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A Looming Ambiguity of The Case Led to a Benefit of The Doubt to Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal Acquittal
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The recent acquittal of founder and former editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal in the sexual assault charges pressed by his junior colleague, has created much uproar. Although there have been several organizations and NGOs disparaging the order, close perusal of the 527-page judgement brings to light various details that serve to prove that this 7-year long case is a rather convoluted one. The matter is not so black-or-white after all.

To begin with, the court establishes in favour of the victim that in cases of sexual assault, even the sole testimonial of the victim is sufficient for conviction if proven to be of “sterling quality”. In the Tehelka case, however, the prosecution failed to do so. 

The statements of the victim were shown to have undergone numerous adjustments, additions and deletions not only prior to the submission of her final statement to the police but also more recently, during her cross-examination in December 2020.

The victim claimed to have told her mother about the incident on 09/11/2013. The mother, who was at the time staying in her daughter’s 1-bedroom apartment in Mumbai with some of her friends who were there for a business expo, made no arrangements to take leave and be with her daughter, or for her daughter’s return to Mumbai in view of the trauma she was undergoing.

Further, the victim went on to stay in Goa for a few days after the THiNK 2013 event. After checking out of the International Centre, Goa (where all the Tehelka staff had been put up), she shifted into a hotel room with two of her friends and thereafter, into the house of another friend for a few days. The victim stated that this was in order to take time to process her trauma and regain composure. 

However, contrary to this, her WhatsApp chats reveal that this extended stay had been planned by her months before in anticipation of joining her Russian ad-film maker friend, “Danny”.

The statements of the Defence witness, Nikhil Agarwal also added much insight to the case. He was, as established in the proceeding, the first person the victim came across after exiting the elevator with the accused on 08/11/2013. This makes him a nearly contemporaneous witness of the incident. 

This fact was hidden by the victim in her testimonials. Further, she categorically downplayed the intimacy of her relationship with the witness as being acquaintances whereas, on admission of both parties later, they in fact used to be romantic partners at one point.

Think Fest 2013
Tarun Tejpal, Amitabh Bacchan, Robert De Niro at Think Fest 2013 in Goa

As per the statements of the defense witness, the victim met him outside Block 7 of the resort and told him that she had had a flirtatious encounter with the accused. And that she also seemed to be rather cheerful and upbeat about it, contrary to the victim’s claims that she was traumatized and in shock.

The defense witness in question here was honeymooning in Australia in the month of December 2013 after which he came to know about the case in the news. At this point he wrote to the investigating officers regarding his version, however, the IO Sunita Sawant made no attempts to verify or even examine Nikhil Agarwal, and had concluded without investigation that his statement may have been doctored by the accused.

The victim stated that post the incidents, she was distraught, shattered, and “crying herself to sleep”. However, no such observations seem to have been made by her roommate, Sunnaina, or even other people she came across, other than those with whom she had shared her experience of the assault.

As per the WhatsApp chats and personal emails sent by the accused to the victim, it was nothing but “drunken banter”. During this “banter” which took place outside Block 7 on 08/11/2013, the victim is known to have revealed to the accused about her sexual encounter with Irish rockstar Robert Geldof, whom she was chaperoning the previous year at THiNK 2012 (but she outrightly denied having conducted this role during the proceedings). 

The victim narrated the incident in “granular detail”, saying that “Bob” had asked her what Indian women wear under the saree and which had ultimately led to them having sexual intercourse. 

Other witnesses such as Nikhil Agarwal and Mallika have supported these claims stating that this incident had in fact taken place, and if not for the “banter” that occurred between the two, the accused had no other way of possibly knowing this. Mallika is a close friend of the victim and daughter of the accused, Tiya Tejpal; the three of them had a WhatsApp group together.

The messages exchanged on this group on 09/11/2013 allude to the possibility that the victim had had a sexual encounter with Rober Geldof the previous year as well with Robert De Niro during the THiNK fest 2013, both of whom have been referred to as “Grandpa” in the texts, owing to their age. 

On the nights of 08th and 09th November, she was caught on CCTV making visits to Robert De Niro’s suite. On being questioned why she stated that it was to work out the nitty-gritties with the celebrity and his daughter the details of their next day of sight-seeing.

However, as per Shoma Chaudhury, editor of Tehelka, it was true that these details were discussed with the guests on the first day itself and that their itineraries were not bound to last-minute changes of any kind, further stating that it was not within the scope of work of a chaperone to spend time in private in the room of a speaker post working hours.

These claims were discussed in the court, not as a statement about the victim’s character but to establish that she displayed a propensity to hide facts and distort the truth. As far as the apology letter as an admission of the crime committed by the accused is concerned, Shoma Chaudhury has accepted that when she confronted the accused, his response was to refute the blame of the victim and give his own account of the incidents. 

However, owing to the pressures of maintaining the reputation of the magazine and being a woman herself, she felt obliged to “compel” the accused to write such an apology. She also admitted that it was motivated by the victim’s claim to seek “closure” from it at an institutional level. 

As per section 24 of the Indian Evidence Act, a confession caused by “inducement, promise or threat” is regarded as irrelevant. And therefore, the charges against the accused are nullified. It is also interesting to note that although the victim demanded an apology for closure, she had begun amplifying news of the incident through her friends and colleagues immediately after receiving it.

Not only did the prosecution fail to justify its claims against the accused, but also, there were several inconsistencies and distortions on part of the victim’s statements that reduced her reliability as a sterling witness of the case. Ample laxity, delays, omissions on the part of the IO also caused the loss of vital evidence in the case and has added to the obscurity of the events. 

For instance, failure to procure the relevant CCTV footage in time, no verification of call records between the accused and Shoma Chaudhury, or the fact that Tiya Tejpal was not examined even once despite her crucial role in the incidents and intimate relationship with both accused and victim, are all blaring lapses.

It seems to be that the looming ambiguity of the case led to a justified benefit of the doubt to the accused. Ahead of the government’s decision to repeal the judgement, it is vital to take cognizance of these omissions and contradictions if we are to truly navigate this labyrinthe and secure justice.

Image Source: Think Works 

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