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Tehelka case is highly unacceptable, unconscionable

Instead of just reporting and commenting on it, the media would do themselves a huge favour by turning the gaze inwards and make the work atmosphere safe for their women employees.

columns Updated: Nov 24, 2013 01:23 IST

The other day I was at a lunch party in Delhi, one of those typical gatherings where guests over tikkas and drinks pontificate endlessly on the state of the nation. I expected this one to be no different, but surprisingly, it was. Instead of politics, the guests were discussing something else: a law intern’s sexual harassment allegation against a retired Supreme Court judge. The conversation was warming up, when one of the guests remarked: “....the December 16 effect”.

He did not elaborate on it, but I think this is what he meant: the furore over the December 16 rape case and the support the young woman got from everyone have given many other victims of sexual harassment the confidence to speak out against abusive men. I am not sure whether it would be right to see this encouraging development simply as a ‘cause-effect’ equation, but yes, women are finally speaking out against such wrongdoing.

But unfortunately, what seems to have not changed, and the Tehelka episode proves it again, is the male attitude. For the media, this is a classic test since it involves one of their own and the magazine’s founder-editor and the accused, Tarun Tejpal, has been a strong voice for years against grave transgressions.

So Tejpal and his deputy, Shoma Chaudhury, who has been equally vocal on gender issues, should have not tried to keep the allegations of the young journalist within the four walls of their office but the latter should have informed the police even though the victim initially had asked for an “institutional response”. By not doing so, she has harmed Tejpal’s case.

I checked the Vishaka Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Workplace and it says: ‘Where such conduct [sexual misconduct] amounts to specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority’. Also, the defence that it is not ‘rape’ does not hold water because the amended criminal procedure Act has expanded the definition of what constitutes rape and Tejpal’s alleged acts fall in that category.

It goes without saying that journalists have to be diligently proactive when it comes to handling such cases because of the responsibilities we shoulder. If we don’t do this, then we lose our right to question and judge others not only in sexual harassment cases but also when it comes to cases of corruption, human rights abuse, etc. The Goa Police have filed an FIR against Tejpal and a team is in Delhi to interrogate him. They have also not ruled out action against Chaudhury for not cooperating, and I must say that I found her stand disquieting.

So be assured that there will be more allegations and counter-allegations, multiple versions of the incident in the coming weeks. While the media must not shy away from following the case and its different contours, I think we also need to pause a bit and see what we can learn from this episode.

First, sexual assault, rape and harassment of women in the workplace often go unreported because of the unequal balance of power against the victim and it’s time we accepted this truth.

Second, many companies, sadly, several in the media, lack the adequate mechanism to address such issues. Ironically even Tehelka, which has stood for the rights of women, did not have the Vishaka guidelines’ stipulated committee and has one now only post facto. Such panels in offices will not only give women employees the courage to speak up against mental and physical abuses but would also make male employees aware of the limits of acceptable behaviour.

For example, walk across any newsroom and you will often find male employees indulging in casual banter peppered with obscene phrases, even in front of their female colleagues. Now let’s see how the Vishaka guidelines define sexual harassment: ‘unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) such as: physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, a demand or request for sexual favours and any unwelcome physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct of sexual nature’. So you get the drift.

In fact, the definition of workplace now covers places beyond the office premises. After the passage of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in April, a ‘workplace’ now includes public and private places that an employee could visit on work.

Third, all workplaces need to follow these guidelines, including the provisions of the new criminal procedure Act even though it is yet to be notified. In fact, organisations in the media like Tehelka and HT, which act as watchdogs of society, reporting, commenting and shaping opinion about women’s issues, should take the lead in having such mechanisms and ensure an approachable, fair and just forum for women employees to address their complaints.

The Tehelka case is a ‘high-profile’ case and will run its due course. But instead of just reporting and commenting on it, the media would do themselves a huge favour by turning the gaze inwards and make the work atmosphere safe for their women employees.