INDIA: India Assault Inquiry Marks Shift in Attitudes to Women's Rights

Monday, November 25, 2013
The Wall Street Journal
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Indian police Sunday questioned witnesses in a sexual assault inquiry involving one of the country's most prominent journalists, marking a significant shift under way here in long-held attitudes about women's rights.

Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka, an influential investigative-journalism magazine, was accused by a young female reporter on the publication's staff of molesting her when the two were at a conference in the beach resort city of Goa.

On Friday, Mr. Tejpal told The Wall Street Journal he would cooperate with authorities and present "all the facts." The day before, a Tehelka manager told magazine staff Mr. Tejpal was stepping down temporarily because of an "untoward incident." Mr. Tejpal confirmed in an email to the Journal that he was stepping down for six months.

The investigation—the latest in which abuse allegations have been leveled recently against a powerful man—comes nearly a year after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi set off a national debate about violence against women.

Since then, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women reporting sexual harassment and related crimes. In Delhi, 2,695 such cases were registered between January and September, compared with 490 in the whole of 2012. Rapes reports also jumped, to 1,271 from 539 in 2012.

"The hue and cry after December 16 lit a match and has now caught a fire. Woman after woman is speaking up against violence," said Ruchira Gupta, head of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a women's rights advocacy group. "People at positions of power, too, are no longer invincible."

Political parties have, for the first time, made women's safety an important focus of their electoral strategies ahead of state polls in Delhi and elsewhere in December and a national vote due by May.

In campaign ads, India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party promises "safety and security to every daughter."

Still, activists say, many women remain reluctant to report crimes against them, because they fear being stigmatized and doubt that the authorities will investigate their complaints and take action. Rapes, especially, are widely underreported, women's rights groups say.

In October, a former government minister in the state of Rajasthan was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation for alleged rape and remains in police custody, according to a spokeswoman for the federal agency.

Earlier this month, a lawyer went public with abuse allegations against a now-retired Indian Supreme Court judge, saying he assaulted her in December. The court has started an official investigation of the allegations but has yet to make any public pronouncements. The judge hasn't been identified publicly.

The lawyer, Stella James, 22, said she didn't say anything at first because she didn't "think Indian law, or our legal system for that matter, is equipped to sensitively deal with crimes against women." Ms. James also said she feared having to "relive every violating moment in court."

Ms. James said that since the December gang rape, many Indian women, including herself, had been "questioning why they should put up with harassment on the streets, in their homes and at their workplaces." She finally decided that she had to come forward and she described the alleged abuse on a legal blog.

In the Tehelka case, the younger journalist, also a woman in her 20s, detailed her allegations against Mr. Tejpal in an email to the magazine's managing editor, saying that she feared she would be fired "once this story got out." She added: "I hope you will understand how traumatic and terrifying it has been for me to report this to you."

A copy of the email was reviewed by the Journal. The woman, who initially asked Tehelka to set up a committee to investigate the matter as required under a new sexual-harassment law enacted in April, said in a statement Saturday that she would cooperate with the police investigation.

Mr. Tejpal didn't answer calls or text messages to his mobile phone on Sunday.

In an email Wednesday to Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka's managing editor, Mr. Tejpal wrote that he would leave work for six months because of "a bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation" that had led to "an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for."

The Journal reviewed a copy of the email, which a member of Tehelka's staff said had been appended to an email Ms. Chaudhury sent to employees at the publication. "I feel atonement cannot be just words," Mr. Tejpal wrote in the email. "I must do the penance that lacerates me."

In his email to the Journal on Friday, he said had "tried to do what was honorably demanded of me." He also said: "Unfortunately as sometimes happens in life, the complete truth and the need to do the honorable thing can come into conflict." He didn't elaborate.

Goa police have pushed ahead with their investigation. Police officials said they have obtained closed-circuit television footage where the alleged assault took place, searched Tehelka's offices and taken potential evidence and interviewed witnesses.

Y.S. Rathor, a counselor at New Delhi-based Action For Women and Child Development, a nonprofit which counsels sexual assault survivors, said the debate about the status of women and violence against them was making women increasingly aware of their rights.

"They no longer want to be silent victims. They're coming out in droves and reporting the violence they face," said Mr. Rathor.