Tarun Tejpal Court Order: How Exactly Should A Sexual Assault Survivor Behave?

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Tarun Tejpal court order: A judgment in Tejpal’s case was a long time coming. And come it did, with the inevitable commotion it had promised.

The 527-page strong pronouncement does more to scrutinise the woman complainant’s character than it does to justify the Tehelka founder’s acquittal in the rape case from 2013. Are our courts of law instated to serve justice or dissect the nature of survivors and their trauma?

The words bound within the court order of the Goa sessions court that acquitted Tejpal have evoked a wave of outrage, disbelief, aggravation from women journalists, activists and common survivors. Where Priya Ramani‘s triumph over MJ Akbar just some months ago had given India’s #MeToo movement a booster shot, the Tejpal verdict, they said, slackened it.

Because it seems to be less about his acquittal and more an indictment of the behaviour of the woman who alleged the journalist raped her in Goa in 2013. The order notes that the prosecutrix “did not demonstrate any kind of normative behaviour on her own part that a victim of sexual assault might plausibly show.” She was “in a good mood, happy, normal and smiling.” She is “intelligent, alert and physically fit” and yet did not make attempts to “ward off the accused.”

There’s all this, verbatim, and more in the Goa sessions court judgment passed by Judge Kshama Joshi on May 21, 2021, that ruled innocent the Tehelka founder eight years after the sexual assault complaint was first registered against him.

But the law said he was a free man and so he walked.

What’s poisonous is the acquittal order made available May 25 that comes as an insult to every sexual assault survivor, heard and unheard. The compilation of observations includes some very sharp remarks about the complainant, adjudging a lot of the evidence by the way she behaved. Aspersions cast on the truthfulness of the woman only because she didn’t live up to the “good victim” formula.

“Nothing can explain the absolute normalcy of her behaviour and state of mind inside the privacy of her own room given her own avowed state of mind…”

It’s almost like it was she who was put on trial, not Tejpal.

What The Tarun Tejpal Court Order Does For India’s #MeToo

As a woman who has had several close brushes with harassment, as any next woman has, the court’s words while giving the “benefit of doubt” to a sexual assault accused is a frightening state of affairs. It reveals, albeit more vividly, what was always known about the nexus of male power, money, status, order and how they work in tandem to keep the cycle of misogynistic oppression running.

Because when (because they do and will) rapes occur, will the law not protect survivors who don’t weep? Will experiences without realised pain or shameful guilt hold lesser value? Will those who don’t emotionally, physically, mentally fit into the patriarchal contours of a “violated woman” not be believed? Must the onus of proof lie on the one violated? Should that person even ever have to prove anything through their conduct? Can something as dynamic, volatile, variable, subjective as human behaviour be grounds for proving guilt or innocence?

Painfully, the acquittal order also quotes a defence witness who claimed “it was routine for prosecutrix to have such sexual conversation with friends.” What does this arbitrary reasoning evidence, except that victim-shaming, blaming and assassination is very much alive and kicking in our country? So much so that it has validity to justify assault? Does this mean sexually independent women will never have access to fair trials under law?

What exactly is the guidebook to being a perfect, acceptable sexual assault survivor?

“..if she had recently been sexually assaulted by the accused and was in a state of trauma, is it even remotely plausible that the prosecutrix (complainant) would seek out and meet the accused? This clearly shows that there was no anxiety, fear, hesitation or trauma at meeting the accused, including when she was alone and it was a late hour, and clearly indicates that she was not sexually assaulted by the accused,” the order states.

Of course, besides the court’s observation of the woman’s story having “no corroborative evidence,” of CCTV evidence allegedly being destroyed, and of a negligent police investigation, there is also that email Tejpal wrote to the survivor soon after she made her complaint in 2013.

“I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgment that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on November 7 and November 8, 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.”

This email might have been the result of “explicit pressure and intimidation” by the complainant, the Goa court has noted, dismissing Tejpal’s own written admission as inadmissible evidence.

The judge has pronounced her judgment in this case. But the absolution with which everything is stated with (dis)regard to the woman’s conduct, threatens to take us back several years on the fight against gender-based violence and rape culture. In counting the number of people she narrated her experience to, her subsequent interactions with Tejpal, her past sexual liaisons, a correlation between her physicality and defence or the alleged lack thereof, the court has upheld that social norm trumps justice.

And if justice, henceforth, will be served on grounds of what it considers normative behaviour…

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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