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Investigative editor of India’s Tehelka under fire for rape scandal

Indian journalists lambast Tarun Tejpal for not resigning and his deputy for not calling police as soon as she heard about the incident.

Activists of Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) burn a photograph of Tarun Tejpal, founder and editor of Tehelka magazine, outside the magazine's office in New Delhi on November 22, 2013. The editor of India's leading investigative news magazine was accused of trivialising a serious sex crime after he announced he would take six months' leave as
Activists of Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) burn a photograph of Tarun Tejpal, founder and editor of Tehelka magazine, outside the magazine's office in New Delhi on November 22, 2013. The editor of India's leading investigative news magazine was accused of trivialising a serious sex crime after he announced he would take six months' leave as "penance" for assaulting a female colleague. AFP PHOTO/MANAN VATSYAYANA

NEW DELHI // The editor of Tehelka, an Indian magazine known for its crusading investigations into corruption, was questioned by police yesterday over allegations he raped one of his young reporters.

Police from the state of Goa, where the incident is believed to have happened two weeks ago, filed charges against Tarun Tejpal on Friday and questioned him in New Delhi yesterday.

The incident blew into public view on Wednesday evening, when Tejpal, in an email forward to his staff, offered to “recuse” himself for six months from the editorship of Tehelka, a magazine he had started in 2003.

The journalist whom Tejpal allegedly raped had already complained to Shoma Chaudhury, Tejpal’s deputy. In an email sent soon after the alleged incident, she detailed how Tejpal had forced himself upon her on two occasions in a hotel lift in Goa, where Tehelka was hosting a festival of eminent speakers.

Under Indian law, the victim in a rape case cannot be named in media reports.

“A bad lapse of judgement, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal wrote to Chaudhury on Wednesday, in offering to step aside from the editorship for six months. “I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further.”

But Tejpal’s and Chaudhury’s reactions to these charges have drawn heated criticism, especially given how Tehelka’s own coverage of women’s safety has repeatedly emphasised the importance of thorough investigations into rape charges.

On Twitter and Facebook, journalists in other media outlets lambasted Tejpal for not resigning and Chaudhury for not calling police as soon as she heard about the incident more than a week ago.

Shivam Vij, a journalist who worked for Tehelka in 2006-07, said that neither the incident nor the magazine’s response surprised him.

“It was always a very sexually charged place to work,” Vij told The National yesterday. “One heard from other employees that they were sexually harassed. Tehelka was never fair to its employees. They don’t even have an HR department.”

There was always talk “about which editor was sleeping with whom, and how that would determine your career”, Vij said.

Calling Tejpal’s response to the complaint “simply astonishing”, Siddharth Varadarajan, the former editor of The Hindu newspaper, wrote in an op-ed on New Delhi Television’s website that the friends and colleagues of men accused of rape “often find some way to minimise the enormity of the crime”.

“Allowing Tejpal to atone for what he has been accused of doing is part of the same process or erasure,” Mr Varadarajan wrote.

Tejpal said that he had tried to “do what was honourably demanded of me”, referring to his offer to step down as editor. But he also hinted that his version of the incident was different, urging the police to examine footage from the hotel’s cameras “so that the accurate version of events stands clearly revealed”.

Yesterday, however, OP Mishra, the Goa police chief, said the hotel had no cameras in the elevators.

On Friday, Tejpal told the Indian Express newspaper that he was being framed, and that the journalist’s insistence that the sexual liaison was non-consensual was “totally mendacious”.

But in an email Tejpal sent to the journalist on Tuesday, which was leaked yesterday, he said that he had “violated [a] long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us”.

“I have often spoken for the absolute rights and freedoms of women, and it shames me beyond words, to find myself located in this awful context,” Tejpal said. He also acknowledged the journalist’s “clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.”

Chaudhury, who has appeared several times on television to defend Tehelka’s processing of the reporter’s complaint, has appeared defensive, seeking to explain why she did not initiate an internal investigation or report the case to police.

On Thursday, in response to a question from a reporter covering the incident, Ms Chaudhury said: “I don’t know how this concerns you. I don’t think you can ask me these questions.”

In an interview to New Delhi Television on Friday, Chaudhury said she had demanded an unconditional apology from Tejpal. “I still believe it was not my place to go to the police.”

Following the uproar in the media, Tehelka has set up an internal committee to investigate the rape complaint. The committee will be headed by Urvashi Butalia, a noted women’s rights activist in New Delhi.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae