Crime and consequence in India
The uproar over an editor's alleged assault of a female colleague is an advancement in women's rights.

Reuters

Tarun Tejpal, the 50-year-old founder and editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine Tehelka, speaks with the media upon his arrival at the airport on his way to Goa, in New Delhi November 29, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Tehelka case shows that power and privilege do not make you immune from justice.

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  • More young urban women challenging the supposed superiority of men who allegedly harmed them #India

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  • Twitter's democratic, chaotic nature has made it impossible for Mr. Tejpal to hush up the scandal

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A year after a brutal gang rape in Delhi shook India's conscience, a high-profile investigation has again propelled women's rights to the center of the national conversation. In the dock stands one of India's most prominent journalists, Tarun Tejpal, the founder and editor of Tehelka, a muckracking magazine best known for using reporters with hidden cameras to expose alleged corruption and injustice.

Mr. Tejpal stands accused by a junior colleague of assaulting her twice at the high-profile "THiNK" conference in Goa last month. Fifty-year-old Mr. Tejpal claims innocence and says his accuser is part of a political conspiracy against him.

Police have yet to file charges against Mr. Tejpal. But the weight of public opinion already leans heavily against him and his colleague, former Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. Mr. Tejpal's accuser says Ms. Chaudhury let her down by not treating her charges against Mr. Tejpal with the seriousness they deserved. Ms. Chaudhury also denies any allegation of wrongdoing.

 Not surprisingly, the Tehelka case has spurred a media feeding frenzy in India. In journalism circles, Mr. Tejpal and Ms. Chaudhury were known for pioneering advocacy journalism in the country and ran in an elite crowd. Prominent cabinet ministers and Indian and global celebrities regularly attended the annual “THiNK” festival where the alleged assaults occurred.

Over the past two weeks, feminists have penned pious screeds on the unfortunate status of women nearly seven decades after India’s independence. Business reporters continue to dig up dirt on the holier-than-thou Mr. Tejpal’s association with dodgy businessmen, including Ponty Chadha, a liquor baron gunned down in a shootout with his brother last year in a Delhi farmhouse.

Most prominent commentators quickly dismissed a hamhanded attempt by Mr. Tejpal’s lawyers to smear his accuser’s character by pointing out that she partied after the alleged assaults instead of withdrawing into a shell. Mr. Tejpal’s case has not been helped by a fondness for purple prose. His first response to the young journalist’s complaint was to offer to take a six-month vacation in order to do “the penance that lacerates.”

The accusation against Mr. Tejpal will almost certainly lead to prosecution in what will be the first major test of a tough new anti-rape law passed by Parliament earlier this year. Should he be found guilty, it will send a message not heard often enough: that power and privilege do not make you immune from justice.

Amidst all the drama, hand wringing and (partly understandable) schadenfreude, the Tehelka case displays a positive development: the increasing willingness of urban Indian women to speak up against sexual harassment rather than bear it silently.

Almost unnoticed, societal norms have begun to change. Traditionally, Indian women have been discouraged from speaking out against harassment by a shame-based culture that encourages silence. But over the past year, after the Delhi gang rape— in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy student died after being brutalized on a bus—brought thousands of protesting citizens to the street, public attitudes in India’s cities have begun a slow but perceptible shift.

In August, a 22-year-old Mumbai photojournalist refused to be cowed by a gang of rapists who had scared other victims into silence by recording their crimes on their cell phones and threatening to upload them on the Internet. Police have arrested five suspects in the case.

And a former Supreme Court judge in Calcutta will likely lose his job on a government human rights body after a former intern accused him of sexual harassment. The judge denies wrongdoing. Both cases have one thing in common with the Tehelka episode: young urban women who have challenged the supposed superiority of the men who allegedly harmed them.

Social media is playing an outsize role in these changes. The democratic and chaotic nature of Twitter has made it impossible for Mr. Tejpal to hush up the scandal by appealing to solidarity among editors. It also appears to play a role in fostering a new sensitivity toward women’s issues. Those who revealed the Tehelka accuser’s name (illegal in India) were immediately chastised by both activists and ordinary citizens.

Over the coming months, the Tehelka case will likely continue to play out on India’s front pages. For many, it will underline what has become conventional wisdom about the country—that it’s an unsafe place for women. But behind the easy generalizations, the story ought to generate more hope than despair. When it comes to its treatment of women, India may not be changing fast enough, but in important ways it is changing for the better.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume

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