NEW DELHI, Nov 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The man at the centre of a sexual assault scandal that has whipped India’s media into a frenzy is no average Joe.
Tarun Tejpal is one of India’s most powerful journalists, and accusations that he sexually assaulted a colleague have uncovered what lawyers say is an often buried truth - such violence is common in the highest echelons of society.
An investigation into Tejpal, who denies the accusations, has dominated headlines for eight days as news outlets follow every twist and turn. It comes days after similar accusations were made by an intern against a retired Supreme Court judge.
For Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising, both cases show how hard it is for women to press complaints against colleagues in the workplace, particularly if they are powerful individuals not used to having their authority challenged.
Yet they also present authorities with a rare opportunity to demonstrate that no one is above the law - that sexual abuse, no matter who it involves, will be dealt with thoroughly and, if proven, properly punished.
“I think sexual harassment in the work place is pervasive in India, yet the culture of silence is huge,” Jaising, a senior legal adviser to the Indian government, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“That’s why I think that these two cases, both that of the law intern and the Tehelka journalist, are highly significant. If we fail in addressing these two issues, we will have failed the nation.”
The allegations against Tejpal, the 50-year-old founder and editor-in-chief of India’s leading investigative magazine Tehelka, surfaced on the Internet last week when an email from a 23-year-old female journalist to her superior was leaked.
The woman, whose identity has not been revealed, accused Tejpal of assaulting her on two occasions in a hotel elevator.
The incidents in India’s western resort state of Goa occurred during an event bringing together intellectuals, activists and celebrities, including Hollywood actor Robert De Niro.
The journalist did not press charges against Tejpal, but police launched an investigation based on media reports. Tejpal could be booked for outraging the modesty of a woman and rape.
Tejpal admitted in a leaked email to the magazine’s management that an “unfortunate incident” had occurred between himself and the journalist, describing it as “a bad lapse of judgment”. But in a more recent statement to a Delhi court he called what happened consensual.
In recent months, the media have focused on alleged abuses within the upper echelons of Indian society.
The legal fraternity was shaken after a young lawyer said a retired Supreme Court judge had sexually harassed her in a Delhi hotel room last year while she was an intern.
About three months ago, a Hindu guru popularly known as Asaram Bapu was arrested for sexually molesting an ailing girl child on the pretext of exorcising evil spirits said to be inhabiting her body. Asaram calls the charges fabricated.
But it is the Tejpal case, above all, that has revived the intense debate about violence against women first triggered by the gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus 11 months ago.
That landmark case, in which the four culprits were sentenced to death, dispelled some of the stigma attached to discussing sex crimes in largely patriarchal India, and emboldened more women to come forward with their accounts.
Police in New Delhi, for example, believe a rise in rape reports is due partly to victims’ greater willingness to complain.
There were 1,036 cases of rape reported in the capital this year by August 15, an increase of nearly 2-1/2 times from 433 cases in the corresponding period last year, police data show.
India’s parliament passed a law to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in February, although similar public and private sector guidelines had been in place for more than 16 years.
The new law covers women working in the informal sector and requires employers to set up internal complaints panels, although Jaising said the guidelines had been ignored.
“The two cases - one of the intern and the journalist - we notice a failure of the institutions,” she said.
“Neither the Supreme Court of India nor Tehelka reported what clearly constituted cognisable offences to the police.”
But the vast majority of victims are still too scared to speak up, say rights activists, despite the high-profile sexual abuse cases in the headlines.
“Women are not encouraged to come forward,” said Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, India representative of UN Women, a grouping set up by the world body to encourage gender equality and empower women.
“They are encouraged to just try to forget it. No one wants to be confronted with the ugly reality and the men who perpetrate these crimes often have power not only over the women they abuse, but over the other people in the workplace.”
In the case of the retired judge, Stella James, an intern at the time of the alleged incident last December, noted in a blog posting on November 6 that it occurred, ironically, during huge protests over the gang rape case.
“I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say that long after I’d left the room, the memory remained, in fact, still remains, with me,” James wrote.
She said she had not come forward earlier because she did not want to ruin the judge’s reputation, but now felt “a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation.”
Rebecca Mammen John, a prominent Supreme Court lawyer, said she had heard of many such cases.
“I’ve heard complaints made by junior lawyers against their seniors, I’ve heard serious allegations made against judges by interns,” she said. “But I also see it in all the other environments where the powerful preside. It’s fairly widespread.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White and Clarence Fernandez