The rise and fall of Tarun Tejpal

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Alys Francis chronicles the life of the Tehelka editor, from rubbing shoulders with the stars to being thrown behind bars

As falls from grace go, Tarun Tejpal’s has been pretty spectacular.

The Tehelka founder has gone from being seen as India’s golden boy of journalism and saviour of the downtrodden to one of the country’s most high-profile villains after he was accused of sexually assaulting a young journalist in Goa in November.

In this profile, we take a look as some of the most intriguing claims that have emerged about Tejpal from former colleagues, friends and family since news of the scandal broke.

Before Tehelka

Despite founding one of India’s most influential media outlets, Tejpal, the son of an army officer, reportedly never wanted to be a journalist.

After marrying his wife Geetan at the age of 21, he landed a copydesk job at the Indian Express in Chandigarh, Punjab, before making the move to India’s political capital Delhi and joining India Today.

India Today Group’s chairman and editor in chief Aroon Purie said Tejpal was upfront about not wanting to be a hard-hitting hack. Speaking at the launch of Tejpal’s first book, The Alchemy of Desire, Purie said that during his job interview, Tejpal made it clear that “what he really wanted to do was write a book, and he considered journalism a hack job”.

Despite his misgivings, Tejpal, who is now 50 years old, quickly rose through the ranks. Many who worked with him recalled him as ambitious and charismatic.

“He made important friends, he acquired a following of young journalists who would hang on to every word he uttered and dutifully laugh at every joke he cracked … He was a natural-born showman who was convinced that he was destined for greatness,” Sourish Battacharyya wrote in the Mumbai Mirror.

Around 1999, Tejpal’s entrepreneurial spirit saw him set up the publishing house India Ink, that launched Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize winning debut novel The God of Small Things.

Tehelka hits the market

The money Tejpal made from the internationally popular book helped him launch Tehelka in 2000 as a website that less than a year later broke one of the biggest stories in Indian history.

In 2001, Tehelka’s hidden-camera sting investigation Operation West End caught a number of then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials and even the party president accepting bribes from reporters posing as arms dealers. The story, dubbed ‘India’s Watergate’, is said to have brought down the BJP-coalition government.

That same year Asia Week magazine listed Tejpal as one of Asia’s most powerful communicators while Business Week declared him as one of 50 leaders among the forefront of change in India.

Tehelka was forced to shut under government pressure but the BJP was voted out in the next election and Tejpal went on to relaunch the media outlet in 2004 as a newspaper promoting “free, fair and fearless” journalism.

However, the forced closure elevated Tejpal’s image to that of a martyred hero for the people. As if Hollywood writers were scripting his life, the government then announced Tejpal was being targeted by assassins and he gained a security detail that trailed him everywhere. “For about six years there were 24 armed policemen guarding me around the clock,” Tejpal told GQ magazine in 2012. “Anywhere I travelled in India, I would be met at the airport by armed cops. I would be escorted day and night.

Tehelka never topped Operation West End but went on to become synonymous with stings and investigating issues affecting the common man, from Dalit castes to rickshaw pullers, overlooked by India’s mainstream media.

At the same time, Tehelka faced quiet criticism for not investigating the Congress party as rigorously as the BJP, if at all.

The BJP-led government reportedly scared away Tehelka’s backers in the wake of Operation West End, prompting Tejpal to fall back on investors with vested interests. “It brought him closer to the Congress than he would have liked, and led to allegations from some journalists that their stories were being held back for commercial reasons,” Kunal Pradhan and Gayatri Jayaraman wrote in India Today.

Journalists who worked for Tejpal have since spoken out, accusing him of not sharing the spoils of Tehelka’s success.

In 2007, Tejpal held a summit in London called ‘The Challenge of India’ to promote Tehelka — one of what would become many similar promotional talk fests starring the who’s who of India’s intellectual and political elite.

But while the champagne flowed and guests including Nobel laureate V.S Naipaul, then Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and actor Shah Rukh Khan entertained ticket holders, all was not well in the office back in Delhi. “Everyone in Tarun’s family was off to London for this great shindig, a mass of them travelled, and while they were away, the staff salaries bounced,” Australian journalist Jane Rankin-Reid, who worked for Tehelka from 2005 to 2008, told Live Mint.

Discontent may have stirred behind the walls of Tehelka’s HQ but on the outside, Tejpal enjoyed a cult-like admiration –everyone from reporters and India’s intelligentsia to the everyday paan wallah on the street saw him as the man who had brought down the BJP.

As his success and ambition grew, so too did his ego according to those who knew him. Tehelka’s former executive-editor Sankarshan Thakur told Live Mint: “Tarun had this burning ambition to be a rock star. He wanted to be bigger than the biggest media barons, he would talk about it. His bail applications reek of hubris and pomposity. I think he has been living with this mind-set so long that he genuinely believes he is untouchable.”

Scandal

Tejpal’s empire of influence came crashing down when a 28-year-old female reporter, and close friend of his daughter, accused him of sexually assaulting her in an elevator on November 7 and 8 this year, during Tehelka’s annual ‘Think’ fest event in Goa.

Tejpal stood aside as editor, saying a misreading of the situation and lapse of judgement, “led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fought for [at Tehelka]”.

But as the scandal escalated and the media honed in on him, Tejpal began back peddling, calling for the lift’s CCTV to be examined so an “accurate version” of events could be made public. “The complete truth and the need to do the honourable thing can come in conflict,” he said.

Tejpal has been charged with rape by a person in a position of control or dominance, which carries a minimum sentence of 10 years jail.

He is currently claiming that he believed the incident was consensual. The case is continuing.

Characters crumble

Since news of the scandal broke numerous people close to Tejpal have come forward to shed light on his character.

His own daughter reportedly spoke out against him, saying she believes her friend’s version of events. The young journalist had told Tejpal’s daughter about the incident before it became public.

The God of Small Things author Arundhati Roy wrote a column in Outlook magazine naming Tejpal as a friend for many years and saying that she was heartbroken by the claims, but not shocked.

Journalists have also picked over Tejpal’s work outside of Tehelka for signs of moral wavering. Having published three books, his writing was an obvious target. In particular, his debut novel the Alchemy of Desire has been inspected with newfound intrigue.

The book won several awards and earned Tejpal praise from the Times Literary supplement, which called him, “One of the most attractive Indian writers in English of his generation”. But it also scored the dubious honour of being nominated for the 2005 Bad Sex Award. A review of the book in the UK’s Sunday Times explains why. “Sex is practically a character in its own right in the book,” reviewer Lucy Atkins wrote. “Endlessly examined in all its luscious, experimental glory. At times this can get a bit much.”

The Future

Tejpal’s brand has been further soiled by a separate story that broke in the days after the sex assault allegation that alleges he sold shares at inflated prices.

“The Tejpal family and Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury made a killing through a series of doubtful transactions. They sold some of their shares in one of their companies at mindboggling premiums to a nondescript company, pocketing large gains,” former Tehelka employee Raman Kirpal wrote in an article on Firstpost.com.

Kirpal earlier said he quit Tehelka after management held back a story he wrote on Goa mining companies while permits were approved for Think fest in 2011. Tejpal has denied the accusation.

But he’s not the only one claiming Tehelka was influenced by money. “Eventually compromises started happening because you need a lot of money. Whenever there was a sponsor involved for Think fest, things would get murky for Tehelka and stories would be killed,” Mint columnist and editor of thehoot.org Sevanti Ninan said.

On top of all this, many doubt whether Tehelka can survive without Tejpal, who is seen as such an integral part of the media outlet. Editor Shoma Chaudhury has also stepped down, embroiled in the scandal after she was accused of supporting her mentor Tejpal over the young journalist.

With Tejpal in judicial custody and several Tehelka journalists quitting in outrage over the incident, the future of the media outlet looks set to be rocky.

 

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