November 21, 2013

Of Penance and Justice

In the January 2013 edition of Tehelka Weekly, managing editor Shoma Chaudhary severely condemned the absence of "harsh and swift punitive measures to puncture the idea of immunity" built up around the discourse of rape and sexual assault in the country. It was this very publication, which also severely condemned politicians, who made callous remarks following the gangrape in Delhi.

Cut to November 2013, and the discourse of rape has changed.

With the face of the offender suddenly all too familiar, Chaudhary's sentiments have apparently been toned down. An act of sexual harassment is referred to euphemistically as an "untoward incident", which is of course, highly "unfortunate". "Harsh and punitive measures" have assumed the form of allowing the offender in question to take a six month break, only to return guilt-free and scot-free and continue unearthing new "unfortunate incidents".

Hypocrisy much? 

For a publication that has so far been considered synonymous with Indian investigative journalism, it was appalling to see that the "incident" of sexual harassment reported against the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal by a young journalist was conveniently swept under the carpet. All under the guise of it being an "internal matter".

So, considering several incidents of sexual harassment- assuming the form of domestic violence and rape- take place inside the confines of locked spaces, shouldn't all of them be touted as "internal matters" needing no criminal proceedings? Should it be now be considered acceptable for all offenders to merely render apologies to their victims, take a six month break to apparently engage in "penance" and then return to the same setting: guilt-free and scot-free?

Oh, also, would it be okay for the accused to decide if the victim is "satisfied" with an e-mail apology, which is written in fancy and euphemistic language, geared towards creating a martyr out of a sexual offender?

What makes this "unfortunate incident" any different from several other cases reported so far?

The offender was drunk.

The offender forced himself on the victim.

The offender exercised control, sent out text messages, threatening the victim.

  So, what makes Mr Tejpal any different from many others, who have had to undergo criminal proceedings and be charged for their crimes?

Answer: Media-created safety net, a supportive managing editor (who duly sent out an email to the organisation staff, almost sympathizing with the offender) besides the gall to return to his chair of editor-in-chief after a six-month sabbatical to guide hundreds of budding journalists. With no proof of his criminal record, of course.

____

Amidst the hordes of tweets and other posts on social media, another disturbing aspect that came to the fore was the brazen voyeurism of the masses. The Twitterati also christened themselves as the messiahs for justice.

Bits and pieces from the confidential e-mail sent out by the victim made its way to social media websites. Within minutes, intimate details about the grave nature of the “unfortunate incident” were analysed, re-analysed, tweeted and re-tweeted.

The words “penetration” and “disrobing” invited the wrath of several tweeple. Conversations on the World Wide Web were spent on finding aspects to identify the ‘victim’ without naming her. Thus, with every minute passing by and every new notification, the seriousness of the offence was duly replaced with the need for more intimate details.

Under the guise of disseminating “justice” and backing the ‘victim’, there were aspersions cast against Tejpal’s twenty-something daughter. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and according to news reports, was compelled to delete her Twitter account.

___

In this cacophony, I fear that this “unfortunate incident” i.e. an act of ‘sexual harassment’ will be eclipsed by hypocrisy, voyeurism and the unending need to dispense justice in 140 characters.

 

About: Reetika Subramanian

Reetika Subramanian is currently pursuing her masters in Media and Cultural Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Before taking a leap to the field of academics, she worked as a staff reporter with Hindustan Times, Mumbai for more than two years, covering issues pertaining to local governance, telecom, culture and communities.

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