Last week, a leading feminist by the name of Vijay Jolly was so outraged by the alleged cover-up of a case of alleged sexual assault involving Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal that he non-allegedly vandalized the residence of Tehelka’s former managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. Around the same time, the youth wing of a right-wing political party, whose members have a patchy record of respecting women’s rights, held protests outside the Tehelka office demanding that Tejpal be immediately locked up—due process of law be damned. Meanwhile, on a television channel, the spokesperson of a regional party notorious for its misogynistic moral policing screamed out his eloquent support for the female journalist at the heart of the whole saga.

Tejpal, it appears, has transformed everyone into a feminist. And these are feminists who ask no questions and have all the answers. As it happens, no one is more feminist these days than the leading lights of a party that has suffered the most at the hands of Tehelka’s journalism in the past—except perhaps former Tehelka staffers who were hard done by by the alleged financial and other misdeeds of the magazine’s management and/or disgusted by its betrayal of its own moral and journalistic covenant.

Individuals from both these groups have been at the forefront of the fulminating brigade in what has come to be branded as the “Tejpal rape case". The admirable moral indignation and evangelical fervour of these new recruits to the cause of women’s rights have drowned out the measured arguments of hard-boiled feminists who have been grinding it out in the women’s movement for ages, and who, over the past week or so had sought, in vain, to broaden the public discourse surrounding the Tejpal rape case.

The single most important issue concerning gender violence and justice—and it is a complex one as we shall see—that ought to have been debated at length in the context of the Tejpal case but was largely bypassed has to do with the legal and social challenges a rape victim stands to face if she files a criminal complaint, and also if she doesn’t. The Goa police, in the Tejpal case, took suo moto notice of leaked emails and filed an FIR on its own under the media glare. This is a far cry from what usually happens in India, where a rape survivor’s battle for justice begins with trying to convince a hostile policeman to register a case.

Noted lawyer and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover tells me, “It is easy for people to sound righteous about the Tehelka staffer or any other rape victim going through the legal process, but society is still largely biased against women and suspicious of women who come with complaints of rape—they often suspect them of deceit." Anybody who doubts this would do well to have a chat with Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agarwal.

And this bias is very much present among the officials who populate the criminal justice system. A legislation such as the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013, which was passed in the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape, is just one small step towards a more gender-just legal framework. The investigative process, which must necessarily precede any enforcement of law, is itself far from gender-sensitive. To take just one example, the two-finger test for rape complainants was banned in 2011 and the Supreme Court has called it degrading. But it continues to be widely used in medical examination of rape victims.

“Neither our police stations nor our courts nor our investigative procedures nor our trial processes are gender-sensitive," says Grover. “These hurdles, coming on top of the social stigma attached to the tag of rape victim, weigh heavily on any woman who stands up to lodge a complaint. So people have neither the right to question a woman’s motives if she chooses not to file a police complaint, nor force her to go through a judicial process if she wishes not to." In broader feminist terms, this is known as respecting the agency of the victim.

But then, the question of agency is not as simple as it seems. According to a political scientist at Delhi University, Saroj Giri, “Once you desocialise gender violence, what is basically an upper middle class woman’s agency gets peddled as true for all women. Hence the agency of the young journalist in this case can very well go counter to the real nature of the law, police and the state, all of which together brutalized (Chhattisgarh schoolteacher) Soni Sori. But you still have to respect her decision or agency if you are feminist!"

What Giri is getting at here are two different issues: first, how reducing gender violence to a matter of crime or cognizable offence shuts off all social critique of unjust gender relations (what he calls “desocialization"); second, he is drawing attention to how a certain representation of the law and order machinery—in this case, the cops who took suo moto notice of the case to file an FIR—is class coded, and a factor of privilege.

The “different version" of the incident(s) in the Grand Hyatt elevator proffered by Tejpal evoked widespread ridicule and opprobrium. But as Giri points out, in the case of victims from other social strata, and as exemplified by the case of Sori, who was allegedly sexually abused by cops, the “different version" is usually that of the state and the police. So a feminist understanding of the role of the criminal justice system and the agency of the woman in the case of the Tehelka staffer is at odds with the one that comes into play in the case of Sori. You cannot treat the victim’s version with respect in one case and scepticism in the other. But this is precisely what has happened, with the state bestowing a gallantry medal on the cop who, according to Sori’s version, ordered the sexual assault on her. Hello, are you are feminist, or are you a ‘feminist (conditions apply)’?

Questions such as these—and there are others—cannot be answered in 140 characters or in the 90-second bytes allowed by a hectoring news anchor. Tejpal, if found guilty, deserves the most stringent punishment under the law. But till then, we are not doing either the alleged victim or the cause of gender justice any favours by indulging in the kind of facile moral vigilantism that has characterized much of the public engagement with this case.

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