NEW DELHI — The editor-in-chief of one of India's leading investigative magazines faced flak from activists and politicians on Friday following allegations of sexually assaulting a female colleague.
Tarun Tejpal, founder of the award-winning weekly magazine, Tehelka - known for exposing corruption and human rights issues - confessed in a leaked email that “a bad lapse of judgment” and “an awful reading of the situation” had led to an “unfortunate incident.”
According to reports, the victim said she was assaulted twice by Tejpal over a period of two days in a hotel elevator during a conference in the coastal state of Goa earlier this month.
The Tehelka case has sparked widespread debate within the Indian media and on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter about the silence that surrounds sexual harassment and assault in the country's workplaces.
Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, a member of the National Commission for Women (NCW), said that Tehelka's response to the case has been disappointing and that the setting up of an internal probe committee under pressure is too little, too late.
“Shoma Chaudhury has said that an investigative committee would be set up, but I think this is too late. This should have been done earlier when the complainant demanded it. The magazine's response to the case earlier was disappointing. The women's commission has directed the Goa police to take up the matter because there is a confession from the accused,” said Prabhavalkar.
The alleged victim has not made an official complaint to the police, but local authorities in Goa said they had ordered an inquiry and were trying to contact her for a statement.
Tejpal is a veteran journalist and novelist with a career spanning over 25 years. In 2001, Asiaweek listed him as one of Asia's 50 most powerful communicators, while in 2007, The Guardian named him among the 20 who constitute India's new elite. In 2009, BusinessWeek said he was one of 50 most powerful Indians.
Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nalin Kohli, questioned Tejpal's arrangement of stepping down from his editorship for six months as penance.
“Arun Jaitley has written a very telling piece on the entire issue. He is correct in asking the question that can an adjustment or an arrangement between the editor and the managing editor rub out the criminality of the act here. This amounts to rape or definitely assault. Can the provisions of the Indian penal code not apply?” asked Kohli.
Despite India's economic liberalization, which began more than two decades ago and brought with it more progressive ideas of gender equality and empowerment, women continue to face a barrage of threats due to deeply-entrenched patriarchal attitudes, women's rights activists say.
Working women are routinely exposed to sexual harassment by colleagues, managers or their employers, yet few report such cases fearing the loss of their jobs or, in some cases, persecution for speaking out against those more powerful.
The government passed a law in March aimed at tackling unwelcome behavior such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and innuendos made at work.
However, activists say few organizations have set up the grievance committees stipulated by the law. These committees, it is hoped, would provide a safe and sensitive place for women to come forward to report cases and hold perpetrators accountable.