NEW DELHI // For more than a decade, the weekly magazine Tehelka aspired to live up to its tagline — “Free. Fair. Fearless” — and to rattle the conscience of the establishment. But the arrest of its founder-editor on rape charges has weakened the magazine immensely, raising speculation about its survival.
Tarun Tejpal, 50, has been in police custody in Goa since November 30, pending the investigation of charges that he raped and sexually assaulted a young reporter on his staff during an event hosted by Tehelka in early November.
Tejpal, who founded Tehelka in 2000, is the latest accused in a string of high-profile rape cases in India. Following the gang rape of a young student in Delhi a year ago, public opinion in India has been loud and emphatic in calling for action against the perpetrators of violence against women.
Tejpal’s long-time deputy, Shoma Chaudhury, resigned in late November, after she was blamed for mishandling the incident and for trying to cover it up.
The controversy has undermined Tehelka’s reputation for embodying, according to its Linkedin profile, “truth, courage and conscience in the Indian public space”. Tehelka’s circulation hovered around 175,000 when Tejpal was arrested – far behind the 1.1 million of the leading English newsweekly, India Today, but with a cachet that few others possessed.
Among its first big news splashes was a sting operation conducted on the then-president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bangaru Laxman. Posing as an arms contractor, a Tehelka journalist filmed Mr Laxman with a hidden camera as he accepted a bribe to expedite a defence deal.
Laxman had to resign from the presidency of the BJP, and after a long trial, he was convicted of corruption last year.
Tehelka’s methods raised some concerns when the sting operation’s results were published. At the time, Tejpal acknowledged that his reporters had made “a minor transgression”, although he went on to defend their actions.
Last month, Mr Laxman hit out at Tehelka for creating “its own bubble of uprightness and morals” even as it conducted its journalism “using unethical methods”.
Tejpal’s fall has electrified India’s media industry and generated some sadness about the decay of the magazine. But former staffers said the crash was almost inevitable, and that Tehelka had started to become a vehicle for its editor.
“He had started to become larger than life,” said one former Tehelka journalist, who asked not to be named.
In a column in The Telegraph newspaper this month, Sankarshan Thakur, Tehelka’s executive editor between 2003 and 2008, asked the questions on everybody’s minds.
“Is there a future left? Are there any takers after all of this? Is the job even worth having? Is the Tehelka badge a thing of robbed honour, a calling card they’d rather conceal than offer as credible currency?” Thakur wrote.
Having been a journalist for the news weeklies India Today and Outlook, Tejpal started Tehelka as an investigative news website in 2000. The name, in Hindi, translated literally into “sensation”, and Tejpal’s staff provided plenty of it as Tehelka evolved, going from a website to a tabloid newspaper and finally to a magazine. Tehelka, which aligned itself with the Congress party, exposed the willingness of Hindu right-wing outfits to rent themselves out for riots, the Indian army’s brutality against civilians in the north-eastern state of Manipur, and the complicity of the BJP in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.
“You felt that you were engaged in something exciting, something worthwhile,” said Himanshu Bhagat, a copy editor who worked in Tehelka between 2006 and 2008.
But by the time he joined the magazine, Bhagat said, the heady days of Tehelka were in the past.
Tejpal had begun seeing himself as an impresario, with the Tehelka brand a mere stage for his persona. He wrote two novels. In 2007, he organised an art auction in London, with a rich mix of celebrities, the proceeds going toward keeping Tehelka afloat. He cultivated celebrities, industrialists and politicians, many of whom spoke at the Think Festival, an annual event held in Goa where Tejpal is accused of assaulting his reporter.
The decline has saddened journalists like Basharat Peer, who worked for Tehelka in the mid-2000s and remembers it fondly.
“Our reporting budgets may have been narrow, but it was a good magazine where you could do good work,” Peer told The National. “And when something like this happens, you feel bad for the institution that it once used to be.”