Beastly act

The allegations of sexual assault levelled by a young journalist in Tehelka against the magazine’s founder-editor Tarun Tejpal have triggered enormous outrage across the country.

As disgusting as the alleged sexual misconduct of Tejpal has been his attempt at trivialising his action and downplaying its gravity. In a cleverly worded email, Tejpal refers to his misconduct as “a bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation,” as if what he did was a poor reading of the stock market. While appearing to be contrite, he is downright disingenuous. Nowhere in his email does he admit to the violence he unleashed on his junior colleague.

What makes his response particularly revolting is his decision to let himself off with a mild rap on his knuckles; he has offered to step aside as editor for six months. Sexual assault is a crime to be investigated by the police and punished according to the laws of the land. It is not for Tejpal to decide the nature and quantum of punishment.

His atonement’ cannot be a substitute for due process and punishment handed out by the courts. He cannot be allowed to escape law. His colleague and Tehelka’s managing-editor Shoma Chaudhury has described this ‘incident’ as an ‘internal matter.’ It is not. Tejpal has violated not some office rule but the law of this country. A crime has been committed and attempts at sweeping the issue under the carpet border on abetment.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is widespread. What emboldens sexual predators is the power they wield. This makes it difficult for their victims to speak up against them. It was to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace that the Supreme Court in a judgment in 1997 in the Vishakha versus State of Rajasthan case laid down guidelines for establishments in dealing with complaints about such harassment.

It called on organisations to set up appropriate complaint mechanisms and a Complaints Committee. However, almost two decades thereon, the Vishakha guidelines exist largely only on paper. How many establishments have mechanisms to systematically deal with sexual harassment?

The immediate response of Tehelka’s management was to stand by the assailant rather than the victim. What redressal can an employee expect when the person harassing her is the boss? This is why a complaints committee that includes not only women from the organisation but also outside should be made mandatory in every establishment. The ugly episode at Tehelka should serve as a wake-up call.

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