It's a crime, stupid

Emails and penance isn't due process. 'Tehelka' editor is accused of breaking the law, he needs to face it.

The fallout from a charge of sexual assault against a prominent journalist by a junior colleague sizzles with innuendo and unfortunate infringements of the victim's privacy, calls for vigilante justice and suo motu inquiry. Tarun Tejpal, founder and editor of Tehelka magazine, acknowledged in an email to his next in command what he evasively termed a "lapse of judgement", and "recused" himself as editor in a self-determined "penance that lacerates". End of story, presumably, with the stand-in editor, Shoma Chaudhury, fending off questions by this newspaper, saying the "incident" was an internal matter for the organisation. It is not. In fact, with the bosses at the magazine refusing to even agree that the "incident" is one of alleged sexual assault, this case, with the wide coverage it has received, brings to centrestage the difficulty of having harassment charges acknowledged as such, and of setting in motion procedures of inquiry flowing from the Vishakha judgment, as the victim has sought. The specifics of the case, just months after India finally got a law to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, must also counsel a wider recognition that vigilante action and lynch-mob mobilisation do not help victims. Processes for redress available under the law do.

Until this year, there was no specific law to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, only the Supreme Court directions emanating from the Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan judgment. Sixteen years later, with renewed focus on the bodily integrity and individual rights of women after the Delhi gangrape, Parliament passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. The law aims to deepen a woman's fundamental right to equality under the Constitution by addressing latent and overt discrimination against her, and outright sexual harassment. It supplements the options available to a victim in pursuing a criminal case against the offender. It is also crucial to recognise the power structures that can scare a victim into keeping quiet or agreeing to piecemeal redress that keeps the crime under wraps. That the journalist at Tehelka has bravely struggled to enforce a legally settled process underlines this.

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