Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.
Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.
Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.
Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.
The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.
With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.
Now, all of it hangs in the balance.
Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.
“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.
Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.
Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.
“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.
A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”
The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many — have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”
Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.
I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.
But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.
And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.
The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.
Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.
“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”
In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.