By Swapan Dasgupta
There are times when a ‘scandal’ becomes more than a gripping tale of individual misdemeanours: it becomes a commentary on society and social mores. The miscarriage of justice in the case involving Alfred Dreyfus brought into the open the fissures in late-19th century French society, particularly its pernicious anti-Semitism. The salacious tale of what came to be known as the Profumo scandal involving Christine Keeler went a long way in exposing the hypocrisy of the post-War British Establishment and contributed greatly in breaking down the culture of deference that once defined the United Kingdom.
It is still early days to be entirely sure if the grim saga of Tarun Tejpal’s conduct at a purportedly intellectual festival in Goa earlier this month will be treated by social historians of the future as an isolated act of criminality or will be regarded as a vivid illustration of the social mores of contemporary India. It is possible that the so-called “private moment” in a hotel lift points to one dirty, middle-aged man and can hardly constitute a generalisation for either the media or even those who combine artistic sensibilities with the good life. At the same time, there is an equally compelling case for the suggestion that the great champion of the underdog behaved as he did out of a sense of arrogance and entitlement—and that he isn’t the only one.
To view the Tejpal controversy as a media event—which may explain the interest it has aroused in the Fourth Estate—is only partially correct. The attempt by the boss (and, in this case, the perceived owner) of an organisation to extract sexual favours from a subordinate isn’t novel. There have been enough highly-publicised instances of ‘modern’ Indians in publishing and information technology misusing their positions to secure sexual favours for the Tejpal case to acquire any novelty. The only possible difference is that the element of consent in this case appears to be exclusively one-sided. What really marked the Tejpal case was the attempted ‘management’ of the crime by the journalist and the Tehelka management. And that is where media, politics and the social milieu of the ‘arty’ world intersected.
The failure of the Tehelka management to report the incident to the police, when it was under a statutory obligation to do so and, instead, settle matters through a private deal, has attracted many adverse comments. Equally, a lot of incredulity and disgust has surrounded the attempt by Tehelka’s Managing Editor to elevate ordinary criminality into a test of high feminist principles. At the heart of both approaches was the astonishing presumption that normal rules—whether of law or society—don’t apply to those engaged in the noble business of exposing the wrongdoing of others.
It is this insistence of exceptional standards to judge Tejpal that has both angered and mystified many. First there was the attempt to minimise the gravity of the charges against Tejpal and settle the issue through what has been described as a “private treaty”. Secondly, there was the bid by Tejpal to unilaterally award himself a punishment: a sabbatical from active journalism for six months. Thirdly, when these measures were greeted with a renewed sense of outrage, there was the attempt by the Tehelka management to establish a private dispute redressal mechanism—a committee headed by a friend of Tejpal who also happened to be a leading feminist. Thirdly, there was an attempt to put pressure on the family of the victim and persuade her to withdraw her complaint, perhaps in return for some compensation.
And, finally, there was the astonishing demand that Tejpal should have a say in deciding which authority was best placed to assess the charges brought against him. The Goa police, it was claimed, was not an appropriate authority because the government there was controlled by the BJP which apparently wanted to settle scores with Tehelka for its role in disgracing former BJP president Bangaru Laxman in a sting operation more than a decade ago.
In any ordinary case, the defendants may well have claimed that the sexual liaison was consensual but they would not have tried to establish a parallel system of justice or claimed political victimisation. That Tejpal did so was revealing and suggested that the man tried to take refuge behind his lofty status in society and his formidable political links.
Tejpal, it has emerged, was more than just an editor who also organised literary events by way of brand extension. He positioned himself as a great crusader for liberal values and secular causes. Cabinet ministers had invested in his ventures, MPs were among those who had large stakes in Tehelka and he had been appointed as a non-executive director of Prasar Bharti. In addition, he was on first name terms with the great and good of the international literary world. He could flaunt his ‘enlightened’ values on sexuality and get away with a style that was reckless. Corporate bigwigs vied for his attention and showered him with generous sponsorships for his Thinkfest in Goa. No, Tejpal wasn’t any old hack. He was among Delhi’s beautiful people, a pillar of the Establishment.
The assault on Tejpal’s pretensions has, willy-nilly, come to express the popular antipathy to the culture of licentiousness and entitlement that defines India’s governing elite. The coming days will determine if the Tejpal affair is another nail in the coffin of a rotten dispensation.