Sexual harassment and sexual assault are crimes no matter when or where they occur and those responsible must be held accountable under the law.
When these crimes happen at the workplace and involve a senior person abusing his authority to put a female worker under pressure, the company concerned also has an institutional legal responsibility to investigate and take action. When that workplace happens to be a magazine, newspaper or television station and the person charged with assault and harassment happens to be the editor, there is surely an additional burden that must be discharged: that of transparency, fair play and an unflinching commitment to ensuring justice for the victim.
By these yardsticks, the manner in which Tehelka has responded to the sexual assault that a young woman journalist has said the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal subjected her to on two separate occasions is simply astonishing.
The procedure mandated by the Supreme Court in its Vishaka guidelines required the magazine to set up an investigative committee consisting of two female staffers as well as an outside representative. But Tehelka's managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, chose not to go down that route. Instead, a mawkish and utterly self-serving letter written by Tejpal admitting only to a "lapse of judgment" caused by his having "misread" a situation was circulated to employees.
In this letter, the editor-in-chief offered to "recuse" himself from his job and workplace for six months as "atonement"; the offer was promptly cited by Chaudhury as evidence that the problem had been settled internally and that no further action was needed.
The fact that Chaudhury and Tehelka could get it so wrong offers an unsettling insight into a question that has troubled many of us ever since the brutal gang rape of a young paramedical student in Delhi last December.
The question is this: Why hasn't the national outrage triggered by that incident led to any change in social attitudes towards women? Why has there been no decrease in the incidence of sexual violence?
The disturbing answer is because the friends, relatives and colleagues of men accused of violence against women are often prepared to make excuses for the perpetrators. Or to find some way to minimize the enormity of the crime. Allowing Tejpal to "atone" for what he has been accused of doing is part of the same process or erasure.
If journalists and editors are going to make light of the serious charges that the Tehelka journalist has leveled, why should we be surprised or outraged by the reactionary attitude of politicians and police officers towards women who are molested or assaulted?
Like the judiciary and political class - two sections that have come under the scanner in the past week because of allegations of sexual harassment and stalking - the media is not above the law.
While Tehelka is legally and morally obliged to implement the demand made by its employee for a proper investigation into her allegations, this is a moment for the rest of the Indian media to shine a light inwards. If we believe we have a right and an obligation to speak out against predatory, discriminatory and sexist attitudes elsewhere, surely we owe it to ourselves to ensure that the environment in our own workplaces respects the constitutional right of women colleagues to work free from sexual harassment of any kind.
Most women in the workforce bear a double burden: as employees and as care-givers in their families. Safe and secure housing is a problem for working women, especially those who are single. Commuting to work can also be a harrowing experience for many working women. An office culture that is nurturing will allow women to rise to their full potential despite their additional responsibilities and burdens. On the other hand, an environment that is intimidating - e.g. one where male colleagues indulge in sexist humour or banter or worse, or where male colleagues, who tend to be in a majority, band together against females - will have the opposite effect.
Patriarchal attitudes are so deeply ingrained that they manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. In large organisations, department heads must keep a keen eye on the office culture and environment and make sure women colleagues are completely at ease at all times. Editors may not be able to control the external environment -- the city, the state, and the country -- but they can and must ensure that the workplace is a space that is truly their own.
Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior journalist and former Editor of The Hindu.
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Published: November 21, 2013 21:39 IST