifically, after the brutal assault with the iron rod in Delhi, the definition of “penetration” in the old laws was seen as badly wanting. The new laws have yawed in the other direction, and now someone sticking a tongue in someone’s ear is technically an equal crime to other kinds of penetration. Added to this is the much higher penalty for the rape of someone who is deemed to be under the attacker’s care. Both these clauses become relevant in Tejpal’s case, as there is the accusation of digital penetration and the fact that the relationship was that of a boss and employee, i.e., the young woman was under Tejpal’s “duty of care” when the alleged incident took place.
Tarun Tejpal and the people defending him in the public spin arenas have been quick to cry out that the Goa authorities are conducting a political vendetta. It may well be exactly that, but Big Irony #1 is that it’s two people from the left-liberal sphere, Tejpal and the young journalist (who also has impeccable credentials as a feminist reporter who has written against the Hindu Right), who have inadvertently handed the BJP a ready-sprung honey trap against one of their big enemies in the media, and that too in the run-up to a make-or-break national election. Big Irony #2 is that the BJP, with its reactionary sexual politics (they are staunchly against the legalizing of homosexuality in India; they constantly tout “family values” and spout lines like: “if girls dressed modestly and stayed at home at night they wouldn’t get raped”), will be forced to defend the right of a young woman to be out and about and say yes or no as and when she chooses, while one of the paragons of sexual freedom will probably be obliged to throw mud on the same young woman’s ‘character’ and ‘morals’.
Big Irony #3: when the Goa case broke, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state and the BJP’s anointed prime ministerial candidate for the forthcoming elections, was facing heat in a case where a young female architect in Gujarat was followed and kept under surveillance by the Gujarat police, apparently at the behest of a close aide of Modi’s. The leaked phone conversations between Modi’s aide and top policemen keep mentioning that “Saheb” wants to know where the girl is going, that “Saheb” will be very angry of you lose track of her, “Saheb” (Sir or boss) being the common name Modi’s subordinates use when referring to him. Rather than deny that, the state police apparatus was deployed by the chief minister to track an innocent individual, the defense produced was that the girl’s father had requested “Saheb” to help him keep tabs on his daughter—which therefore made it completely all right to put an adult woman under state surveillance. With people doubting the father angle, the attention was directed to Modi. The case might not have crippled his candidacy but it would certainly have damaged the clean and incorruptible image Modi is trying to project. Journalists connected to Tehelka broke the story. With the Tejpal case exploding in late November, the Modi surveillance scandal dived off the front page and has hardly been seen since.
The final twist, Big Irony #4 is that Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 took place there. He’s accused by many of having orchestrated the pogrom and rapes that were part of it, but even if he didn’t, he certainly was responsible for not controlling the violence and for not pursuing the rioters and rapists following the events. There are also strong accusations that his government did everything to sabotage investigations and court procedures to protect people in Modi’s administration who stood accused of various serious crimes. Though lower courts have cleared Modi of conspiracy charges, some of the cases have yet to run the full gauntlet of the High Court and the Supreme Court. Modi and his people are claiming he has received an acquittal from the Supreme Court, whereas the Supreme Court has said no such thing. An investigative team the court appointed concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Modi in one particular case, a conclusion challenged by the amicus curae also appointed by the court. The decision of the investigative team is also being contested in courts by the victims’ relatives.
Just as the police have been assiduous in Goa, there is evidence that the Gujarat police force was, for some reason, less than hawk-like while investigating its own possible complicity and that of its political bosses in the mass murder and multiple gang rapes of Gujarati Muslims. In fact, convictions in riot cases have only come when shifted to investigative agencies controlled by the central government in Delhi. Should the Supreme Court decide to appoint new investigative teams for cases in Gujarat and, in the meantime, should the Tejpal case help clear the way for Modi to come to power in Delhi, those investigative agencies will find themselves investigating their boss and his close cohorts.