Please select your preferences to subscribe.

Prominent Indian journalist is acquitted of rape charges

  • >> Sameer Yasir, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-22 13:43:31 BdST

bdnews24
Tarun Tejpal, former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine. Photo taken via The Indian Express

A court in India on Friday acquitted a prominent journalist of charges that he raped a junior colleague, bringing an end to a politically charged case that had been closely watched as a test of a new sexual assault law.

The journalist, Tarun Tejpal, was accused of sexually assaulting a staff reporter for Tehelka, a well-known investigative magazine that he edited, in 2013.

Tejpal, 58, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, initially apologised to the reporter but later said the encounter had been consensual.

“The truth will come out,” he told an Indian news channel in 2019.

In a statement Friday, Tejpal thanked the judge in the court in the coastal state of Goa and repeated his assertion that he had been targeted for prosecution as part of a political vendetta against him.

“In an awfully vitiated age, where ordinary courage has become rare, I thank her for standing by the truth,” the statement said.

The trial was seen as a test of a tougher law against sexual assault passed in 2013, a year after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a private bus. The woman later died of her injuries. The new law included a broader definition of rape and stiffer sentences.

The acquittal is likely to be seen by women’s rights activists as a blow to the country’s #MeToo movement. The movement has been slow to take hold in India, where public discussions of sex are frowned upon and traditional ideas of gender roles predominate in homes and workplaces.

Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist, said the court’s decision exemplifies why women in India often do not report sexual assaults.

“This is a big setback, not just for #MeToo but for other women’s movements too,” she said. “It is part of a series of other judgments in recent months, which have sent a message to women that if you complain against a powerful man then you will be the one who will face the punishment. The trial will turn your life into hell, and you will not get any justice out of it. This case underlines that.”

Still, some women have gone public about sexual harassment and assault, and some have won victories in court. In February, a journalist successfully fought off a defamation suit brought by a former public official whom she had accused of sexually harassing her.

Tejpal was one of India’s best-known editors when he was arrested and charged. Tehelka, the liberal-minded magazine he led, is known for crusading public-interest journalism and has broken major stories over the years. Two decades ago, Tehelka reporters posed as arms dealers and caught Indian army officers and members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — then, as now, India’s governing party — accepting bribes.

But the sexual assault accusation, which emerged in late 2013, derailed Tejpal’s career. The Tehelka reporter said he had assaulted her in an elevator at a five-star hotel in Panjim, the capital of Goa, during ThinkFest, a conference organised by Tehelka that was attended by celebrities and other newsmakers.

“It is not the victim that categorises crimes, it is the law. And in this case, the law is clear: what Mr Tejpal did to me falls within the legal definition of rape,” the woman, whose identity cannot be revealed under Indian law, said in a statement after the accusation became public.

Tejpal initially expressed remorse about the incident, saying it had resulted from “an awful misreading of the situation.” But after the charges were filed, he said that he was the victim of a right-wing “political vendetta” and that security camera footage taken outside the elevator supported his version of events.

Tejpal, who resigned as editor of Tehelka, spent six months in jail before India’s top court released him on bail in 2014.

Since then, as the case made its way through India’s justice system at a typically glacial pace, Tejpal has largely disappeared from public life. A recent streaming series on Amazon based on a novel he wrote did not include his name in the credits.

© 2021 The New York Times Company