Over three years ago, a well-known name in Indian publishing left his prestigious job in Canada and returned home. His company put out a release stating that he had been asked to leave because of grave charges of sexual harassment against him. The case made headlines in India.
But then something interesting happened. His friends and erstwhile colleagues came out in the open, declaring how he had been a fine professional and had shown no signs, at least to their knowledge, of indulging in this kind of behavior. Many of those who stood up in his defence were women, liberal women, the kind who would not tolerate sexual misconduct in the workplace. The matter remained in the news for a few days and the professional emerged a little while later with a new venture which has taken off quite well. The whole issue is now forgotten.
Compare that with the raucous attention the latest imbroglio involving Tarun Tejpal and a young staffer is receiving. Not just the social media but even mainstream newspapers and television (to say nothing of sundry politicians) have gone into an overdrive, demanding that Tejpal pay for his misconduct. The details of misconduct are not that dissimilar — in the first case too the “victim” was a junior staffer and there were allegations of outright assault during a visit away from the office. Yet, that matter faded away without much permanent damage to reputations while this one has exploded into a major scandal. What has changed?
The first case took place in a far away country and details did not come out in the public domain in real time. We did not know who the woman was, could not put a face to her. On the other hand, the accused had a reputation here and also influential and vocal friends. Second, the hyperactive (and hyperventilating) social media was not so widely used at the time. Twitter and Facebook have spread and escalated the latest scandal and raised the pitch so loud that no one can possibly ignore it. In that sense, social media is the new village square — everyone has an opinion and is determined to air it. This mob cacophony then becomes “the public mood” and no one dare ignore it.
Most of all, even three years ago India was a different place — such matters were to be ignored and handled quietly, away from the public gaze. There was an implicit compact among those in the “inner circle” that such indiscretions did happen and were usually a case of poor judgment. Perfectly good careers were not destroyed or well-built reputations torn apart over an indiscretion. The errant perpetrators had to be rescued and shortly after rehabilitated. There are cases in Mumbai and Delhi (and no doubt elsewhere) of serial sexual offenders and even drug peddlers who have smoothly moved back into social circles once the furore has died down. The elite simply circles the wagons and protects their own. That was always how things worked.
This time round, the media broke its own unwritten rule — “never to go after a journalist”. If anything, the questioning of Shoma Chaudhury by those same TV anchors who used to have her on their show as an intellectual, liberal voice, admiring her for her deft use of the language, have been aggressive. From being one of us, she has now become one of them, no different from the hated politician who has to bear the brunt of nightly no-holds-barred interrogation. For long-time observers of the media scene, this is a radical departure from convention.
Once the scandal made it to newsrooms, the mainstream media would have quickly realised that it would be subject to severe criticism if it tiptoed around the scandal. Sensitivity to sexual harassment has increased manifold — it is a hot button issue now and instances of powerful men trying to push themselves onto young women are getting a lot of publicity. The leak of the shocking emails had created such a storm that there was no way newspapers and television channels could remain indifferent to the disgust that was being expressed on social media. Twitter and Facebook are used mainly by the same classes that watch the TV news and read newspapers — journalists therefore have to be attuned to what their consumers are thinking. Worse cases than this that have taken place in rural areas or small towns and have gone unnoticed. Caught in the dilemma of turning against one of their own tribe and going after
the story full on, the media chose the latter route.
Once the publicity blitz began, there were other consequences — a proposal to install Tejpal on the Prasar Bharati board was dropped hastily, sponsors of the famous ThinkFest who were thrilled to be part of it are now reconsidering their decision and old friends are coming out of the woodwork remembering their days with Tejpal and ruing what became of a good professional. His good work, such as it may be, does not matter — words like arrogant, power-drunk and womaniser are now being bandied about. The cozy consensus of the power elites has collapsed.
This is a watershed moment. From now on, those who feel cocooned in the comfort of their PLU world, easily flitting between the rich and the powerful, dropping a name here, offering a quip there, picking up a lucrative contract on the side, will have to start worrying — when the chips fall, that same world will turn on you. Gone are the days when an indiscretion, howsoever serious, was quickly forgiven and forgotten. The club does not want anyone who will be an inconvenience; all doors will slam shut rapidly. Gone also are the times when the prodigal was welcomed home with a fatted calf. If anything, the herd will turn on this weak member because it is a liability — that’s the law of the jungle.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org