The legal and moral ambiguities of the Tarun Tejpal case

After a protracted seven and a half year trial, a Goa court acquitted Tarun Tejpal, former editor of Tehelka, of rape charges made by a colleague. However, the case is far from over as the Goa government has decided to appeal against the verdict, writes PARSA VENKATESHWAR RAO Jr.


THE acquittal of Tarun Tejpal, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Tehelka, by Mapusa District and Sessions Court judge Kshama Joshi in Goa on May 21 does not mark the end of a controversial case. It is so because it is not so much of a contest between Tejpal and the Goa prosecution, as it is between Tejpal the editor, and the young woman who was his colleague and who brought the charges against him and the troublesome relationship they had with each other.

The charges framed by the prosecution against Tejpal are under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 342 (wrongful confinement), 354 (assault or criminal force with intent to outrage modesty), 354A (sexual harassment), 354B (assault or use of criminal force woman with intent to disrobe), 376 (2) (f) (person in position of authority over women, committing rape) and 376 (2) (k) (rape by a person in a position of control).

Tejpal issued a statement praising the judge for honourably acquitting him and for standing by truth “in an awfully vitiated age.”

After the acquittal, Tejpal asserted that he was “falsely accused of sexual assault by a colleague”.

The case became a social scandal because Tejpal had established himself as a fearless editor who pursued cases of corruption in high places through sting operations which had far-reaching repercussions on various governments and top politicians. 

Besides, he was a prolific writer who wrote novels that won him literary acclaim. He headed an organisation that was involved in conducting a well-known literary festival in Goa which attracted celebrities from different walks of life.

So, when a young woman journalist who worked with him came out into the open charging him of molestation, it became a veritable scandal apart from a criminal case.

Those who stood up for the young woman journalist felt that this was a case where a man in a position of power was misusing his position to take advantage of young women working for him. The fact that the young woman was also a daughter of a well-known and reputed former colleague of Tejpal added to the moral outrage.

The trial took a long time – seven years and more – as it ordinarily does in India’s legal battles.

Tejpal had gone up to the Supreme Court to get the charges quashed, but the apex court did not agree.

The trial began in early May and resumed in late 2019.

The police had filed a 12-volume, nearly 3,000-page charge sheet, and set up a list of 152 witnesses, of whom 72 were brought to the witness box. It was then a bitterly and closely fought battle.

The case became complicated because as it happens in criminal cases, the state prosecutes the case. As the Goa government happened to be led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was seen as a tussle between the BJP and Tejpal. The BJP politicians were quick to deny it. 

Tejpal was seen as a target of the BJP because as editor-in-chief of Tehelka, first as a website and then as a magazine, he had pursued stories involving corruption by those in BJP governments during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee period and then the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi. In one of its iconic issues, it carried an investigation by Ashish Khetan on those who were behind the 2002 Gujarat riots.  Many of them were sent to jail as they had boasted of how they engineered the riots and managed them.  Those opposed to the Hindutva politics of the BJP felt that Tejpal was being harried because of his secular credentials.

Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s statement on Friday after the acquittal judgment that Tejpal cannot be allowed to go scot-free and that there will be an appeal against the acquittal, and also, the confession that he had himself gone through the case file, makes it more than a regular criminal case.

The fallout is that the young woman who had initially filed the First Information Report (FIR) against Tejpal in November 2013 was marginalised and it became a fight between the state and Tejpal. 

The BJP dimension of the Tejpal case makes the young woman be a pawn in the hands of the prosecution, and indirectly of the BJP, to defame and punish Tejpal.

The prosecution, of course, could not have disclosed its political intent. It had to prove that it was fighting the case on behalf of the allegedly wronged young woman. And in most criminal cases, the prosecution does stand up for the alleged victim because the state, in principle, must defend the rights of an individual against those who violate those rights.

As we do not have access to the details of the judgment, it can only be inferred that the judge did not entertain the political conspiracy angle and that the young woman was not seen as a pawn in the conspiracy case, and that the issue was decided on a purely legal basis.

There are two ways of deciding a sexual assault/harassment case. The first is to take a moral stance and hold the accused culpable, and if there is the least evidence of intent to commit the crime, then he should be convicted appropriately and proportionately to make an example of him.

But this would have raised legal eyebrows.

Many legal experts feel that in many cases of sexual assault, the moral sentiment weighs in and the legal dimensions are not given sufficient credence.  

This was the view of many legal experts in the case of the men, including the juvenile, who gang-raped and severely injured a young girl in a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012.  She later died though she got the best medical attention both in Delhi and Singapore. This did not mean that the lawyers had any sympathy for the criminals, but there was a strong opinion that it should have followed the rigorously legal path.

It would seem Judge Joshi followed the legal path and looked for evidence beyond reasonable doubt to decide the case. And it is this stance of the judge that would leave many dissatisfied, and even angry. But there are no easy solutions to the dilemma.

It would be unfair and unjust to believe that the young woman brought in a false charge unless it is proved to be so. And if she had indeed brought a false charge then structures may have to be passed against her.

It is quite clear that this is not a water-tight black-and-white case. There must be many unresolved points of evidence, and that the judge had no option but to go by the criterion of throwing out a charge when then there is no clear evidence to support it. It is only through a close reading of the judgment that we will know on what basis the judge has arrived at her conclusions.

This is a painful moment for both Tejpal and his accuser, though each side is sure to feel that the other person is completely in the wrong and deserved nothing less than exemplary punishment.

(Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr. is a senior Delhi-based journalist and author of several books. The views expressed are personal.)

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