India amended its rape law this year because of the horrendous case of rape and murder involving the 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi. The aim of the law was to make women feel safer, and one of the ways it tried to ensure that was to strengthen the definition of rape.

In the aftermath of the arrest of Tehelka’s founder and former editor Tarun Tejpal, there has been more than a murmur that perhaps the law has gone too far. The law was meant to try all individuals, regardless of their social status. But it seems many of the PLUs, or “people like us", thought the law would only apply to PLT, or “people like them"—the day-wage labourers, the migrant workers, “Bangladeshis", and others with no fixed address who, they believed, are more likely to commit rape. Sensible commentators and lawyers then and now have emphasized that rape is not more likely within a specific class, for rape is not only about sex; it is about violence and power.

No matter, some of Tejpal’s supporters now describe the incident as a “he-said-she-said" encounter, which indicates that the defence lawyers will fight the case aggressively. Others are trying to suggest that what may have happened between Tejpal and the Tehelka reporter in the lift could not be described as rape. That means they don’t know rape, and nor the law. In any case, it is now for the court to decide.

But the incident has cast a chill in some offices where some men wonder if they can act casually with women. Notice, when they speak of acting casually with women, the examples they think of are always about touching them, staring at them and being misunderstood, admiring how they look or dress, or making jokes that one does not normally repeat in polite company. It is as if that’s the only casual contact possible between men and women—an occasional brush, a flirtatious remark, a risqué joke. That trivializes the nature of the debate. Sexual harassment is not light-hearted banter, and rape is rape.

But worried that they would have to handle many complaints, some men are saying they will hire fewer women, so that they don’t have to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. This misunderstands the situation at two levels—it assumes that most men are predators and that most women will make frivolous complaints. Rather, Indian managers should hire more women, so that our workplaces begin to look like our society, and not boys’ clubs.

Tehelka’s journalism provoked strong reactions. Its fans talk of “the idea of Tehelka". The idea meant muckraking journalism to its victims, and courageous investigation to its supporters, the means the magazine deployed being irrelevant. So it is not surprising that the reporter’s case has attracted some unlikely supporters. Ironically, many who hated Tehelka’s reporting of the mass violence in Gujarat in 2002, when many Muslim women were raped, an issue over which they had not expressed outrage, are now so angry that they wanted the Tehelka reporter to lodge her complaint against Tejpal to the police immediately. Tejpal compounded it, saying that he was a victim of a political conspiracy: that was unbecoming of him. It stretched credibility, while gratuitously insulting the reporter. Expectedly, the reporter immediately clarified she wasn’t part of any political conspiracy. The Hindu right alone isn’t cheering the reporter—many feminists (the genuine ones, not lapsed ones) have done so too.

Tehelka’s survival is now in question—newspapers have been feasting on disclosures about how Tehelka operates as a business (including who owns it, what parts are profitable and what aren’t), and Tejpal and the magazine co-founder and former managing editor Shoma Chaudhury have left. The Hindu right is jubilant.

But the Hindu right’s concern is self-serving and deeply patronizing: they want to make decisions on the reporter’s behalf, in effect denying her agency. The decision—what to do after she had been assaulted—was always hers. Nobody should presume to take away her decision.

It is easy for cavalier keyboard guerrillas and ardent feminists to cheer her from sidelines. But trials can get troublingly intrusive for the accuser, and if she testifies, the defence lawyer may try to pry into her personal life. (A defence lawyer has already named her in open court). The Tehelka reporter had to weigh all these factors in her decision.

There is no need to rewrite the new rape law. The law lays down limits. When the limit is broken, the victim will complain. Prosecution will follow if the complaint has merit. Successful prosecutions will prove when the law is broken. Sound judgements will build the edifice of what constitutes civilized behaviour. The courts will step in and require of us what our schools, elders, and parents failed to teach us—that we must all respect the dignity of the individual—man or woman. Not so hard, is it?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com.

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-

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