There are two disparate, yet connected (made so quite forcefully), events that have captured the public imagination over the last couple of days. The first, of course, has been referred to as the “Saheb stalking” case in Gujarat, wherein the Modi government put a woman, a landscape architect, under illegal surveillance for months. This, allegedly, was at the behest of the girl’s father, who personally approached Modi for her “protection”.
Second, and the more shocking, is the case of Tarun Tejpal sexually assaulting a female junior colleague and fellow journalist at the Tehelka Think2013. Tejpal is the co-founder of Tehelka magazine, which is critically acclaimed for its incisive, critical investigative journalism, something it has pioneered in India – and a bulk of Tehelka’s journalism has been a hard-hitting coverage of the pervasive violence against women in India. This incident, thus, is a trial-by-fire of sorts for Tehelka: one where their ethics, their values are put on the dock. And one, going by the recent turn of events, that looks on extremely shaky grounds.
I, like the majority of sane voices, some of them echoed on Times Now’s News Hour debate last night, think the blame squarely lies on Tejpal, and Tejpal alone (something to which he admits). However, there are certain points that compound the picture. But, in Tejpal’s case, this becomes extremely problematic.
The first is Tejpal’s email to his Tehelka colleagues, primarily the managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury. In the letter, Tejpal writes that: “A bad lapse of judgement, an awful misreading of the situation have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.” He further writes for a need for “atonement” but “not just in words”, a “penance that lacerates” him, and with that, he offers recuse from the editorship of Tehelka for six months. The public, naturally and rightly so, is livid. The fact that Tejpal “chooses his own punishment” is in violation of the rule of law, said the Times Now debate. Atonement, lacerations, recuses and moral guilt cannot, in way whatsoever, dilute the reprehensible nature of his actions. They are, as someone rightly put it on Twitter, sanctimonious. And needless to say, the rest of Tejpal’s letter is a glorification of his organisation.
Now, there are many issues at stake here: the primary one being the (lack of) implementation of the Vishaka Guidelines to put a check on sexual harassment of women in workplaces. There are other pertinent points about the pervasive nature of patriarchal power and control over women in workplaces. Nivedita Menon, for instance, chronicles this pervasive “sexualisation of workplaces”:
“The workplace – from the classroom to the court to the newsroom, every single workplace in short – is utterly sexualized. It is sexualized in a masculinist and misogynistic power-laden way. The continuous invocation of the possibility of sex and of women as sexual objects is the very air of the workplace.”
This culture of violence is an inherent aspect of what I have argued is the patriarchal moral-political economy. Very briefly, the patriarchal moral-political economy denotes an insidious structure, or a network of structures, that function on patriarchal and misogynistic logic of governance. There is no one model of moral-political economy; it is a Janus-faced, hegemonic enterprise, that manufactures legitimacy for violence; and lastly, it invests its power in the repository of the masculine. By this argument, therefore, what has ensued in Tehelka conforms to the operation of a patriarchal moral-political economy.
At the same time, alongside the question of real violence perpetrated on real bodies and by real people, there is a discourse of sexual violence, and our response to it, that is equally real: if not its form, but certainly in its effects and consequences. And this discourse is something that needs to be critically examined as well. People, usually critics of Tehelka, have not spared the opportunity to drag the magazine’s (and Tejpal’s) name through the mud (“critics” is a polite term; I’d prefer the term ‘trolls’, or just idiots). Allegations about “prostitutes” in the offices of Tehelka or the insults hurled at Tejpal’s daughter, to name a few, nauseate the environment. Because let’s face it: we still are a terrible public. We want a spectacle; we want blood; we want hangings and castrations. In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape-murder, I argued that only because the perpetrators were from a particular demographic group they were caught in record time. In this case, Tejpal represents a different monstrosity: arrogant, sanctimonious, and elite. And we want his blood. This demonization of Tejpal, thus, is a result of a petty, middle class, fettered conscience; wherein, we forget to (or choose not to) see that he, like other predatory men, is human, and must be held accountable for his crimes. For, as Nivedita Menon writes: “Men in the workplace need to know this now, and with certainty, – their sexualized behaviour is not charming or harmless, but a criminal offence.”
Having said that, I do not think that Tejpal – despite his efforts, his “blood, toil, tears and sweat” – is reducible to Tehelka and nor the magazine to him; Tehelka’s journalism is the credit of dozens of hard-working journalists – men and women – who certainly, to a degree, embody the glorification Tejpal makes of the magazine. And it’s precisely their faith, and the faith of its readers, that is at stake here – if not entirely betrayed. Perhaps, Tejpal’s glorification of Tehelka is actually a desperate plea for the law of function impartially and without biases; of the magazine upholding the principles upon which it was founded, by seeing that Tejpal faces the full force of the law – something, which the people crititcised by Tehelka, have escaped. Or perhaps, it is sheer arrogance, an indefensible and utterly shameful justification of patriarchal power in the sexualised workplace. We cannot know for sure; and must, unlike blood-thirsty trolls on social media, wait for our courts and legal machinery decide the same (of course, the legal machinery is something that itself is deeply embedded in the patriarchal moral-political economy).
There is, as I mentioned in the beginning, an uncanny similarity in the overarching narrative of the Tehelka case, and the Saheb stalking case. Both cases are models of patriarchal moral-political economies: they rest on a gross abuse of power (a patriarchal power-space, it must be remembered), and both cases are (apparently) shying away from legal intervention. Furthermore, there is the regressive assumption that for women to be “protected” (ironically, by and against patriarchal forms of violence), they must submit to patriarchal controls, and forfeit any agency they have. In the Saheb case, the woman’s agency is completely overtaken and appropriated by her father and the masculine state: the father wrote to the National Commission of Women makes no mention of the alleged “threats” his daughter needs protection from; and Arun Jaitley, in a spectacularly silly move, said that “security and protection are not snooping”.
Similarly, by trying to cover up Tejpal’s alleged sexual harassment, Shoma Chaudhury is doing more harm than good; to Tehelka, and to the larger question about women’s movement, and its critiques of patriarchy. Regrettably, Chaudhury, who once appeared on a debate in The Outsider, where she spoke for the motion that ‘India is no country for women’, and has herself written critical pieces on women’s rights, and violence against women (her coverage of the Arushi Case is most prominent), comes awfully close to what I have argued is the Janus-faced nature of moral-political economies (something we can describe as Jaitley’s comments as). The burden, unfortunately, has befallen on her. As a woman, and especially under these circumstances, I can imagine that things indeed must be very, very hard for her. But this is a chance for her to subvert and challenge the patriarchal moral-political economy – one so pervasive in her own organisation.
Yes, Tehelka and other organisations (media and otherwise) need to implement Vishakha Guidelines; and, more importantly, the criminal proceedings against Tejpal (and the Modi government) must and should proceed, but not in a logic of protectionism to the women in question. That further robs them of agency, and reasserts the perverted nature of patriarchies. They – and the Tehelka journalist more so – need to act on their own free will, free of compulsions, compromises, and coercion [Read Amba Salekar's argument on the same; however, it should also be noted that insofar are we are talking about agency and implementation of law, there are many constraints on the former by the latter: see Postscript].
At the same time, it is extremely imperative that the responsible parties do not go away unpunished. The legal complications in both cases, thanks to my own limitations, are lost on me [See Postscript]. But as sociologist Dipankar Gupta puts it, there is a need to differentiate between the moral and the ethical; the former, he argues, is dangerous because it is personal, ambiguous and thus, dangerous – which is how both Tejpal’s and the Modi government’s actions can be defined as. Hence, he argues for: public ethics replacing private morality; transparency and accountability in public behaviour; and trust in institutions replacing trust in people. However complex and contradictory this may seem, and in spite of my own criticisms of it, the need for such intervention is imperative.
Patriarchy doesn’t make monsters out of men and women; it exists because we see it as normal, because we fail to see the ways in which it harms human beings. This failure – to stand up to, and against, patriarchy; to rubbish atonement, and demand impartial justice; to see violence for what it is – is the fatal flaw. We cannot fall back on our “inordinate capacity to forgive sinners”, “who turn a new leaf”. It is that flaw that we must perpetually struggle against. And I, for one, do hope that Shoma Chaudhury senses this as well. For, it’s not just Tehelka’s credibility, the faith of its readers, or even the question of justice for the journalist, that is at stake here; it is a larger danger of a feminist question failing itself, and its politics.
Postscript: There’s two additional points I would like to add on. First concerns the question of agency. According to the Vishakha Guidelines, if sexual harassment does occur and:
“Where such conduct amounts to a specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.”
The prerogative, therefore, was on Chaudhury to register an FIR against Tejpal, and not address the grievances of her colleague. The notion of agency – of the woman filing the complaint on her own, as many, including I, have argued – is compounded. Thus, when we do talk about the law functioning impartially, there are already, by that virtue, constraints on the operation of that agency.
Secondly, since the publication of this post, many ugly details have come out about the nature of the crime, and more shockingly so about Tehelka’s consistent failures of addressing the crime in question; more so, several journalists and editors have also resigned from their respective posts in the magazine. As of now, 25th of November, 2013, the Tehelka journalist in question has given her resignation letter. She has also alleged that Tejpal’s family members have intimidated her. She writes that despite Tehelka “defending the rights of women… [and speaking] harshly against the culture of victim blaming, tactical emotional intimidation and character assassination of those who dare to speak out against sexual violence”, and now that she is the victim to such a crime, she is:
“…shattered to find the Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka [Tejpal], and you – in your capacity as Managing Editor – resorting to precisely these tactics of intimidation, character assassination and slander.”
It would, therefore, appear that whatever cautious arguments I have made above concerning Tehelka, thanks to this gross lack of concern and victimisation of the journalist, now stand discredited. For, as the journalist writes, it is not just Tejpal who has failed her as an employer, “but Tehelka that has failed women, employees, journalists and feminists collectively.” I am left with a bitter, nauseating aftertaste. This is the end of Tehelka as we’ve know it. I might still have great respect for their coverage of certain issues in the past, but clearly, I do not anticipate a bright future for it. And for that that, shame on you, Shoma Chaudhury; and shame on you, Tarun Tejpal.
Acknowledgements: To Shubhra, for the discussions that never (and, hopefully, should never) end. And to Uday Chandra, for bringing about the complexities of agency in this context, and even otherwise.