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Why I Agree With The Tarun Tejpal Acquittal Verdict – OpEd

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If you are a traveler from a far-off country, you only to have to watch a few Indian films and then you know how predictable Indians and Indian life in general are.

When Mr. Tarun Tejpal the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine was accused of sexual assault by a female reporter in 2013, part of the attention and scrutiny the case received was because Tehelka was a politically vocal magazine on most issues including sexual violence against women. However, in May 2021, when the Goa sessions court judge Ms. Kshama Joshi acquitted Mr. Tejpal of all charges citing “material contradictions” in the testimony of the victim, things were not quite the same. Predictably, any judgment that does not sing a familiar Bollywood tune proclaiming the timeless innocence of the woman victim and the absolute guilt of the male victimizer is put to the rack and the judge pilloried for having a mind of her own. At the end of the day she is a judge; therefore, I logically presume that she must have a mind of her own and use it to ensure that truth and justice prevail because one cannot exist without the other.  

The Goa government in its appeal against the judgment before the Bombay High Court said that it was “unsustainable in law and is colored by prejudice and patriarchy.” I mean, seriously, since when is the Goa government against prejudice and patriarchy? How did this miracle happen? Perhaps, when I was watching a movie about a flying elephant and then realized all of a sudden that indeed there was a flying elephant outside my window! Since when is the Goa government such a grand defender of women’s well-being in this country or of impartial inquiries for that matter! 

The political party running the government both at the national level and the Goa state has contributed more to prejudice and patriarchy than any other party in independent India. Suddenly this humorless joke of being defenders of women victims by defaming the intelligence and wisdom of the woman judge who spent the most amount of time thinking about the case. Are we to believe that the woman judge is prejudiced and patriarchal but the Goa government is not? By calling the Sessions Court judgment a “manual for rape victims” the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court has shown itself in a rather poor light. Justice Gupte is entitled to see himself as a “feminist” but that doesn’t entitle him to be disrespectful of the woman judge, merely because she is doing her job as a judge. 

In this country there is one thing you are expected never to do when occupying a public position: it’s called thinking for yourself. If you toe the line of some ideology, social group or a person in power then you are fine. If you don’t you’re bound to suffer criticism from the most mediocre people you can think of. It is particularly harder for women in positions of authority when they have to make up their own mind and give their own observations which don’t concur with what is expected of them as women, because they have to face the wrath of both other women which sometimes includes feminists and also a part of the male establishment. Isn’t it a stereotype that because you are a woman you must at all times put the woman’s point-of-view in mind at the expense of the truth! Blind conformity has only perpetuated stereotypes without contributing to progress in any form.

Both Saint Augustine and Mahatma Gandhi agree on an important point which is that truth is God. Whether one believes in God or not, it goes without saying that truth is an end that must be pursued for its own sake. Freedom and justice are not ends in themselves; ultimately they are subservient to the truth. Truth matters, therefore. It is common knowledge that the political party in Goa has an axe to grind against Mr. Tejpal. If they cared even a bit for the hardships of women, Goa would not be associated in the public imagination as a place for prostitutes, drugs and alcohol. 

The bottom line to the virulent attack on the woman judge from all quarters is that I live in a nation which is indoctrinated by the idea that women cannot be and should not be anything but “innocent.” I am talking about the popular representation. Not the reality. That horrible mockery of women’s rights in the movie Pink (2016) a story written and directed by men, with a male protagonist saving women from the other male baddies, fails to observe not only that patriarchy is a little subtler than preventing bourgeois women from having a consumerist lifestyle but also that there would be no patriarchy if the majority of women did not cooperate with the larger system of social and economic inequalities. 

We cling to this idea of women as innocent as an ideal, because to accept that women are normal beings, capable of both good or bad is to disrupt the ideal and throw the system into a quandary. No ideal is as dangerous as innocence, especially when it means naivety and passivity, and every Indian sitcom and movie continues to manufacture these “innocent” women characters who actively volunteer to become martyrs for unfaithful husbands, abusive fathers, brothers and sons. Indian men want this idea of women’s innocence to be true because otherwise they would have to stop being men the moment they figure out that women are as diverse, as not-so-innocent and as self-interested as men could be. Again, why not! 

Condemned to an ideal that is unhealthy, most women, including the educated ones, embrace “innocence” only to avoid something called agency. Complicity lies in not making a choice or in surrendering to a situation where you are indecisive as to the next course of action. Retrospectively one could make up one’s mind about the meaning of a situation. That is not the same thing as saying that one is not fully aware of the compelling nature of the circumstances involved in one’s actions. It is extremely difficult for a judge or the actors involved in the situation to comprehend the motives conclusively for any event at a given point in time. Despite the fact that there are black and white situations where the assault is obvious and the victim’s trauma evident, the guilt of the accused still has to be proven. What about situations that are extremely ambivalent and require a careful reading! In those situations, the judge has to use her conscience, imagination and reason to the fullest extent humanly possible in order to ascertain the truth. In my view that is what Justice Kshama Joshi has managed to do without succumbing to public pressure or to the fact that the equation of the accused, Mr. Tarun Tejpal, with the ruling party is not particularly great. 

Justice Joshi’s critics have nothing substantial to add or minus to the case. All that they keep parroting is that the judge shouldn’t go into the habits, behavior or conduct of the prosecutrix as that is not relevant to the case. In fact, the judge observed that, “It is crucial to note that the contradictions are often so glaring…the exact opposite of what the complainant girl is claiming…”. Yet the feminists and the leftists have to go all out in attacking the judgment and the judge, while in fact endorsing the agenda of the Goa government which is neither leftist nor feminist by any standard, only because it threatens their ideological positions, which have nothing to do with the truth. That they are with a government whose vengeful intent is clear as daylight is bad enough. That they don’t want to accept that the woman complainant does not have to be “innocent” is worse. 

This does not however mean that there is nothing like innocence at all. Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot is innocent because he recognizes the vulnerability of people behind the masks that they wear and is able to embrace their inner suffering as if it were his own. The petite and sickly boy Simon in Lord of the Flies is innocent because he can see what makes a person evil, the power-obsessed beast in every human being. I do not think that ordinary men and women can be innocent in the same sense as Myshkin or Simon or should even aspire to it.

If personally I am convinced that we should stop making saints and martyrs out of normal Indian women, it is because we would be doing a lot more in contributing to their rights in this country by seeing them for who they are instead of what we want them to be. It would also force men to outgrow their Oedipal longings and learn to live with women as equal partners. In India the only equation that has social rootedness is the mother-son equation. For some reason, every other relationship has to reproduce the mother-son formula. This is not a good thing because nature made us individuals whether as men or women. Each person has to live his or her individuality without being reduced to a formula. The liberation of women is ultimately also the liberation of men who are willing to celebrate their individuality and enter into relationships with commitment to the feelings of the other person.

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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