NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The editor-in-chief of one of India's leading investigative magazines has temporarily stepped down following allegations that he sexually assaulted a female colleague, local media reported on Thursday.
Tarun Tejpal, founder of the award-winning weekly magazine Tehelka - known for exposing corruption and human rights issues - confessed in a leaked email that "a bad lapse of judgement" and "an awful reading of the situation" had led to an "unfortunate incident".
According to reports, the victim said she was assaulted twice by Tejpal over a period of two days in a hotel elevator during a conference in coastal state of Goa earlier this month.
"I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further," 50-year-old Tejpal wrote in a mail sent to Tehelka's Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhary on Wednesday.
"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."
The alleged victim has not made an official complaint to the police, but local authorities in Goa said they had ordered an inquiry and were trying to contact her for a statement.
"We have ordered a preliminary inquiry. If the allegations are found to be true, the police will register a case," Goa's Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar told the NDTV news channel.
Tejpal is a veteran journalist and novelist with a career spanning over 25 years.
In 2001, Asiaweek listed him as one of Asia's 50 most powerful communicators, while in 2007 The Guardian named him among the 20 who constitute India's new elite. In 2009 BusinessWeek said he was one of 50 most powerful Indians.
The Tehelka case has sparked widespread debate within the Indian media and on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter about the silence that surrounds sexual harassment and assault in the country's workplaces.
Despite India's economic liberalisation which began more than two decades ago bringing with it more progressive ideas of gender equality and empowerment, women continue to face a barrage of threats due to deeply-entrenched patriarchal attitudes, women's rights activists say.
Working women are routinely exposed to sexual harassment by colleagues, managers or their employers, yet few report such cases fearing the loss of their jobs, or in some cases, persecution for speaking out against those more powerful.
The government passed a law in March aimed at tackling unwelcome behaviour such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and innuendos made at work.
But activists say few organisations have set up the grievance committees as stipulated by the law, which would provide a safe and sensitive place for women to come forward to report cases and hold perpetrators accountable.
Women's groups, journalists and members of the public on Thursday condemned Tejpal's actions, but were equally critical of what they said was a lenient response magazine's management by accepting his offer to leave his position for six months.
"While Tarun Tejpal is purportedly 'atoning' for what he terms 'an error of judgement' by stepping down as editor for six months, we believe that this is simply not enough," said a statement from the Network of Women in the Media, India.
"Institutional mechanisms must be set in place to investigate the complaint of sexual assault, prosecute the perpetrator, and deal with future cases."