When watchdogs become ostriches

In discussions on the ‘Tehelka scandal’, many people have criticized Shoma Chaudhury’s handling of the situation. Some senior persons in other organizations have declared that they would have reacted differently if whatever happened in Tehelka had happened in their organization.

From all available reports, it appears that Shoma Chaudhury has not handled the situation in the manner that she should have. However, the people criticizing her must remember that it’s easy to speak about a hypothetical situation, but extremely difficult to rise to the occasion in reality.

Whenever any highly-placed person gets involved in any controversy, that person’s family members and/or colleagues generally make non-committal statements, which are often accompanied by legal-sounding disclaimers.

In recent times, I can recall only two persons whose reaction could not be faulted.

In December 2012, Abhijeet Mukherjee, Congress MP and son of President Pranab Mukherjee, made his infamous “dented, painted women” remark. In an interview with CNN-IBN, his sister Sharmistha Mukherjee said, “…. my utter shock and anguish …… I really apologies on his behalf to every woman, every man, every sensitive person in this country …… this is not the family view …… I am definitely going to take up this issue with him …… I am acutely embarrassed …… I am shocked and shaken by this statement made by my brother …… any sensitive man shouldn’t have made this kind of statement …..” Ms. Mukherjee’s words sound genuine and certainly not like a prepared statement.

Earlier this month, there were media reports about a blog post by a woman lawyer, in which she stated that she had been sexually harassed by a retired Supreme Court judge in December 2012 when she was an intern with him. It was heartening to see that the Chief Justice of India did not beat around the bush or ‘wait for more information’, but immediately announced an inquiry by three Supreme Court judges into the allegation. His statement echoed the thoughts of most persons who had read the reports and/or the blog post: “We cannot take it lightly. As the head of the institution, I am also concerned about the allegation and anxious whether the statement is true or not.”

Not just public figures, many of us are extremely vocal watchdogs when speaking about perpetrators of major and minor crimes and misdemeanours, but choose to ignore reality, burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, when we or our loved ones are the perpetrators. I’m sure that, like I, many people have often heard affectionate parents make statements like “My son was a very good boy. He was spoilt by bad company,” conveniently passing on the responsibility to person(s) other than their own offspring! Most people indulge in finger-pointing, not in introspection.

A classic example: On November 27, 2013, Firstpost carried an article ‘Amul’s Tehelka ad: Just utterly butterly tasteless’ criticizing the Amul advertisement’s take on the Tehelka scandal. The article states, “When Chetan Bhagat tweeted “The rupee is asking, is there no punishment for my rapists?” it was unfunny and insensitive. This is not about being politically correct. Rape jokes just are not funny.” It also quotes Firstpost’s Lakshmi Chaudhry: “Rape analogies and references are so routine so as to be invisible. We don’t even notice their inappropriateness most of the time, not even when we’re laughing at the latest rape gag making the rounds.” Firstpost seemed to be unaware that, just the previous day, Sagarika Ghose’s blog post on ibnlive.in.com was titled ‘Why the Aarushi Talwar case is a rape of justice’. Was this not insensitive? Was this not inappropriate? Or was the title acceptable because both Firstpost and ibnlive.in.com are part of Network 18?

Just before publishing this post, I heard Rajdeep Sardesai make the following statement on a talk show on CNN-IBN about, what else, Tehelka: “Do you think credibility is like virginity? Once lost, it cannot be regained.” None of the panelists appeared to object. Was this not insensitive? Was this not inappropriate?

If you have come across instances where people have been open-minded when reacting to the alleged misdemeanours of persons close to them, please do share those instances with us.