Lessons from the Tarun Tejpal judgment

A helpful guide to navigating the legal system’s chat show

Hello ji,

Once upon a time, I was assaulted. And while I don’t feel like writing about what happened, I do want to write about how it ended.

After the dust settled, I found myself at the police thana. My assaulter was in police custody, and I was writing out a detailed account of the events that had transpired. The cop on duty was watching me in fear and silence on account of all the fire I was breathing.

And I was breathing fire. I could hear my blood pounding in my ears. Memories of the Nirbhaya case were still fresh, and I could not believe men continued to get away with treating women’s bodies like objects at their disposal.

I wanted to use all the privilege that I had to direct all the anger I felt towards all the injustices women had to make peace with – and aim it all on this one man. A man who, in that moment, represented to me everything that was wrong with man-kind.

I wanted one thing – justice.

And so I wrote my complaint, in silence and fury.

This was in February 2014 – just a few months after another woman had written a similar account of her assault.

Tarun Tejpal, the then Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka.com allegedly assaulted one of the Tehelka journalists on the 7th and 8th November 2013, in an elevator of Hotel Grand Hyatt in Goa, where an event was being hosted by Tehelka.

Once the event was over, the woman sent an email to the Managing Director of Tehelka.com, Shoma Choudhary, demanding an inquiry and – at the very least – a public apology from Tejpal.

Over the next few days, many more emails were sent by all parties, and many of them were leaked to the media. To my mind, the most crucial bit across all these emails was this excerpt from an email Tejpal sent to the woman, titled “Atonement”:

“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.”

The case seemed to have been over before it began.

Attempt to sexually ‘liase’ + clear reluctance (i.e. lack of consent) = Rape.

She had accused him of committing a crime, and he had confessed to it. It really seemed that simple to me.

Womaning in a Court of Law

Enter, the Goa police which filed an FIR after the widespread publicity the emails got. The woman co-operated with their investigation. Tejpal and Choudhary, however, changed their version of events and decided to atone for their atonement by denying all allegations.

The matter, ultimately, became a “he said – she said”.

She said what she had always said – that Tejpal sexually assaulted her twice.

He said a wide variety of things – (a) an apology for misreading the situation, (b) an apology for the encounter, (c) a denial that there was any encounter at all, (d) a statement that he was not even in the elevator at the time of the assault, (e) a statement that she flirted with him unilaterally, (f) a statement that it was mutual ‘sexual banter’.

A veritable buffet of versions for our choosing.

Koffee with Kourt

Now, I am not going to say who is right here (even though it is clear who is consistent). But last week, a Goa sessions court acquitted Tejpal on all charges, and it is this Court’s judgment that I want to go over.

The judgment is a 526-page monolith that ate into the better part of my week, and gave me three powerful headaches. I do not wish to inflict headaches on all my readers, so it is only fitting that I explain it to you through the metaphor of Koffee with Karan.

This should be fun.

If you go back and read all the leaked emails from 2013, you will see that the accuser (the court called her PW1 for prosecution witness no 1. I am going to call her RS for rape survivor) uses short clear sentences in her emails.

“He pulled me into the lift.”

“He lifted my dress up.”

“He would not listen.”

“I was confused, hurt and really, really scared.”

Tejpal and Choudhary’s emails, on the other hand, use superlong convoluted sentences full of words like ‘lacerate’, ‘mendacious‘, and ‘recuse‘. The language seems designed to make you go get a dictionary from the other room, and fall asleep on your way there.

Anyway, I only mention the emails because you need to read them to understand what actually happened in the Hotel on 7th and 8th Nov 2013 according to all parties.

Because the Court judgment itself – in all its 526-page glory – barely dwells on the events of that time and place. Why bother with trifle issues like whether the rape actually happened, when we have so many entertaining WhatsApp chats to read?

So, if you ever happen to be a woman who goes to the Indian judicial system seeking justice, here is a helpful list of things you can expect from a Judge who will preside over your case like an episode of a gossip-fueled chatshow.

1. Expect your name to be made public.

One of the biggest tenets of Rape Law in India is that the identity of the rape survivor must be kept secret. And sure enough, not once does the judgment mention the name of the RS.

However, if I tell you that you can email the accused at tar.tejpal@abc.com, and that his friends call him Taru, and that this judgment is saved on my laptop as “Tarun travesty of justice.pdf” – what would you say is the Accused’s approximate name?

Through such innocent slips of keyboard, RS’s real name makes more appearances in the judgment than Tejpal’s does.

Sorry – ‘Mr Tejpal’, as he is always referred to in the judgment.

The Solicitor General of India has called this revealing of RS’s identity a criminal offence – one that was not committed against RS by a man drunk on power in the dark elevator of a Hotel past midnight, but by a venerable Judge presiding over her case in one of India’s Courts of Law.

2. Expect some good old-fashioned slut-shaming.

Pretty much every man that the RS had ever been in the vicinity of in her life was, according to the judgment, her lover. (Except the Hon’ble Mr. Tejpal, of course.)

If the judgment is to be believed, she had sexual relationships with a Russian man, a famous rockstar, a Hollywood actor, and pretty much every man who ever worked at Tehelka.

Every man who stood in her favour was alleged to have slept with her and, therefore, counted as an unreliable witness by the court.

Every man who spoke against her essentially said ‘she slept with me, so must have slept with Tejpal too’. And these men were considered sterling witnesses of the case by the court.

Let us believe for a second that RS was, indeed, the most sexually active girl this great nation of ours has ever produced.

Here a boyfriend. There a boyfriend. Everywhere a boyfriend boyfriend.

Even if this is true, how is it relevant to the question ‘Did Tejpal rape her that night’?

One of the many beautiful riddles the judgment thoughtfully leaves for us to solve.

3. Expect to feel like you should have taken notes.

Even though a previous judgment has disallowed making a rape victim relive the incident through constant cross-examination, RS is made to recount the events of the two nights about 50 times on the sets of Koffee with Kourt.

Time after time, she sticks to the same version of events that she first put out in her 2013 email. And yet, here is a taste of what the Court chooses to focus on:

Was the lift moving or stationary? Was it on the ground floor or the second floor? What button did Tejpal press on the lift panel? Was it one button or many buttons? Did he press it with his left or right hand? Did he use his left or right hand to lift your skirt? Was your chin raised or lowered at the time? Did he push you to the left or right side of the elevator? Did you beg him to stop at a low, medium, or high volume?

Another previous judgment has said that “minor contradictions and insignificant discrepancies should not be considered decisive”, given that a rape victim has been through a traumatic experience and might not have had the chance to, you know, take notes through it.

However, nothing escaped our court’s eye for detail. The court, for example, questioned why, in one statement she said she ‘picked up’ her underwear after the assault, and in another, she said she ‘pulled up’ her underwear.

Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the high standards of diligent documentation that we expect from women while they are being raped.

4. Expect everyone to be on trial. Except the accused.

If you skip the first page that mentions the accused, I would not blame you for thinking that it is RS, her friends, and her family who are on trial in this case. Pretty much everyone who testified for RS’s version of events is character-assassinated to be proven as an unreliable witness.

Her mother and her fiance apparently are too close to RS for their testimonies to count. (Meanwhile, Tejpal’s sister’s testimony is gleefully taken on record and cited several times in the judgment.)

Also, why did the mother not immediately fly to Goa to be with her freshly assaulted daughter? This must be proof that nothing happened in Goa worth flying-in for.

But even after all these gymnastics, three male colleagues who RS confided in after the night of the first incident are still standing by her version of events since 2013.

Which means it is time for…

Rapid Fire Round 2.

What was the size of their room where this conversation happened? Who opened the door? Who was standing in front and who was standing behind? How far was the balcony from the door? Was she crying? Did they comfort her? To comfort her, did one of them touch her left hand or right hand?

Moral of the story: Next time a friend comes to you distraught, and in tears, please drop everything and immediately take detailed measurements of the room.

5. Expect a thorough invasion of your privacy.

Expect all your private WhatsApp messages to be mined for juicy details and put on the record of a court of law, even if they have nothing to do with the case.

Expect every dirty joke you ever cracked with friends to be taken literally and seriously in the court.

And expect the court to spend a good amount of time and taxpayer money exploring what exactly ‘thirst tweets’ are.

6. Expect your education and intelligence to be used as evidence against you.

RS happens to have been a journalist who reported precisely on cases like her own – the systemic mishandling of cases of violence against women. This means that she has a decent knowledge of rape laws in the country, and knows people who run NGOs for rape survivors. She is also a journalist’s daughter and is, therefore, connected to some high-profile media persons.

These are actually the first facts established in the judgment and they go on for 10 pages.

“Not bad”, I thought, “they are building her credibility as a reliable witness.”

Galat jawaab. (Wrong answer.)

The conclusion the court has used the above to draw is:

“With the help of experts, there may be a possibility of doctoring of events or adding of incidents.”

So the fact that she sought guidance from rape-law experts she knew before taking legal action in her own rape is… proof that she was not raped?

Shahrukh Khan reaction gifs, season 2

No such scrutiny is done, of course, around the swarm of lawyers buzzing about Temple Tejpal, drafting of all the (mutually contradicting) versions of his statements.

Which segues nicely into Rapid Fire Round 3.

Did she do this because Rannvijay Singh told her she could get Rs 100 crore in compensation from Tehelka? Or because Yuvraj Singh wanted her as a yoga instructor? Or because she called Sreenivasan Jain by his nickname Vasu? Am I just spouting famous men’s name at random now to distract from the rape again and insinuate that she slept with all of these men? You bet I am.

So, is she a scheming conniving genius with intricate knowledge of the laws of the land, and how to manipulate them? Or a loose woman who has slept with so many men she has lost track of who raped her and who didn’t?

Like I said, the buffet is laid out. Take your pick.

7. Expect the police to find a way to mess up your case for you.

If it wasn’t enough that the Koffee hamper rounds seemed rigged against RS, matters were not helped by the unbelievable lapses by Goa Police.

  • A crucial CCTV camera footage was lost.
  • Two witnesses who conveniently came forward three months after the FIR with their ‘truth’ were ignored by the Police, which gave some nice fodder to the accused.
  • The investigating officer forgot to ask about the emergency stop button in the lift that Tejpal could have used to keep the lift doors closed for the duration of the assault.

Naturally, the Court used all of the above to make Tejpal’s case stronger, citing them as conspiracies against him.

One might even say they were conspiracies against RS because they ultimately weakened her case, not his.

However, if there is one thing I have learned from a decade of working with the government, it is that one must never blame on malice what can be explained with incompetence.

My guess is that the Goa Police are just that bad at their jobs – much like most of India’s police force which is still governed by an Act passed in 1861.

And this is another thing every woman who files a sexual assault case can safely assume – that after the slut-shaming routine is done, the police will helpfully step up to destroy whatever little is left of her case.

8. Expect some questionable victim blaming.

“She had consumed alcohol on the night of 7.11.2013.” (So had he, but let’s conveniently not talk about that.)

“Acts of intercourse with persons other than the accused indicates a… likelihood of the woman having consented to the particular fact.” (Translation: If you are not a virgin, you cannot be raped.)

“It was entirely the norm for the prosecutrix to have sexual conversations with her friends.”

“If she had held her jaw firmly closed, how would it be possible for the accused to put his tongue into her mouth?”

“It is not possible to believe that a woman who is… physically fit (yoga trainer) could not push or ward off the accused.”

In summary.

10. Expect to be told you didn’t behave ‘like a rape victim’

As you exit our Koffee studio, don’t forget to collect your signed copy of ‘How to behave like a rape victim’. Some highlights from this essential survival guide:

  • Do not wear hugging dresses. Or flowing dresses.
  • Do not drink alcohol.
  • Do not smile for a photograph.
  • Get your mother on a flight, pronto.
  • Do not call people to seek guidance on what to do.
  • If you do call friends and family for support, make sure you give each and every one of them every graphic detail of your assault, or we won’t know if you are lying to us or them.
  • If you say you felt trauma and anguish, expect the court to ask why they can’t see your inner feelings on a grainy CCTV footage.
  • If you say you felt suicidal and depressed and got therapy, expect the court to try to reduce your credibility as a witness by asking if you are on any medications that made you, like, craycray.
  • Expect your boss – the lady who should have initiated an inquiry as soon as she got your complaint – to say “He is an attractive man” and “He mistook your reluctance as a part of play”.
  • Expect your phone recordings of the above conversation to not be considered valid evidence because how can a court violate your lady-boss’s privacy like that.
  • Meanwhile, expect the court to ask you for your email password so we can all entertain ourselves a bit more with some juicy thirst emails.

10. Most importantly, do not expect justice.

As I sat there in 2014, writing down my complaint, something inside me cracked, and I broke down crying. The cop at the thana – who had been coering in silence so far – saw a chink in my armour and said:

“You are my daughter’s age. I am saying this like a father – Trust me, you don’t want to do this. Don’t file this complaint. It will only bring you more grief and pain.”

I bit back a comment about how I didn’t need a father – I already had one, thank you – and could he please just be a cop and do his job instead?

But then, I thought of my actual father – driving me to court dates, watching his daughter stand up in court and relive this terrible day, over and over again. For years, maybe decades.

I wiped my tears, and tore up my complaint.

Over the past week, as I waded through the 526-pages long character assassination of RS, I thought of that cop a lot.

Reading page after page of a survivor’s dignity being torn to shreds over and over again – while the accused was treated like a man above suspicion – made me want to go back in time and find that cop.

I wanted to thank him for seeing then what I saw this week – a woman should not expect justice in this great nation of ours.


Disclaimer: This piece is not to say that people don’t get justice in India at all. I have a lot of respect for our Hon’ble courts, lawyers, and judges. They form the bedrock on which we can build a lawful society. But courts are also a part of our larger societal context, which is still steeped in victim blaming when it comes to crimes against women. “Why are you wearing shorts” at home translates into “Why was the prosecutrix drinking alcohol” in the court. And just like everything else about life on this planet, things are just that much harder for women.

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