Prem Shankar Jha

The other side of the Tarun Tejpal Story

NEW DELHI: Tarun Tejpal, the founder-editor of Tehelka, has been charged with “sexual harassment, physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, rape, rape by a person of a woman in his custody taking advantage of his official position,wrongful restraint and wrongful confinement”. These charges have yet to be proved, but Tejpal has already spent 80 days in jail. He has done so because despite his surrender of his passport and willing cooperation with the police, he has been denied first anticipatory bail, and then bail.

Instead, the Goa magistrate’s court sent him to police and then judicial custody, routinely extended the latter every ten to 12 days and finally rejected his bail petition on January 21 on the sole, unsubstantiated accusation of the investigation officer that he had tried to intimidate her.

Tejpal is by no means the first victim of this gross abuse. In 2000 AD following operation West End, the sting operation conducted by Tehelka, that caught BJP leaders taking bribes from soi-disant arms dealers, the NDA government launched an all-out attack on the magazine—then an e-journal. Among those whom it arrested on trumped up charges of insider trading and share price manipulation was Shankar Sharma, the founder and head of First Global, one of the most dynamic of the new generation of financial companies that was coming up in Mumbai. His crime was that he owned 13 percent of the original share capital of Tehelka.

Sharma too spent three months ‘in judicial custody’ in Tihar jail before being released without any charges being filed against him. During the years of harassment that followed the police raided First Global’s offices 25 times. SEBI forced it to close, destroyed its client and revenue base, and cost its 216 employees their jobs at the height of the 1997 – 2003 recession.

The NDA government’s attack on Tehelka was even more relentless. In 2000, having been caught with its pants down, it did not arrest Tejpal. Instead it embarked upon a slow strangulation of Tehelka that had, by the time the government fell, reduced its staff from 105 to 15, and left Tejpal personally in debt to the tune of a crore of rupee. Even that did not slake the then government’s thirst for vengeance. When, under immense media and public pressure, it set up the Venkataswami commission to investigate the bribery tapes, it included a clause in the terms of reference – ‘term D’ – that required the commission to look into “all aspects relating to the making and publication of these allegations.”

Only the veteran lawyer and columnist A.G Noorani noticed the enormity of its implications for press freedom: “Never in the half-century of the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952” he wrote, “has anybody been asked to probe the credentials of those who made the charge”.“If this move is allowed to pass muster the press will effectively be muzzled. Anytime it publishes an exposé, the government will retaliate by setting up inquiries not only into the truth of the charges, but also into the motives, finances and sources of the journal which publishes them.”

It is against this background of vendetta that the Goa government’s treatment of Tejpal needs to be examined. It is important to remember that the alleged victim did not register an FIR with the Goa police. What she asked for, in not one but two emails to the managing editor Shoma Chaudhuri, was an apology and ‘closure’ of the incident. It was the BJP government of Goa that decided to register an FIR suo moto.

The charge it levelled against him was not of sexual harassment; not of sexual molestation; not even of sexual assault, but of the terribly violent act of Rape. It was able to do so because parliament had changed the heading of “sexual assault”, given to the amendment bill to cover its widened definition of sexual crimes, with the word ‘rape’. This highly emotive word provided the Goa government, and the BJP’s leaders in Delhi, with a convenient mantle of concern for women’s rights and security, under which to re-launch its vendetta against Tejpal.

The timeline of the BJP’s statements and actions, both in Delhi and Goa, exposes the virulence of its campaign. On November 21 when Tarun Tejpal’s apology, and his resignation from Tehelka for six months, first hit the press the Goa Chief Minister, Manohar Parriker, said “ Progress of the inquiry will depend on whether the complainant registers a complaint. Because it is a body offence, the complainant has to have a role. Unless I have a complaint, I cannot prove guilt.”

But it took him only 24 hours to turn turtle: at 2.20 PM on November 22 he told Times Now that ‘a crime was a crime’ and that he had instructed the police to go after the culprit. Three hours later he told the same channel that Tejpal was the culprit. Three days later, on November 25, he made a remark to NDTV that was not only biased but vulgar: “Someone told me that this man (Tarun Tejpal) is saying that it is consensual. I wonder what he must have done within four minutes and that too in a lift.” Two days later he accused Tejpal publicly of being a “ Congress Stooge”. So much for the BJP’s impartiality and objectivity!

What made him turn turtle? The answer is a Facebook posting by Arun Jaitley on November 21. Jaitley not only pointed out that Tejpal could be accused of rape under the amended law, but that managing editor Shoma Chaudhuri could be charged with abetment, pressurising Tehelka journalists and tampering with evidence. He thus laid out all the grounds for the Goa government’s change of heart and the denial of bail that followed. In the next seven days a host of BJP leaders made 19 statements demanding punishment for Tejpal and/or Chaudhuri. In Delhi a BJP MLA led a mob that defaced Chaudhuri’s house and car.

But these public attacks tell only half the story. For behind the smokescreen they have created, the Goa police has also refused to present at the bail hearings evidence in their possession that could have mitigated the accusation of rape and inclined the magistrate towards granting bail. Among the many grounds presented by his lawyers but ignored by the judge, two stand out. The most important is that the CCTV tapes of the Hotel show that Tejpal and ‘the victim’ were in the elevator on the evening of the alleged molestation not for four minutes but two minutes and nine seconds. The second is that the “victim’s’’ accusation that Tejpal’s family visited, and threatened, her and her mother is an outright falsehood. For an email she sent the same evening shows that the visitor was her erstwhile closest friend, Tejpal’s daughter Tiya. The email thanked Tiya for her visit, but it took her only another 12 hours to change her story and claim intimidation. One can only wonder why.

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