There’s no getting away from it. Used to, as we are, being on the side of victims, identifying with victims, even being victims, standing too close for comfort to a perpetrator of a crime is deeply unsettling. In the general scheme of things, perpetrators are almost always ‘other people’.
Whether it’s about corruption, domestic violence, thievery, murder, hit-and-runs or breaking the law in any other format, the perpetrator is either a public figure who is easy to flog in the public market square, or a nobody whose anonymity makes our outrage suitably abstract. In both cases, most of us are troubled and aghast without matters getting too close to the bone. Demanding justice and punishment becomes easily affordable.
But what happens when one of us is the perpetrator? What happens if the crime is rape, a crime that we tell our friends and family to be wary of and intolerant against, never thinking it necessary to warn them of committing?
Tarun Tejpal was a friend. My initial response to the news of Tarun sexually assaulting a colleague was sadness. This wasn’t the response I would have had if the perpetrator had been a stranger or even a passing acquaintance. But as details of his actions came to light, my sadness curdled into something more familiar, more honest.
The fact that an editor has been accused of rape makes every (male) journalist uncomfortable. Acts of such a non-consensual nature — or those involving the not-too-subtle form of bullying by using one’s position of power — have been relegated to the social networking site of professional gossip and that hoary hideout called ‘internal matters’. That the woman did not always choose to complain was unerringly read as a sign of partial consensus and that the coast was clear for the ‘incident’ to enter the semi-mythological world of hormonal office powerplay where ‘you’ are never the news but other people are.
To talk about things like this beyond the realm of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-winks’ or matronly headshaking was not only deemed inappropriate but the mark of a self-righteous traitor. Like an old boys’ network or one of those political parties that every self-respecting journalist loves to deliver a fiery sermon on the mount to, journalists, like lawyers, are meant to close rank. Dogs don’t bite dogs, went the canine dictum.
The business of taking the flak off ‘one of your own’ isn’t, of course, confined to journalists. But we journalists do sit at the mouth of a giant funnel that delivers information, news and opinion to the outside world. That’s why people want to be friendly with journalists and editors. Not because we always make delightful company, but because if at some point a lawyer or a politician or a businessman gets himself in trouble (usually by causing trouble to others), his proximity to a journalist can help in ‘controlling the situation’.
Which makes it vital that when a journalist is the perpetrator, other journalists don’t go ‘public relations manager’ on him.
It would be unnatural for a journalist not to think hard whether he is being too sanctimonious before condemning Tarun Tejpal. It would be unnatural for male journos not to put themselves mentally in his shoes and shudder at the thought of what he is being accused of. A ‘What if I had been caught?’ reel certainly played in my head making me think twice about writing this column.
Holding back one’s condemnation can be dressed up as ‘loyalty’ or as staying away from a lynch mob doused in self-righteousness. But to hold one’s tongue — the same tongue that flaps like a sock in a wind-tunnel even when indiscreet, rather than criminal, actions are committed by others — just because the perpetrator is ‘one of us’ is nothing short of giving the licence to selective criminal behaviour.
The fear of relishing schadenfreude — the feeling of enjoying someone else’s suffering — can make fellow journalists wary of condemning Tejpal. But criminal proceedings, and not any Biblical-style self-determined atonement or our feelings towards a very fine journalist, will decide his fate.
For far too long, influence and closeness to power have been allowed to be seen as factors determining whether people in this country can get away with proverbial murder — and, in this case, literal rape. If Tarun’s case is made to be a test case to overturn this feudal system, so be it. It is sad that I now know someone accused of rape. But at least I’m no longer under the illusion that rapists are always ‘other people’.