The rise and ‘fall’ of Tarun Tejpal
Iconic journalist who found fame as crusader against corruption courts infamy following sexual misconduct charges.
When gods have feet of clay, even believers become atheists. Tarun Tejpal, just over 50, used to be an iconic figure in Indian journalism. He was a man who led a media organisation which shook a government, unseated influential officials, broke new ground in investigative journalism using sting operations, and championed causes in favour of the underprivileged. Today he has been disgraced and humiliated, accused by his young daughter’s close friend and his employee of sexual assault and abuse of power.
The accusations have not just created turmoil in the media in India but raised a political storm in the country, going viral on the social media, hogging headlines in newspapers, and dominating discourses on prime-time television since November 20 when the episode became publicly known.
The police have been questioning Tejpal’s associates since a first information report was lodged in Goa in western India, a popular tourist destination, where the instances of alleged assault on the young woman journalist took place inside an elevator of a fancy hotel on two successive nights of November 7 and November 8.
The woman had been deputed to chaperone prominent American actor Robert De Niro and his daughter who were among the guests who had participated in a conference called “ThinkFest” organised by Tehelka (literally, meaning storm), the name of the publication and website that had been founded by Tejpal. Among many other prominent persons who had attended the conference were Trinidad-born novelist Sir V S Naipaul and India’s best-known film and television personality Amitabh Bachchan, none of whom were evidently aware of what happened.
After the attempts to sexually assault the woman journalist, she complained about Tejpal to some of her colleagues and also to Tejpal’s daughter, who she described as her close friend. She also sent an extremely detailed e-mail to Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor and second-in-command at Tehelka and, importantly, a woman who has espoused feminist views.
Chaudhury reportedly admonished her mentor Tejpal, refused to accept his version of events that the sexual encounter was consensual but at the same time, accepted his decision to “recuse” himself as head of the organisation for a period of six months. Chaudhury also claimed that the woman who had complained had accepted Tejpal’s explanation but later retracted her claim.
In 1997, Tehelka had used hidden cameras to secretly-record interviews with various individuals, including sportspersons, to highlight how popular cricket matches were rigged. This led to India’s premier police investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, to conduct an exhaustive probe into the scandal.
As his stature grew, Tejpal was found to be feathering his own nest as a journalist and novelist while projecting himself as a crusader against the high and mighty.
Four years later, in 2001, Tehelka mounted another sting operation to unearth corruption in purchases of equipment by India’s defence services. Not only were a number of senior serving officers of the army subsequently found guilty but former defence minister George Fernandes had to quit his position for a while.
More significantly, Bangaru Laxman, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist political party that headed the coalition in power in New Delhi at the time, had to resign after he was depicted accepting wads of currency notes from a Tehelka journalist masquerading as a dealer of military equipment. More than a decade later, in April 2012, Laxman was sentenced to four years in jail.
Earlier, after the Tehelka expose, the BJP government came down hard on Tejpal’s organization. Search-and-seizure raids were conducted by tax officials on his offices and those who had funded his operations were put to considerable inconvenience. The BJP government lost power in 2004 and Tejpal became a hero of sorts.
He was feted by individuals and prestigious bodies from across the world. For instance, Business Week included him among fifty leaders at the forefront of change in Asia in 2001 and eight years later, named him as one of India’s fifty “most powerful” people. The Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom included him in a list comprising “India’s elite” for pioneering “a brand of sting journalism which has transformed Indian media”.
Even as his stature grew, Tejpal was found to be feathering his own nest as a journalist and novelist while projecting himself as a crusader against the high and mighty. He sought the financial support of politicians to run his publications and websites and also wooed big corporate entities to sponsor programmes of the sort that took place at the Goa hotel.
It is hardly surprising that the government of Goa, which is currently run by the BJP, has been prompt and proactive in registering a suo motu criminal complaint against Tejpal and speaking to those who are aware of what exactly transpired, including the victim. Equally predictably, this has led some to claim that the inquiry is politically motivated.
At the same time, he was accused of running roughshod over his junior employees by, among other things, killing stories that were not favourable towards particular corporate sponsors — including a mining conglomerate operating out of Goa. Many of his employees parted ways with him over what they claimed were his whimsical, hypocritical and, on occasion, unethical behaviour.
However, it was not until the young woman (whose father was a friend of the founder of Tehelka) levelled serious allegations of sexual harassment against him that the halo around Tejpal disappeared. Whereas he has given an impression that he is repentant, Chaudhury’s reactions have disappointed many of her one-time supporters for apparently empathising with Tejpal. The Indian media has, by and large, reflected public opinion that has been sharply condemnatory of his attempts to play accused and judge in the same breath.
‘A Messi in difficult art’
Tejpal’s former colleagues and associates have not spared him. As Binoo John, a senior journalist who was once close to Tejpal wrote:
“Generous and loving to a fault, he later became a killer of stories and careers. I cannot fathom all this. I am utterly broken. I knew early this year that his end was near. If you hit a bank once, you don’t stop with that. You always want a second hit. It is the same with assaults and one-night stands. He was a Messi in this difficult art, dodging through the most difficult of terrain and ‘scoring’ at will and confounding his victims, leaving them broken, shattered and often jobless….
“His mind was elsewhere. Like all great men he lived in the future but like all fallen men he could not see his own life and character being chipped away by the flesh-eating bacilli of ambition, greed and ruthlessness.”
At the time of writing this article, the media in India were agog with expectations that Tejpal may find himself behind bars.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist and educator.