Sexual crimes committed by men tend to be explained away as ‘mistakes’ in India. This defence infantilises the actions of an adult perpetrator after a very adult crime has been committed. By doing so, the perpetrator is able to claim innocence. Vasundhara Sirnate argues that Tarun Tejpal, Founder Editor of Tehelka, has chosen to use such a defence by calling the sexual assault of a journalist by him as a case of "drunken banter" and later, casually indulging in victim blaming.
On two separate instances on 7th and 8th November 2013 a young female journalist with news organisation Tehelka, was allegedly sexually assaulted by Tarun Tejpal, the Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka, during an event held by the magazine in Goa. The details are frightening. In a copy of the email written by the female journalist to Shoma Chaudhury, Managing Editor of Tehelka, she describes being imprisoned in an elevator by Mr. Tejpal, being disrobed, groped, shoved, manhandled and forcibly assaulted. As she walks out of the elevator rattled and frightened during the first incident, Mr. Tejpal calls after her, “this is the easiest way for you to keep your job”.
In her seminal work The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf explores how notions of beauty have become an ideology of entrapment for women. She recounts how there are images of a sexy librarian or a nurse in a short dress that borders on impracticality, replete with high heels, a curvy figure and glasses to make one look intelligent. However, at one signal the buttons of dresses can be ripped off, hair neatly combed into a bun can be unfurled and the working professional woman can be disrobed and turned into a sluttier version of her.
This theme of the cool, professional working woman giving way to an unclad version of herself in silk stockings to impress a man (usually her boss), has been repeatedly explored in music videos, songs and has even made the less than rare theme of countless films in every culture. At the heart of this process – robing and disrobing – lies a woman who ought to be, as society dictates, comfortable in a conference room and also comfortable in the said conference room minus her clothing.
Naomi Wolf was not exaggerating. Similarly, Mad Men may be a show about Madison Avenue’s advertising honchos in the 1960s, but the styles of behaviour depicted in the show are traditions of male workplace behaviour that still entail in large parts of the world, especially when it comes to how female employees are treated. The penalty for non-compliance with bosses’ sexual advances is often losing one’s job.
Both Naomi Wolf and the Mad Men series talk about the sexually abusive backlash that working women have faced. In post-war U.S., many women had taken over low-paid manufacturing jobs when the men, who previously worked those jobs, were drafted into the war effort. Once the war was over, employers seemed reluctant to let labour that was cheaper than male labour, go. On their part, women refused to take their traditional places in the kitchen soaking their fingers in pastries and vegetable peels. While these tableaux were enacted out in the ’60s and ’70s in the U.S., we are only now coming to grips with issues that working women face in India.
Post liberalisation, as prices have risen, it has become imperative for many families in India to have two working people. Women have gradually filled in gaps in the unorganised and tertiary sectors. This process has not been pleasant for them. They still retain their roles as home-makers meaning that typically they work two jobs a day – one at home and one in the workplace. Not only are both work shifts underappreciated, but also the home shift is unpaid and not included in any national income accounting.
Why the Vishaka Guidelines Matter
The Tejpal incident is one reported instance out of countless unreported instances of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment that women face in the workplace. The situation in India is so severe that the Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines popularly known as the Vishaka guidelines (as part of a verdict) following a PIL filed after the gang rape of a social worker in Rajasthan in 1997. The guidelines craft a set of recommendations that could ensure a safe workplace for women. Today, most Indian women are either not aware of the mandated institutions that ought to exist to safeguard them in the workplace, or, they know the rules but work in organisations where these anti-sexual harassment bodies don’t exist. Even today, we do not know how many organisations and institutions in the country have followed the Vishaka guidelines. We do know that the implementation of such bodies and committees inside organisations was mandated but not forcibly implemented.
One rare university that had a student body that fought hard for the establishment of a committee to address sexual harassment is Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Even then, to get it established, many disparate students groups forged a common coalition and pressured the administration to constitute a body made up of lawyers, activists and professors from the university along with two student representatives. The body was called GSCASH – Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment – and has been an effective deterrent against sexual assault or harassment on campus.
This did not mean and does not mean that sexual harassment cases and crimes don’t occur. They do. But a body like GSCASH effectively reduces the number of such incidents simply because an aware student knows she has recourse to help from a higher, more powerful authority that can essentially suspend a student from campus and ensure he can’t come back to study for a long time, start proceedings in a criminal court if rape has been committed and provide back-up and psychological support for any victims. Knowing that acts of harassment done with impunity are likely to be punished harshly and may involve the loss of a college degree or a prison sentence (if the case goes to an open court), has severely reduced the number of incidents of harassment since likely perpetrators have had to think twice about their actions. Today, JNU is considered one of the safest campuses for women in India and even boasts of co-ed hostels.
The JNU story is one case in favour of establishing statutory bodies meant to provide safeguards for working women. I must caution, that the existence of such a body does not necessarily mean that all likely perpetrators will be equally deterred.
Can we imagine an alternative scenario where Tehelka had a body like GSCASH? Let’s work on this counterfactually. If such a body had been constituted at Tehelka when the organisation first started, doubtless it would have had lawyers, doctors, other senior journalists on board. These, we can assume, are people who would be able to know the difference between rape, attempted rape and harassment. These are also people who the young female journalist could have immediately turned to instead of turning to an inept feminist, Shoma Chaudhury, who didn’t know that as managing director, the Vishaka guidelines clearly state that if such an incident of assault is reported, it is the employer’s task to ensure that it goes to the courts of the land.
Specifically, the judgment says, “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 existence of such a body would have set in place a procedure to be followed if someone was harassed or abused at work. The victim would have had no need to be indecisive about reporting it. She would have been aware that she could seek help and have a proper legal way of proceeding. That she did this anyway is worthy of applause. Basically, she wouldn’t have had to waste precious time by doubting herself and being made to doubt her own actions by some crafty text messages and re-discoursing of Mr. Tejpal's actions. Also, we can assume that having allowed such a body to exist in his organisation, Mr. Tejpal would himself have been aware of when a hook-up in his mind is actually sexual assault in the mind of the person he is busy assaulting.
More importantly, constituting such bodies is a strong deterrent against sexual behaviour in the workplace simply because it spells out consequences for a perpetrator’s actions. Some organisations may have such bodies, which are non-functioning. The best way to enforce the power of such a body is to a) make sure that each and every employee knows what sexual harassment and abuse is, b) is aware of a stipulated set of consequences that will follow if he/she indulges in such actions and c) should also be aware that such bodies will not side with the perpetrator even if he/she is at the highest post within the organisation.
Also, what Mr. Tejpal has essentially done is to create a hostile work environment. We do not widely recognise this as a workplace ethics concept in India. When an employee is unable to discharge his/her duties because she/he is terrorised, made uncomfortable, emotionally or physically abused at work, and threatened with being fired if the boss is not listened to, the perpetrator has created a hostile work environment. These are grounds for a lawsuit in the U.S. against the employee and the company, if the company does not take immediate steps to fire the abuser or find a way of resolving the matter. There needs to be legislation for this as well.
Attempted Rape as Drunken Banter
As someone who has been involved for a long time with cataloguing women’s issues and commenting on violence against women, and, occasionally helping abused women when needed, I was not very surprised to hear about this case. What got my attention was the new way in which attempted rape/rape was explained away. In his text messages to the journalist, Mr. Tejpal insisted that this was drunken banter. He assaulted a woman half his age and explained it away as an indiscretion caused by alcohol. He did not think about the psychological damage it may cause her and didn’t listen to her saying no. Most people, who commit sexual assault, when interviewed by psychologists, mention that he victim ‘wanted it’ and that ‘no actually means yes’.
Now Mr. Tejpal is a man we had learned to look up to for pioneering, uncompromising journalism. Under his leadership, Tehelka near perfected the sting operation – a series of set-ups, which caught leading political figures in wrongdoing of various sorts. Tehelka also wrote out repeatedly about violence against women. It conducted path-breaking inquiries into the mentality of people who rape and police attitudes towards rape victims and women in general. For all of these good reasons it was a news source that many in liberal India looked up to.
The attempted crime of rape and the crime of sexual assault – it cannot be thought of as anything else if one reads the details – of the young female journalist by Mr. Tejpal offers some correctives on how we think about those who commit offences against women. It also lays bare the hypocrisy within the media establishment where commentary on rapes of women is near constant these days, yet, some of these same organisations have no internal body, mandated by law after the Vishakha judgment, that can address matters of abuse, harassment and rape.
First, we assume that only people from lower-income backgrounds rape women because they have little sexual access to women. This is wrong. Rape is about power, not sex. It is about asserting power over someone who clearly doesn’t want to be in that position. Second, rape is a weapon of domination. It is meant to humiliate, injure, inflict pain and traumatise a person and is often seen in conflict zones as a method of subjugating populations. Third, rape is independent of a woman’s character, dress, words and actions. The onus lies solely and completely on the perpetrator of the action.
Up to 98 per cent of rapes in India are committed by acquaintances, or, people known to the victim. This is a staggering figure. It also demonstrates that women cannot be safe at home, in the workplace, while commuting to work and amongst their male friends and extended family. Repeatedly in India, women’s personal security is compromised by their colleagues and they are blamed for provocative dressing and creating disharmony in the workplace. Clerks, tea boys, bosses, managers, drivers and peons often stare after them as they walk and now with camera phones all sorts of male personnel in organisations have been reported taking clandestine pictures of their female colleagues, if not more openly harassing them. Terms of endearment like “sweetheart”, “darling”, and “sweetie” are still constantly used to address working women. Some of the words in Hindi and other languages are more crass but mean the same thing.
To throw the book at Mr. Tejpal is rather easy at this point. He can be booked for unlawful imprisonment, attempted rape or rape itself, attempting to disrobe or disrobing a woman. His defences of his actions have moved from self-indulgent to outright rejection of the claims made. First he tried to convince the journalist that what had transpired was “drunken banter”. The last time we checked drunken banter is verbal and does not involve attacking someone after trapping a person in an elevator. Second, he wrote a rather self-indulgent email to Shoma Chaudhury talking about lapses of judgment and unfortunate mistakes. He titled the email “atonement”, and said he would like to relieve himself of duty for six months to do some penance. Third, he wrote to the victim apologising for his “mistake”. He also made some noises about raising Tehelka as if being at the head of a news organisation can somehow grant him some leeway for his actions. After this, he claimed that he is being set-up and that the victim is not telling the truth. Finally, he now blames the victim by saying that she acted normal and was casual about everything after the incident and partied and stayed up late.
It is utterly disappointing and disheartening to see Mr. Tejpal, who initially even accepted his fault, resort to victim blaming to save his skin. His actions have hurt far more people than the victim. He has hurt his own family, his organisation and the various excellent journalists who have worked with him for various years. In an act of utter cowardice he even let his female Managing Director field hard questions about his behaviour and defend him. That she did so willingly initially is an even bigger mystery. In terms of organisational behaviour, this attempted rape/rape was sought to be brushed under the carpet.
Here is a man who championed women’s causes, then sexually assaulted a woman in his employ who was also the daughter of one of his friends and a friend of his own daughter, then he repeated the same behaviour in the span of 24 hours, after which he wrote an apology as if that could settle a criminal matter, and, finally he took recourse to the most commonly employed ploy by well-known people in India – this, he said, is politically motivated and a set-up. He followed that up by saying the whole thing was consensual. When your back is against a wall and the whole world is attacking you – blame the victim. Works every time!
At this point, a word of praise is necessary for the Goa police who initiated suo motu action against Tejpal and not only grabbed CCTV footage, which evidently corroborates the victim’s story, but also quizzed Shoma Chaudhury for over 9 hours in New Delhi after seizing materials from the Tehelka office. Now if only all police personnel in all states could take such action!
The re-discoursing of rape as something lesser, almost innocent and childish is a frustrating ploy that many men (and women) use in India. Colloquially many think of this as chhoti si bhool (a small error). Mothers will use it to protect their sons when neighbours come complaining. Politicians will use it to explain away their more callous statements and actions. Mr. Tejpal took this ploy and insisted that this was a mistake he made under the influence of alcohol.
What undergirds the chhoti si bhool defence is the idea that even as adults some men cannot and should not be held responsible for their actions. “They have made a mistake. They are not essentially bad people,” is what this defence argues. The problem is if we start using this defence it makes the law useless. Forgiveness is to be reserved for lesser crimes like perhaps the theft of a jalebi by a homeless boy; definitely not for sexual assault.
In our society men are allowed to make abusive mistakes repeatedly and do not get called out for their behaviour. Wives are asked to forgive their husbands for beating them up. Mothers-in-law will say, “Your husband didn’t really mean it”. What is really being said is, “you woman, have no right to complain about this. This is inconvenient for us to hear. So stop complaining and deal with it.” Similarly, some suggested laws in our country recommend that rapists marry the women they assault essentially doing away with the problem by not recognising that there is one. Marital rape is still to be recognised in India. And while we’re on this subject let me add that when sexually unpractised men and women are married, most men, especially in rural and semi-urban areas basically pounce on their new wives because they do not know how else to have intercourse. In this manner a woman is initiated into sexual awareness through an act of rape, mandated by marriage. She doesn’t even know that she can say no. In any case, even if she did, the law wouldn’t recognise it.
The Way Forward
The rediscoursing of sexual assault, harassment, abuse and rape in our country as childish errors that men commit is something that needs to change. This is a dangerous defence of sexual assault. It essentially treats men as children, who can be forgiven for an offence because they knew no better. It is this thinking that allowed the juvenile in the 2012 New Delhi gang rape to be tried in juvenile court even though he had inflicted the maximum injury on Nirbhaya. There was nothing childlike in his actions.
If this were the U.S., Mr. Tejpal would find his name on a list of sex offenders. An FBI database would inform any prospective employers about his background. He wouldn’t be able to sneeze without the shadow of being a sex offender crossing over him. For child sex offenders the US is even tougher. After serving a prison sentence an offender is registered as a child sex offender and has to inform his neighbours that he is one. It is then up to the neighbours to see how much social interaction they want with this man.
In the U.S., if a rape is committed, police use what is casually called a ‘rape kit’. In this kit are a set of items that allow doctors to collect forensic DNA evidence. It is recommended that a woman, if raped, should go straight to the police without cleaning herself since that can get rid of evidence faster than a crooked cop. Items of clothing, personal effects, scrapings from under fingernails, swabs are taken and fingerprints are lifted off the victim’s personal effects. Each scrape, bruise, scratch and bleeding cut is photographed and recorded. Uncomfortable as it sounds, this is the only way to build a foolproof case against a possible rapist. We need to start doing this in India immediately.
Valourising America’s fight to end violence against women is definitely not the point here. The main point is to borrow from institutions that work across the world keeping the goal in sight, which in this case, is ending women’s abuse and assault. Even the US is not perfect. As Nicolas Kristof reported a few years ago, many rape kits have not been processed properly and convictions are slow to come. Rape in the US still occurs. But what matters is that when abuse of any kind happens to a woman, she can run to the state and get help without judgment. There are severe consequences for indulging in sexual assault and rape.
Perhaps it is time that we start educating our women not only on how to avoid rape (which does not include some of the most baseless suggestions ever such as not stepping out the house), but also on how to respond when rape or an attempt to rape has been made. We need to tell them to report the crime and insist on a complete cataloguing of the forensic evidence. This is the only way to bring perpetrators to justice.