Tarun Tejpal case: The liberal cause needs to be rescued from those who claim to represent it

The controversy over an item in a tabloid reveals how the journalist's defenders fail to see the hypocrisy of their own responses.

A few years ago, I reconnected with a very close friend from college who had slipped out of my friend circle. It was difficult to pin a date on when we lost touch. Let me correct that: When all of us lost touch with her.

She just drifted away from us in the last year of college.

The ambitions, the travels, the passions of youth are remarkably resilient to the comings and goings of people. It is the only reason that I can think of – the only reason why we all let her go so easily.

A few years later, we reconnected. She was now a single mom and I was back in India. And then she said to me casually, almost sounding cavalier, “I know you wonder why I disappeared on all of you like that. It was after I was raped. I just needed to stay away."

I was struck by the simplicity with which this was stated. She hadn’t meant to shock me. She was merely explaining.

How had we missed every sign?

“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked.

There was no answer.

It is this complexity of the issue of rape that grinds, that makes it one of the most emotionally and psychologically enervating experiences possible, apart from the physical trauma.

My friend articulated her response as best as her 20-year-old self could, withdrawing from friends, going into a shell and then into a deep depression.

In her mind, she was now different. She never articulated it or took any action, just held on to her otherness, sinking with it.

She suffered for years, went into therapy, withdrew from intimate relationships, before finally reconnecting with people who once mattered. To explain – but also to be able to reach out to that part of her life that she had shut out because of this experience.

It was yet another act of bravery, in the series of steps she had taken towards recovery, alone and unsure.

Justice for this violation is only one of the many steps on the way to reclaiming oneself from an experience like rape.

Rape is an under-reported crime. We will never know of the many in our midst who struggle with this, who are born into a new existence by this single act of brutality – but we should know they exist. And that makes us all responsible towards those who choose to speak out and have the courage to seek justice.

Liberal hypocrisy

It is in this light that we need to look at the question of the recent controversy over former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal.

Even if we ignore his own words that he wrote to the victim – he claims to have done “penance that lacerates” – and acknowledge that he has every right to defend himself in a court of law, there is no justification for the campaign undertaken in his defence to seek to rehabilitate him before that date in court, while casting aspersions on the character of the young lady who has brought forth the charge of rape.

Rape, it needs to be reiterated, is not a “grave error”, as a columnist in the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day characterised the crime on Thursday. An accusation of sexually inappropriate behaviour is not a “brouhaha”. The need to normalise sexually predatory behaviour as a means of reducing the severity of the charge and placing Tejpal back on a pedestal is unacceptable.

That there was a further attempt to somehow link this to the greater cause of upholding liberal values reveals the patriarchy that the so-called liberal class is held captive to – the same kind that they scoff at in “others”. How then, as another opinion piece asked pertinently, is this response different from the kind we see from some khap panchayats? Are the country’s elite in South Mumbai – and their counterparts in Lutyens’ Delhi – so anaesthetised by their importance that they fail to see the hypocrisy of their own response, when it comes to one of their own?

The answers to the questions are obvious. But they must be asked.

If we recoil at the mention of “rape culture”, we must examine why this malaise exists. We need to acknowledge that it is tacitly abetted by intentionally reductive commentary that creates a zone of acceptance around sexually predatory behaviour.

What has been revealed is the hypocrisy of the self-appointed vanguards of liberalism and their moral agnosticism applied selectively over and over again – from rape to free speech. It is this that has led many to consider themselves ex-liberals in the Indian context and yet others to coin the term “pseudo liberals”.

If this was supposed to be a rallying cry for the liberals to rise, it failed. If it was an attempt to rescue Tejpal, it has done quite the reverse. What has been made explicitly clear, though, is the need to rescue the liberal cause from those who claim to represent it.

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