Tarun Tejpal Verdict and the Tyranny of Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault

I breathed a sigh of relief a few weeks ago when Priya Ramani was acquitted in the defamation suit filed against her by former Union minister M.J. Akbar where the court upheld the right of every woman to “air her grievances on any platform even decades after the assault”. It also reiterated that the ‘Right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of right of life and dignity for women, as guaranteed in the constitution under Article 21, and right of equality before law and equal protection of law, as guaranteed under Article 14″.

As many women like me celebrated the verdict, the irony of it all wasn’t lost on any. Ramani was not only sexually harassed by Akbar, but he also had the audacity to drag her to court when she finally broke her silence in October 2018 as the #MeToo movement swept India.

The Ramani verdict was no doubt a landmark judgement, but it still fell short of securing and safeguarding the rights of women to speak against their harassers. Nor did the judgement compensate Ramani for the ordeal she had to go through – both because of the sexual harassment and the subsequent defamation suit – neither did it penalise Akbar for acting with complete impunity by using the court of law to suppress a survivor’s voice.

Loose bearings of this judgement came undone last week when a sessions court of Goa acquitted Tarun Tejpal – the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine – of all charges in the 2013 incident where Tejpal ‘allegedly’ sexually assaulted a junior colleague.

The judgement has come as a shock to many since Tejpal had admitted to the act in an apology letter, citing,

“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.”

According to the statement released by Tejpal post the acquittal, the verdict pronounced by additional sessions Judge Kshama Joshi has been based on thorough examination of the CCTV footage and other empirical material on record.

This judgment may serve to further deter survivors of sexual assault and rape to file a complaint as assault mostly occurs in confined secluded places where only the perpetrator and the victim are present. The challenge of producing evidence is compounded in cases where the victim has a pre-existing relationship – platonic or sexual – with the perpetrator. In the end, the judgement comes down to the victim’s testimony versus the perpetrator’s – which is not enough in the court of law as Indian society has shown time and again that it is distrustful of women.

Also read: Network of Women in Media Express Solidarity With Survivor in Tarun Tejpal Case

This is perhaps the reason the survivor of the Tejpal case did not file a complaint with the Goa police, who took suo moto cognizance of the matter, while registering an FIR against Tejpal. The survivor, however, wanted Tehelka magazine to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as mandated under the Vishakha Guidelines, to investigate the incident.

“Given that his apology presents an entirely different version from my testimony, ie. attempts to establish that a ‘sexual liaison’ took place as opposed to him sexually molesting me, I insist once again in the spirit of justice, to constitute an anti-sexual harassment cell in accordance with Vishakha Guidelines.”

It is not just the verdict of the sessions court that has failed the survivor, but the entire process that was followed post the assault has made a public mockery of the wishes of the survivor. The survivor has been let down by everyone – from her seniors at Tehelka to the police and now the courts, an institution she didn’t even want to approach in the first place.

A lot of support for Tejpal has erupted post the verdict that absolves him of any wrongdoing and believes that the case has been a BJP-led controversy to malign the former journalist, who has been a vocal critic of BJP. After all, it was Tehelka that exposed a corrupt defense deal of the BJP led-NDA government at the Centre in 2001 which led to the resignations of then BJP president Bangaru Laxman and defence minister George Fernandes. Tehelka also published several damning reports which connected the party to the 2002 Gujarat riots.

It is possible that the ruling party took this “lapse of judgement” on Tejpal’s part as an opportunity to settle scores with him. We are all too aware of its grim record on women’s rights and issues. The enthusiasm the BJP state leaders of Goa showed to get the survivor justice in the Tarun Tejpal case was largely absent when Akbar, their party member and then a minister of state, was accused of sexual harassment by Ramani and several other women.

However, the case is not about the nature of the relationship between Tejpal and BJP – like it has been made to look like. This case and its verdict are about the justice that is denied not just to the survivor of this case but to every sexual assault survivor – those who don’t speak up because of the lack of due process and those who speak up but are shunned because the weight of their voice is much less than that of a ‘man’s reputation’.

I wonder what justice would look like in this case, or any case of sexual assault or rape. As a survivor of child sexual abuse and sexual assault in my adult life, I hardly believe that putting all men behind bars for rest of their life would end the epidemic of sexual crimes against women. What I do believe is that the road to the end will only begin when we start hearing, listening and believing survivors and their stories.

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.

Featured image: Photo: Reuters