Why the Tehelka Scandal Reveals the Hubris in Indian Rights Activists

Suranya Aiyar

Missing the Woody for the Trees

There’s been a cock-up and not just in Goa on the 7th and 8th of November. If the head of a news magazine cannot absolve himself of sexual misconduct with a subordinate by deciding his own punishment, then neither can the people associated with him absolve themselves of having readily collaborated with someone who, if the stories doing the rounds are true, was an open and serial molester of women. And by the people associated with him I don’t mean his beleaguered deputy who is just trying to do her job. Yes, wake up people, without Tejpal there is no Tehelka and while the Managing Editor’s choices in attempting to save Tehelka may not have been yours, they don’t make her into an accomplice to sexual assault or necessarily show her to be someone who is accepting of sexual harassment at the work place.

People Like USBy the people “associated” with the molester I mean the womens’ rights activists, civil society crusaders and media professionals who have, for years, collaborated, schemed and partnered with Tejpal and the magazine led by him in their own activism, media campaigns and sting operations. If the stories of what happened between Tejpal and his subordinate are true, then it is hard to believe that such a brazen, deliberate and repeated sexual assault, was not part of an established pattern of behaviour on the part of Tejpal. And it is also very hard to believe that activists and others outside of Tehelka who have so often joined hands with Tejpal on various projects were so completely innocent of any knowledge his behaviour and proclivities. And theirs was no casual collaboration, the activists and journalist-crusaders and Tejpal and his Tehelka were brothers-in-arms, co-conspirators, affiliates, in league with one another. Tejpal was no outsider, he was one of them.

So, the question is how did the activists and others miss this? Or, perhaps more appropriately, why did they turn a blind eye for so long? And, this goes out especially to the womens groups who were recently so visible over the Nirbhaya gang rape case: what made you think that you could get away with reading chapter and verse to the rest of India on why women got raped here and how we backward Indians were responsible for producing the culture of rape, while you allowed a rapist (if the story is true) to thrive in your midst? Did you ever say while you were agitating and campaigning that you would not speak to a journalist widely known to be a pervert and a predator? Or, if that’s asking for too much, did you ever say that you would refuse access in your demonstrations to media outfits that had not implemented the rules for protection against sexual harassment in the workplace – very rules that you yourselves had campaigned for and mentored into existence? Please don’t tell us that you’re shocked at what has apparently been done to the Tehelka journalist. Its shocking that you’re shocked. Why did you not scrutinise those in your midst; those who were in the thick of your own activism?

For the last year you have been telling us that sexual assault has to be seen not just as a discrete act of violence by one person against another but as the product of a culture that objectifies and subjugates women. You told us that that we Indians with our regressive gender prejudices, our repressed sexual mores, our social inequalities: we produced this cultural mysogynism, we allowed it, we sanctioned it, we made it inevitable. For one year, almost every day, you preached to us though television, newspapers, pamphlets and, let us not forget, through Tehelka, that if only we could become a liberal, open society; if only everyone could be educated; if only we could rid ourselves of our inhibitions about sex; if only there were none of this nonsense about marriage (remember the debate about lowering the age of consent for sex below the legal age for marriage?); if only Indian women could aspire to something better than being mothers and wives and sisters; if only men could be feminists instead of greedy capitalists; if only we could do all these things then we would be a society free of rape.

Now look at what happened in Goa this November. Going by the alleged details of the encounter between Tejpal and his subordinate in Goa, apart from the grossness of the man’s behaviour, what comes across is that its all so liberal and open at Tehelka: everyone’s on a first-name basis; its all so relaxed and egalitarian at the Think fest, with bosses and subordinates drinking together. Say what you like about the Think fest and Tehelka, both were mini-universes of the kind of gender equality and liberal openness that the women’s groups have been telling us is the answer to the culture of sexualised violence against women. And yet, look what happened!

Today you may call Tejpal all sorts of names, but even today, he aint no Khap Panchayat, ladies. He was one of you. He is one of us. He is a modern, liberal person. The kind you believe has some kind of inner light that dispels misogyny and patriarchy. See how wrong you were? It doesn’t even dispel common lechery.

So to go back to the original question: how did everyone miss this? By failing utterly to identify the rapist within and the patriarchy within; by making it all about the uneducated, superstitious, backward beliefs of some other hidebound, traditionalist India out there (outside, I suppose, the Goa Think fest?), feminism in India (atleast its most vocal arm that came to the front in the wake of the Nirbhaya agitiation) has become a rather off-putting spectacle of snobbery and cultural shaming. This is not a point about cultural relativism or allowing culture to excuse sexism, it is about asking for some honesty in the quest for eliminating sexism. I hold no brief for Khap panchayats and I am all for chilling out and free love, if its just about that – chilling out and free love. But let us elite, liberal women not kid ourselves that our lifestyle choices have given us any moksha from any kind of sexism. We are victims from liberal, feminist, modern men and in liberal, feminist, modern environments, not just of rareified “structural sexism”, but of your everyday, buy-one-get-one-free, sexism of pawing, groping, “trying it on” and so on and on. And there is no excuse for our failing to recognise the sexism and the rapists in our own world while we go around naming and shaming sexism in the world of people different from us. And don’t make a different world out of Tejpal-Tehelka-Shoma Chaudhury. This is not about what some other people did – its about what one of you, one of us, did. And this is proof of your failure, you civil rights activists and women’s rights advocates to scrutinise yourselves and your world for sexism. Its time for the liberal press and rights activists to stop the finger pointing and look within.

Suranya is a housewife, mother of two and one time practicing lawyer. After quitting her career she has been writing occasionally on issues relating to women and children.


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