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#India – The Misogyny of India’s Cultural Elite #Tehelkacase

DECEMBER 3, 2013

Guest post by KAVITA BHANOT, 

Thanks to the brave actions of a woman who had the courage to speak out against her very powerful boss, something huge has happened in the last week in India. The very sophisticated, cosmopolitan English-speaking cultural elite of India has been forced, for once, to look at itself, to face up to the sexism and misogyny that it has long harboured.

For many years this elite has been protesting, exposing, judging, mocking the patriarchy of the lower classes – of the policeman, the religious fundamentalist, the ‘unpolished’ politician, the working class urban migrant, the eve-teaser on the street.  But rarely have the men, or the women of this class, looked, in public, at themselves – the men examining their attitude towards women and the women thinking about their own complicity, the ways in which they have allowed or turned a blind eye to the misogyny of the men of their own class.

Neither the incident, nor Shoma Chaudhury’s response to it, surprises me in the least. In the time that I spent in this world, it became quickly apparent to me that deeply entrenched in the suave, cosmopolitan world of English language media, literature, art – were problematic attitudes towards women that neither the men or the women seemed to question.


You see it in the fiction of many male writers – from the Salman Rushdies to the Samit Basus and Palash Krishna Mehrotras of the new generation; their female protagonists are often juvenile fantasy figures rather than three dimensional women. I struggle to think of English language male writers from the subcontinent or its diaspora who have created female characters with the kind of compassion, understanding and complexity that you find in the Hindi fiction of Yashpal writing in the fifties. The misogyny of these writers is there on their facebook walls – in their posts about getting laid, their photographs with ‘trophy’ women. It is there in their conversations and interactions at literature festivals, parties, in workspaces.  In ‘bad boy’ themed book readings. There’s the esteemed writer and teacher who tried to seduce a female student. The high-profile editor accused of sexual harassment of a colleague. The male fiction writers who work for the men’s magazine Maxim India and boast of their access, through sexy photo-shoots, to high profile ‘hot women.’ The male writers, journalists and bloggers who led a campaign to fight the ban on the Savita Bhabhi cartoon strip. I can give countless examples of the misogyny of these men of letters who see women as sexual objects, as arm candy, eye candy, and it is a slippery slope from there to assuming that you can help yourself to these objects as and when you wish.

Living and working in this environment, with these men, women can’t assume that they will be loved for who they are. That they will be respected for the work that they do. The truth is that, if they want to get ahead, women have had no choice but to turn a blind eye to casual sexism.  To silence the contrary voice in their head, as they try to convince themselves that it is for their intelligence, their talent that they are given special favour. Time and time again they are reduced to physical beings. The aggrieved woman in this case was employed as a journalist by Tehelka.  Yet she was being used by Think – a company that is independent of the magazine, to co-ordinate a festival – a pretty face to have around, to take care of high profile guests such as De Niro.

“I wish again,” the reporter writes in her rebuttal to Tejpal’s personal email in which he tries to paint the incident as consensual one, “that you remembered the professional reason I had met you that evening, instead of the storm and the thunderclouds… The conversation from that night was not ‘heavily loaded’ or flirtatious, you were talking about ‘sex’ or ‘desire’ because that is what you usually choose to speak to me about, unfortunately, never my work.”

Every female employee faces this. I spent one year working, with great passion and commitment, as an editor for Osians Literary Agency.  My employment came to an end when I was told (not asked – as if it was a privilege) that I had been selected by the male head of the organisation, alone with nine other young women, to walk on the stage carrying a poster, at a large gala event during which a famous actor would be felicitated. We were told that a former model who had recently joined the company would show us how to walk and tell us what to wear. Two of my colleagues who were working for the company as art historians, and I, objected.  We said that we would not do it, this was not what we were employed to do.  The enraged response from our employer was that we could do as we were told or hand in our resignations.  I chose to resign – a luxury that many in my situation, including those other two women, do not have.

The art, media and publishing industries have been headed for many years by powerful men such as Tejpal and my former boss. They function as cults – headed by demi-gods who wield absolute power.  Employees, and women in particular, flutter around them like devotees.  While women have been emerging as leaders in recent years – many of them seem to follow the same path, identifying with male power, ruling their companies in the same way that men have, treating women in their organisations with as little respect.

The response from my immediate female boss when she heard about the incident above was to tell me, with anger, that I had made a fuss for no reason.  She had had to do all kinds of things to get ahead in her fifteen year career in journalism and publishing, she told me.  I received a similar response from another female editor that I happened to meet that same day and recount the incident to – it wasn’t a big deal she said with a shrug of her shoulders, it was standard practice in companies to use ‘young and pretty girls’ in this way. In fact, she had often used her looks to gain favour in her career – donning a pretty dress for a meeting. This is an editor who, in recent years, has brought into India, diet and fitness books by models, item girls and actresses, an Indian Mills and Boon series, chick lit – in her effort to make the Indian publishing industry more like that in the West – apparently catering to a market, but actively creating it, following the western capitalist model.

Part of the problem with this elite world, is its unthinking embrace of the ways of the West, including a male capitalism that has swallowed up the feminist struggle for sexual, bodily freedom and spat out a distorted version of this which turns women into sexual objects while convincing them that they have got what they fought for and are now free.  As a layer of India goes in the same direction – urban upper class Indian women, often those who describe themselves as feminists, are failing to engage with the dead end that this is leading them towards.  Instead, they write articles in support of banned adverts that feature women as sexual objects of fantasy, they write for magazines such as India Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan, they pose for these magazines, perhaps do a spot of modelling. All the while describing themselves as feminists.

Upper class feminist battles have tended to be directed towards men from the lower classes – and I have felt uncomfortable with the class prejudice often hovers in these writings, by men and women, in the various Pink Chaddi, Mend the Gap, Slut Walk, Blank Noise Project campaigns. While they grapple with real problems, these writings and campaigns can reveal a deep-seated fear of the uncivilised poor man on the street, a mocking sneering of the unsophisticated Hindi-speaking accountant in the office – whether or not he is a religious fundamentalist. There are few attempts to recognise the real power that they, as upper class women, actually have over those lower middle class and working class men beyond those moments of eve-teasing in the street, harassment in the bar.

While women campaign for the right to be ‘sluts’ or to be ‘pub-going, loose and forward women’ –  this struggle can evolve, as it has in the west, into pressure to be a ‘slut’, into another kind of prison for women  – a more dangerous one, since women believe themselves to be free in it.

As patriarchy, sexual harassment, sexism are associated with the ‘less enlightened’ men of the lower classes – upper class women can fail to recognise when they are mistreated, abused, assaulted, objectified, raped by the men of their own class, or they can feel implicated in these situations and therefore be reluctant to speak out.  For it is all clothed in cool, urbane, cosmopolitan, smooth-talking – more subtle and therefore more dangerous than the overt patriarchy and harassment of more ‘traditional’ men.

As women in India grapple with their desires, with pleasure, love and bodily freedom, with the changing representations in the public domain of what a woman is or should be – powerful men, especially the ‘sophisticated’ suave men of the upper classes, use this.  The implication, if you don’t accept their advances, is that you are not ‘loose and forward’, not ‘free’ enough – that you are frigid, old-fashioned, puritanical, traditional even. ‘You can love more than one person,’ said Tejpal to the woman at that time, almost placing a challenge before her.

Love is nothing to do with it – there can’t be love between men and women as long as men don’t ‘see’ the women before them, as long as they see women primarily as sexual objects, existing for their own pleasure.

Women’s attempts to be open about, talk about, push the barriers of their sexuality – are used to try to seduce them, and afterwards, they are used to implicate them.  “The context of that ill-fated evening, of our conversation, as you will recall,” Tejpal writes in his deluded email to her, “was heavily loaded. We were playfully and flirtatiously talking about desire, sex….and the near-impossibility of fidelity; and of the aftermath of meeting me one stormy evening in my office when I was sitting watching the thunderclouds.”

These are the ways in which women are manipulated – made to feel that they are responsible, that they played a role in whatever happened.  A rape by a stranger is clear-cut, but in such situations, a woman can often remain silent because she is manipulated by the man to feel that it was consensual.  As the relationships between men and women continue to change there will continue to be many such cases – it is important for women to see them for what they are, and for men to interrogate more deeply how they relate to women – hopefully the highlighting of this particular case will encourage us to do this, to attempt to create new moral frameworks for male female interactions.

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#India – Tehelka, Jhatka and now Tamasha #mustread

DECEMBER 2, 2013

Guest post by Satya Sagarjustice

Eight years ago I remember listening to Tarun Tejpal in Bangalore as he held forth on how the news media could change the world for the better. It was a gathering of journalism students from Catholic institutions around the country and Tejpal was impressive in his defense of media freedoms.

He was passionate, charismatic, extremely articulate and as Chief Editor of Tehelka- with some of the best stories of Indian journalism behind them- very credible too. After his speech Tejpal left in a hurry, like a star priest dashing off to his next flaming sermon and fawning audience.

I was the following speaker and was openly skeptical of Tejpal valorising the profession of journalism and the potential of the media in general to transform anything beyond superficialities. (At that time I had no idea Mr Tejpal would turn out to be the complete fake he has proved to be now.)

My simple point to the students and the media studies professors before me was –  there is no such thing as ‘journalism’ outside the framework of the media industry. The so-called fourth pillar of democracy was in fact the fifth column of capital- this role being somewhat hidden in the past but flaunted quite openly these days.

The business interests of the media owners were the single most important factor shaping the limits of journalism and the biggest threat to the ‘freedom of the press’ lay within the media organisation itself. Every journalist who ever roared like a lion at a press conference was sure to tuck tail between legs, while in his own office.

The security of a job and privileges of the trade were, for most journalists, far more important than the values of the profession they claimed to stand for. Nothing unique or surprising about this of course, as this is the norm in all industries- not just the media.  However, this abject surrender of most mediapersons to their paymasters is the real reason why they deliberately miss out on all the really important news stories that stare them in the face every day and instead pass off frivolous triviliaties as ‘scoops’.

Just as it is not possible these days to find religion in temples, mosques or churches; health in the hospitals; education in our schools; or revolution in the revolutionary parties – it is meaningless to expect any truth from the news industry. To rub it all I added, while there was a good chance of getting some insights into the society we live in by watching soap operas or cinema – for pure entertainment news channels are the medium to go to.

All this I recollect now as Tejpal – the much feted journalist, publisher, novelist, impresario turned alleged sex offender – faces arrest and is hounded by the rest of the Indian media. His story has hogged headline space for an incredible five days in a row already as if nothing more important is happening in a land of 1.2 billion people!

There is no doubt at all in my mind that what Tejpal is accused of – sexual assault on a defenceless young woman employee – is a shocking act of pure criminality.

Tarun Tejpal happened to operate in a circuit that was like the IPL of sexual abuse – where the high and mighty do whatever they please with anybody lower down the pecking order. He was part of a planet where power, wealth and fame not only acted as aphrodisiac but offered the bonus of endless impunity too. Preying upon (known in these circles as ‘scoring’) a young female, even one the age of your daughter, was just part of the daily ’20-20’ routine.

Further,  as the skeletons fall out come dancing out of the Tehelka cupboard, it turns out Tejpal and those in the top echelons of the magazine (at least in recent years) had turned against every principle they themselves preached the loudest. Suppressing stories in order to ‘monetize’ them, plugging on behalf of corporate sponsors, using media privileges to amass property and forging business alliances with known crooks. All this while getting employees of Tehelka to constantly ‘tighten’ their belts and slave on for the cause of ‘great’ journalism.

For this Tejpal should be tried and punished as severely as the law permits. Uptil now it seems difficult for him to escape a long time in prison and rightly so too.

Having said all this, I am not very sure if the rest of the Indian media has the credibility to do endless talk shows or write pompous editorials about the Tehelka editor as if he were a freak accident in their midst. Nobody it seems wants to investigate the fact that Tarun Tejpal’s behaviour was perhaps the norm and not an aberration in the media industry.

First of all I don’t even think most of the news channels or newspapers are  covering the story because of the gravity of the crime Tejpal is supposed to have committed. Anyone, who has followed how the 24 by 7 media really operates, knows all this frenzy is because the idea of a ‘rape in a 5 star setting’, with celebrities (Robert de Niro in a cameo role) at the center of the story to boot can send the hearts of their audiences racing and TRPs of their channels zooming.

“CCTV cameras show woman journalist walking out of lift and adjusting her skirts” said a ‘Titillation’ Times of India headline recently. Many journalists routinely punch out obnoxious sentences like that on the front pages of their newspapers every day deliberately insensitive to the context involved.

Years ago, working for this idiotic media group, I was pulled up for doing a story on the growth of the poultry industry. In an official letter I was informed that it was the group’s policy ‘not to promote the meat industry’- presumably because the owners were vegetable-loving Jains. Today even a casual look at the stories and visuals on their website would reveal the ToI is foremost in projecting all women as ‘meat’. Rape in particular is a favourite subject for this newspaper (being an important pillar of India’s ‘erectoral democracy’) and it would be very nice if Mr Arnab ‘Outrage’ Goswami grills  his bosses about this some day (the Nation wants to know you @#$%&!)

Secondly, some of the glee evident among mainstream journalists at Tehelka’s downfall is because the outfit was always an upstart interloper in the world of Indian media and never really accepted it as ‘one of its own’. As a new entrant in the media market Tehelka was willing to break with convention, both in terms of content and methods, immediately earning the suspicion of the defenders of old-style and more conservative journalism.

The ToIs, the Hindu, Indian Express, Hindustan Times and the numerous noisy TV channels that have emerged in the last two decades are mostly run by well-entrenched, family-run business groups projecting a facade of civilised norms while protecting the colonial kleptocracy called ‘India’.  When it launched with a bang over a decade and half ago, Tehelka’s operation was based on little more than sheer audacity, something the rest of the media (emascualted by the vested interests of its owners) had lost a long time ago.

Interestingly, despite its reputation for ‘rocking the boat’ there was  little that Tehelka’s famous sting operations revealed that the rest of the media did not already know or the public already suspect. Many journalists for example knew that top Indian army officials were purchaseable for bottles of Scotch or that cricket matches were being fixed for money and leaders of ‘nationalist’ political parties were taking bribes to sell national security. However, no news outlet had thecojones to take them up for the simple reason that attacking the Indian army, cricket and Hindu nationalism – all holy cows of the great Indian middle-classes-  meant bringing down their idea of what ‘India’ was all about.

‘Sabko nanga karne wala ab khud nanga ho gaya’ goes the typical refrain one finds on social media platforms posted by anonymous characters who have an opinion on everything and a stake in nothing. Some of this middle-class anger is now being reflected in the way the Tejpal story has also been taken up by the media – as a way of showing him ‘his place’.

(This is not to say that those who admired Tehelka’s coverage of communalism, state atrocities or other important issues have not been angry too at Tejpal’s criminal behaviour or at subsequent revelations of his organisation’s corruption. There is a deep sense of betrayal among many who had sought to use Tehelka as a media platform to raise issues of significance to the Indian public.)

If maintream Indian media really had an iota of shame or honesty – along with following the Tejpal story- they should be ‘outing’ the numerous other Tejpals who continue to occupy exalted status within their own hierarchies. Those cameras chasing the former editor of Tehelka, should go back to their media offices and record how junior employees- particularly women- are being treated every day by their bosses.

Some of them should also examine the track record of their bosses both present and from the past. Does anyone in the Indian media have the guts to investigate long-standing charges of sexual predation against women employees by the late and ‘legendary’ founder of a newspaper that claims to do ‘journalism of courage’? Will every journalist who ever won an award in this ‘great media defender’s’ name return it if they found evidence of his atrocities? Is anyone within the media even interested in finding out by tracking down and talking to the survivors of his predations and gathering such evidence?

Why confine coverage to just the news media sector- is the media willing to touch the sexual  shenanigans that happen within the Indian corporate and business sector in general? The case a few years ago involving a senior executive in India’s top IT company – was just the tip of the iceberg as far as rampant sexual harassment within India Inc. goes.

And if one chooses to look beyond middle and upper middle class India then the cases of sexual assault and rape are equally numerous and horrific, particularly in the construction industry where women are routinely forced to give ‘sexual favours’ in order to get daily wage work. Or for that matter among agricultural labour where institutionalised forms of sexual exploitation of women by landlords are passed off as ‘tradition’.

Also, given that the Tehelka story has gone beyond just sexual abuse to one of molesting the core values of journalism, the coverage today should be of how every single media organisation is in the vice-like grip of one major corporation or the other. Is the Indian media willing to tell us what are the kinds of bribes it accepts to publish promotional stories or suppress uncomfortable ones on a daily basis? Or even tell us who really owns their bloody publications and channels? Or, how many senior journalists have acquired land, houses, free junkets abroad or other favours from either the state or corporates for acting as their PR agents?

The list goes on but I do not expect the Indian media to investigate itself or its wealthy patrons- that is something  for the rest of the country to take up. The least one can do in the meanwhile is to switch off the television at home, throw the newspaper back at the newspaper boy and look out of the window to see what is happening in the real world out there. We don’t need big media to brainwash us and set our agenda as if we were the walking dead.

And some words here for activists, however well-meaning, who like to appear on TV talk-shows. The fresh experience of jhatka given by Tehelka to liberal and leftist causes should caution them against blindly lending credibility to the tamasha of the Indian media by rushing to participate in their hypocritical debates.

It is time to understand that the media is not a mere neutral messenger but among the masters of the vast slave-camp this country has become. What we need today are ways to directly communicate with the people of India while putting the 24×7 ‘StinkFest’ called the Indian media where it really belongs- in the dustbin.

Satya Sagar is a former journalist and public health worker based in Santiniketan, West Bengal. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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