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TEHELKA IN CRISIS1

Shailja Agarwal wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion. The author does not intend to illustrate either
effective or ineffective handling of a managerial situation. The author may have disguised certain names and other identifying
information to protect confidentiality.

This publication may not be transmitted, photocopied, digitized or otherwise reproduced in any form or by any means without the
permission of the copyright holder. Reproduction of this material is not covered under authorization by any reproduction rights
organization. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, contact Ivey Publishing, Ivey Business School, Western
University, London, Ontario, Canada, N6G 0N1; (t) 519.661.3208; (e) cases@ivey.ca; www.iveycases.com.

Copyright © 2014, Richard Ivey School of Business Foundation Version: 2014-07-31

I would like to admit that . . . the language of my mails was not correct . . . even the word
‘satisfactory’ that I used for my actions, which someone close to her said was unsatisfactory . . . I
explained to her . . . that I am sorry that that word was used, I was under pressure from the media,
if I had been given time to choose my responses, I would have used a word that was less smug, I
would have said that my actions were ‘acceptable’ to her.

-Shoma Chaudhury, in an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai 2

INTRODUCTION

Mondays are never anyone’s favourite days at work but for Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of
Tehelka Magazine, the Monday of November 18, 2013, was perhaps one of the most devastating days of
her career as a journalist. This day and the succeeding days raised serious questions regarding her actions
during a crisis situation, resulting in her resignation.

On November 18, 2013, Chaudhury received an email from one of her colleagues, a 23-year-old female
journalist at Tehelka, writing in detail 3 how she was sexually assaulted by Chaudhury’s mentor, Tarun
Tejpal, editor-in-chief and proprietor of Tehelka Magazine, when she had accompanied him to the
THiNK Conference 4 in Goa, India. With a colleague’s accusation against the founder/proprietor/editor-in-
chief of her organization, and with a looming responsibility to act appropriately and promptly in this
brewing crisis, Chaudhury did not realize that a routine Monday had suddenly turned into the first day of
a full-fledged communications and leadership nightmare.

To make matters worse, within two days of this complaint, Chaudhury would learn that the email in
question and other associated communications had been leaked and were being met with public outrage in
the form of more than 100,000 comments on social media.

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TARUN TEJPAL

Tarun Tejpal, the founder of Tehelka Magazine as well as a journalist, publisher and novelist, was
presented with the Award for Excellence in Journalism by the International Press Institute’s India
Chapter. He was amongst the 50 leaders named by Bloomberg Business Week 5 and was later named
amongst “India’s 50 Most Powerful People” in 2009. 6 Known to be a pioneer of “sting journalism,” he
also the authored the widely acclaimed debut novel,The Alchemy of Desire, published in 2005. On
November 18, 2013, he was accused of rape by a female subordinate, forcing his resignation.

SHOMA CHAUDHURY

Shoma Chaudhury, a veteran media professional and the managing editor of Tehelka, was known as
Tejpal’s protégée in the world of media. Chaudhury, a prominent voice on women’s issues, was reputed
for her strong stance on crime against women. She began her career as a books editor at The Pioneer, 7
followed by her joining India Today, 8 and then Outlook 9 news magazine. In 2000, she left Outlook to join
Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. 10

A recipient of several prestigious awards such as the Ramnath Goenka Award, the Chameli Devi Award
for the most outstanding woman journalist and the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting,
Chaudhury was also categorized as one of 150 “power women who shake the world” by Newsweek
(USA) in 2011. 11

TEHELKA MAGAZINE

Tehelka Magazine, mainly known for its investigative journalism involving sting operations, was an
Indian weekly magazine under the editorship of Tejpal. The publication began as a news website in 2000.
The agency began issuing tabloid newspapers in 2004, and changed to a magazine format in 2007.
Tehelka’s circulation was more than 100,000 copies, while its readership was more than 1.2 million per
week. 12 The magazine’s prime focus had been to conduct sting operations to expose atrocities and crime
against women. Tehelka won the International Press Institute (IPI) India Award for Excellence in
Journalism in 2010 and 2011. In November 2013, Tejpal stepped aside as the magazine’s editor for six
months after acknowledging a colleague’s accusation of sexual assault.

THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS

On November 18, 2013, Chaudhury received an email complaint, copied to three other journalist
employees, from a fellow female journalist at Tehelka, alleging a case of sexual assault by Tarun Tejpal
on November 7 and 8, 2013. In her original complaint, the journalist alleged that Tejpal had “sexually
assaulted” and “molested” 13 her. The email further carried a detailed testimony of the alleged assault and
its surrounding events. The journalist described Tejpal as “someone I had so deeply respected and
admired for so many years.” 14 She did not resign or lodge a police complaint, but defined her own terms
of justice: that Tehelka constitute an anti-sexual-harassment cell as per the law, 15 and further, “At the very
least, I will need a written apology from Mr. Tejpal, which may not include graphic details but should
have the words ‘sexual assault’ included and an acknowledgement of the same to be circulated through
the organization.” 16

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CHAUDHURY’S RESPONSE

Chaudhury was “shocked, devastated and angry” 17 on reading the email and immediately spoke to the
concerned journalist. She confronted Tejpal “very, very angrily,” 18 as Chaudhury later recalled in an
interview on November 21, 2013. 19 In the same interview, Chaudhury revealed that though Tejpal had a
different version of the events, she overrode that version completely and asked for an unconditional
apology. She felt that irrespective of the nature of the act, as a leader of the institution, Tejpal had
transgressed and her impulse was to address her colleague’s sense of injury. Chaudhury also noted that it
was on her insistence that Tejpal tendered an unconditional apology, a fact that was further corroborated
when Tejpal later mentioned that he agreed to apologize due to Chaudhury’s “adamantine feminist-
principle insistence.” 20

An ‘unconditional apology,’ such as it was, was accorded to the journalist, as demanded by Chaudhury. In
the two emails that Tejpal wrote to the victim on November 19, he “unconditionally apologize[d] for the
shameful lapse of judgment that led [him] to attempt a sexual liaison with [her] on two occasions despite
[her] clear reluctance . . .” 21 and conceded to “a colossal lapse” based on “an inherent disbalance of power
in my position as editor-in-chief and you as an employee.” 22 He apologized for his “lapse of judgment,” 23
recalling the context of their conversation as “heavily loaded.” 24 He further wrote that it was in “this
frivolous, laughing mood that the encounter took place.” 25 He maintained that it was “something
ostensibly playful gone so horribly wrong.” 26 Tejpal also urged the journalist not to quit her job
at Tehelka, guaranteeing her “the space to do your work proudly and freely.” 27

In Chaudhury’s opinion, 28 she had been driven by the victim’s wishes and had gotten her the apology she
desired. In fact, more than what her colleague desired, she had also successfully discussed with Tejpal the
option of his stepping down from his position at Tehelka.

In the early evening of November 19, 2013, Chaudhury sent an email to Tehelka staff that carried a
message from Tejpal (see Exhibit 1) announcing his recusal 29 for six months as a penance for “an
untoward incident,” 30 for which, “though he [had] extended an unconditional apology to the colleague
involved, Tejpal [would] be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months” 31 (see
Exhibit 2). Chaudhury did not realize that the soft tonality of her email — given her past stance on
injustice against women — was an action that Tehelka employees, media, online forums and the public at
large would question repeatedly in times to come.

With Tejpal conceding to the charges, extending an unconditional apology and recusing himself for six
months, all after Chaudhury’s intervention, Chaudhury was confident that she had done right by the
victim journalist and acted appropriately. She also believed that before charging someone as guilty, it was
important that both parties be given a fair hearing, following which, the law would take its course. 32

However, after Chaudhury forwarded Tejpal’s announcement of a self-decided six-month recusal, the
issue exploded. The email containing Tejpal’s ostentatious apology was forwarded out of the staff circle
to other journalists. Twitter began its fission chain-reaction and thereafter, every piece of correspondence
came under the public eye. The issue immediately generated more than 100,000 tweets and Facebook
comments. Chaudhury’s integrity, intentions and leadership were questioned, owing to the tepid nature of
her communications and the fact that she had circulated the email to staff. What was equally astonishing
and unacceptable to many was her inexplicable silence and quiet acceptance of Tejpal taking a six-month
leave as sufficient atonement for a charge like sexual assault. Some felt that she appeared to be on
Tejpal’s side, possibly to underplay the case at her own magazine.

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In one of her interactions with the media, 33 when questioned on her not forming even a post-facto
grievance committee as per Vishakha guidelines, she answered that she did not feel that there was an
immediate need to constitute a grievance committee as it was an “internal matter”34 and that the victim
was “satisfied” 35 with her actions. However, within two days, the concerned journalist made it publicly
known that she was emphatically not satisfied. 36

Media started hounding Chaudhury and pressing questions on her. In one such encounter, due to the
mounting pressure from media and contemporaries, she cross-questioned a media personnel by saying:
“Are you the aggrieved party?” 37 When asked by a reporter whether Tejpal would face criminal charges
as it was a criminal case, she answered, “It is not a case, sir, unless you know more about it than I do.” 38
She also stated that it was presumptuous of the media to jump to conclusions by insinuating that the
incident was rape only on the basis of leaked emails. 39

THE JOURNALIST RESIGNS

On November 25, 2013, in contempt of Tejpal and Chaudhury, the journalist who had initiated the sexual
assault charges against Tejpal quit the magazine. In a letter addressed to Chaudhury, the journalist said
that in their public acknowledgement of the events, both Tejpal and Chaudhury had referred to his act of
sexual violation as “an untoward incident,” 40 which was an “attempt to cover up” what had “really
occurred,” that she was “deeply traumatized by the lack of support offered by the organization” and that
she was “shattered to find the editor-in-chief of Tehelka and [Chaudhury] — in [her] capacity as
managing editor — resorting to . . . tactics of intimidation, character assassination and slander.” 41

She further accused Chaudhury of siding with Tejpal by writing:

I requested . . . for Mr Tejpal to acknowledge this apology publicly to the staff and bureau of
Tehelka . . . I asked that the words “sexual misconduct” be included. . . . you asked that he be
recused from doing so because he had already admitted to sexual molestation in his emails, and
because we needed to “protect the institution.” 42

On the same day, Chaudhury accepted the resignation while clarifying her position by writing:

Within one day of your complaint, you had the written apology. Tejpal stepped down the next day
. . . the process of setting up the anti-sexual harassment committee was begun. . . . I accept that
you may have found expressions I used, verbal or written, inappropriate . . . notwithstanding the
mildness perceived in my language, I took strong steps to ensure that there could be no possible
silencing of the issue. 43

Immediately after Chaudhury’s acceptance of the victim’s resignation, more staff members at Tehelka
started resigning 44 in solidarity for their colleague and in anger towards Chaudhury regarding the way she
had handled this crisis. There were also questions with respect to why she had not undertaken more
communication on the issue with her employees, except for informing them about an “untoward
incident” 45 and forwarding Tejpal’s email of recusal. Whatever staff knew was either through colleagues
with whom the victim was communicating or through social and print media.

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CHAUDHURY RESIGNS

Both the victim’s resignation email and Chaudhury’s acceptance of the resignation were leaked, giving
birth to a fresh round of controversy and debate on the manner in which Chaudhury had handled the entire
issue. Media was abuzz with questions on a veteran journalist’s inability to appreciate the sensitivity and
gravity of the issue, thereby transforming it into a poorly handled crisis. To make matters worse, media
platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and television channels were flooded with severe doubts regarding
Chaudhury’s intentions and the sufficiency of communication on such a sensitive issue. A keyword
search for ‘Tejpal case’ on Google.com yielded around 43,000,000 results in 0.35 seconds, 46 none
appearing to cast Chaudhury in a positive light. Meanwhile, there were protests outside Chaudhury’s
house, indicating just how badly her credibility had been compromised. The general public opinion was
that Shoma Chaudhury, formerly known as a crusader for women, had betrayed a woman in need when
her own organization was at stake.

This fresh onslaught forced Chaudhury to announce her decision to step down from her position with
Tehelka through an email to her colleagues sent on November 28, 2013 47 (see Exhibit 3). She also had
many questions to answer to herself. Had she been wrong in her effort to do right by her colleague, while
also trying to protect her institution? Did media pressure push her to respond inappropriately? Could she
have been more measured in her responses and communication? Was her communication with her staff
members and media insufficient?

With a sigh, Chaudhury readied herself for the press conference she had called to formally announce her
resignation and to respond to the volley of questions that media would throw at her. Wearily, she started
preparing a list of anticipated questions, so as to be measured in her responses. She was thinking of
accepting responsibility for her communication blunders but asserting the honesty of her intentions, as she
had already done in her first interview with Zee Media. 48 What she needed was a clear plan of action to
deal with the media and to avoid further complicating the issue.

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EXHIBIT 1: TEJPAL’S EMAIL TO CHAUDHURY

My dear Shoma,

The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment and
an awful misreading of the situation have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and
fight for. I have already unconditionally apologized for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel
impelled to atone further. Tehelka has been born and built, day on day, with my blood, toil, tears and sweat,
and that of many others, against near-insurmountable odds.

It has lived for and fought the big battles of our time, always on the side of the oppressed and the wronged,
always on the side of equity and justice. Its voice has travelled the world and changed policy and perceptions. It
has been a beacon for those who would do the right thing. Through bad, and worse, times I have protected
Tehelka and its journalists from the inevitable demands of power and corporations. I have always allowed every
journalist's sense of the right to flower and express itself. No one has ever been asked to do what they don't
believe in.

I have always held that Tehelka the institution, and its work, have always been infinitely more important than
any of us as individuals. It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles.

Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words.

I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of
Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months. You have always been stellar, Shoma, and even
as I apologize to you and all my other colleagues, for this unfortunate incident, I leave Tehelka in your more
than capable and safe hands.

In apology,
Tarun

EXHIBIT 2: CHAUDHURY’S EMAIL TO EMPLOYEES

Dear All,

This may come as a rude surprise to many of you. There is a letter from Tarun appended to this email. There
has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague
involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months.

Tehelka is an institution he has built, and which many journalists, both current and former, have contributed to
in the most profound ways. Throughout our 13-year career, we have proudly articulated and tried to live by the
highest standards. We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only
respond with right thought and action.

In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the
period mentioned. This is a hard time for all of us, and I hope all of you will stand by the institution.

Best, Shoma

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EXHIBIT 3: CHAUDHURY'S EMAIL OF RESIGNATION

Dear all,

This has been a damaging time for all associated with Tehelka. Since the devastating allegation was first
brought to my notice on November 18, I have taken a series of actions in response to this complaint. To
my mind, I acted on instant outrage and solidarity for our colleague as a woman and co-worker.

After the first steps to immediately address her expressed needs, the process of setting up the anti-sexual
harassment committee was begun. There were only two days to act on the complaint before the story
broke in the press. Post this, things have been misconstrued and have snowballed exponentially in the
media, based on half-facts and selective leaks. In the next stage, once the committee was formed, the
law would have taken its course according to the findings and recommendations.

Over the past week, I have been accused of an attempt to "cover-up" and for not standing by my feminist
positions. While I accept that I could have done many things differently and in a more measured way, I
reject the allegations of a cover-up because in no way could the first actions that were taken be deemed
suppression of any kind. As for my feminist positions, I believe I acted in consonance with them by giving
my colleague's account precedence over everything else.

However, despite this, as a result of what's transpired over the past few days my integrity has repeatedly
been questioned by people from our fraternity and, in fact, by the public at large. I would like to take
cognizance of this. I have worked hard for Tehelka for many years and what we have stood for is very
dear to me and I hold it in high esteem. I do not want questions raised about my integrity to tarnish the
image of Tehelka, which it has done in the past week. Therefore, I resign as managing editor with
immediate effect.

There are many readers and colleagues who have believed in me and expressed their faith through this
very difficult time. I am deeply grateful to them. I will come in to the office to close the issue and do the
necessary handovers. I cannot express how painful this is for me. It has never been a part of me to give
up midway through a challenge. I would have liked to continue at Tehelka to see us through this dark
time, but I am no longer sure whether my presence is harming or helping Tehelka. I deeply regret any
inadequacies or lack of clarity I may have displayed in my leadership.

Shoma

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ENDNOTES
1
This case has been written on the basis of published sources only. Consequently, the interpretation and perspectives
presented in this case are not necessarily those of Tehelka Magazine or any of its employees.
2
In an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai, CNN IBN Live, 28 November, 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wrUHnsUcAo,
accessed on 31 December, 2013.
3
“The Mail Trail: From Victim's Horror to Tarun Tejpal's Apology to Shoma Chaudhury's Resignation; 'Tehelka Sex Scandal'
that SHAMED Indian Media,” Dailybhaskar.com, November 29, 2013, http://daily.bhaskar.com/article/DEL-the-mail-trail-
between-shoma-chaudhary-tarun-tejpal-and-victim-journalist-read-h-4447772-PHO.html#seq=3, accessed on March 12,
2014.
4
THiNK Fest, started in 2011 as an annual literary festival and promoted as an event of Telekha, is organized by an entity
called Thinkworks Pvt Ltd, which is entirely owned by Tejpal, his sister Neena Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury. Its formal
objective is to provide a forum for thought-provoking discussions inviting worldwide participation. Indian Express, December
20, 2013, http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/tarun-tejpal---shoma-chaudhuryowned-firm-organises-think-fest-not-
tehelka/1199157/, accessed on January 12, 2014.
5
A weekly business magazine published by Bloomberg L.P., founded in 1982, created to provide information and
interpretation about what was happening in the business world. Bloomberg professional service is a ground breaking private
network with data, analytics and other financial information. www.bloomberg.com/company/#history, accessed on January
10, 2014.
6
www.goodreads.com/author/show/188562.Tarun_J_Tejpal, accessed on January 10, 2014.
7
A reputed English newspaper in India, established in 1865, www.itopc.org/travel-requisite/newspapers/pioneer.html,
accessed on January 10, 2014.
8
An Indian English weekly news magazine established in 1975, www.magzter.com/publishers/india-today-group, accessed
on January 10, 2014.
9
A weekly general interest English news magazine published in India, www.outlookindia.com/index.asp, accessed on
January 10, 2014.
10
www.tehelka.com/author/shoma-chaudhury/, accessed on March 25, 2014.
11
Ibid.
12
www.onlinemagazineshub.net/tehelka-english.html, accessed on March 25, 2014.
13
“The Mail Trail: From Victim's Horror to Tarun Tejpal's Apology to Shoma Chaudhury's Resignation; 'Tehelka Sex Scandal'
that SHAMED Indian Media,” op. cit.
14
Ibid.
15
In 1997, the Honorable Supreme Court of India, in its landmark Vishaka judgment, had mandated every office to have a
permanent grievance redressal mechanism to inquire into sexual harassment complaints by women employees., 9 May,
2013,
www.mondaq.com/india/x/238076/Discrimination+Disability+Sexual+Harassment/Indias+New+Labour+Law+Prevention+Of+
Sexual+Harassment+At+The+Workplace, accessed on 12 January 2014.
16
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” Yahoo India News, November 29, 2013, http://in.news.yahoo.com/the-email-trail-in-
the-tehelka-case-075131716.html, accessed on December 25, 2013.
17
In an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai, CNN IBN Live, November 28, 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wrUHnsUcAo,
accessed on December 31, 2013.
18
Ibid.
19
Ibid.
20
HT Correspondent, “After Flak, a Shift in Tehelka Stance,” The Hindustan Times, November 23, 2013,
www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/after-flak-a-shift-in-tehelka-stance/article1-1154696.aspx, accessed on December 14,
2013.
21
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.
22
Ibid.
23
Ibid.
24
Ibid.
25
Ibid.
26
Ibid.
27
Ibid.
28
In an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai, op. cit.
29
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.
30
Ibid.
31
Ibid.
32
In an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai, op. cit.
33
Deepshikha Ghosh, “Deeply Disappointed with Tehelka Response, Says Woman Journalist to NDTV,” NDTV, November
21, 2013, www.ndtv.com/article/india/deeply-disappointed-with-tehelka-response-says-woman-journalist-to-ndtv-448835,
accessed November 29, 2013.
34
Ibid.
35
Ibid.
36
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.

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37
HT Correspondent, “Tejpal's Resignation More than the Apology Woman Wanted: Tehelka's Shoma Chaudhury,” The
Hindustan Times, November 21, 2013, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/tejpal-s-resignation-more-than-the-apology-
woman-wanted-tehelka-s-shoma-chaudhury/article1-1154058.aspx, accessed on December 12, 2013.
38
Ibid.
39
HT Correspondent, “Tehelka is not Hushing Up Allegations against Tejpal: Shoma Chaudhury,” The Hindustan Times,
November 22, 2013, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/tehelka-is-not-hushing-up-allegations-against-tejpal-shoma-
chaudhury/article1-1154383.aspx, accessed on December 14, 2013.
40
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.
41
Ibid.
42
Ibid.
43
Ibid.
44
HT Correspondent, “Two Editors Quit Tehelka, Talk Swirls of Mass Resignations,” The Hindustan Times, November 24,
2013, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/2-editors-quit-tehelka-talk-swirls-of-mass-resignations/article1-1155074.aspx,
accessed on November 28, 2013.
45
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.
46
As on November 26, 2013.
47
“The Email Trail in the Tehelka Case,” op. cit.
48
In an interview to Sumit Awasthi, Zee Media, November 22, 2013, www.onlinenewsvideo.net/zee-media-talks-to-shoma-
chaudhury-interview-video_1e36263f2.html, accessed on December 31, 2013.

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