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The rapid rehabilitation of powerful men: Of RK Pachauri, AK Ganguly, Swatanter Kumar, Tarun Tejpal and the length of memories…

Artist's impression of how a rehabilitation could look
Artist's impression of how a rehabilitation could look

On Saturday (26 March), The Guardian newspaper published a much-viral, much-sympathetic and much-criticised feature about RK Pachauri, the part-disgraced former Teri head who stands accused of criminal charges relating to his alleged sexual harassment over a junior colleague.

Following several minor victories, such as entering Teri in a new role and winning the right to travel, the Guardian article gave Pachauri space to air his defence to the charges - as is his legal right. He also claimed that his accuser had been “actively” flirting and “aggressively encouraged a deeper relationship” with him, and that her allegation cooked up in a conspiracy by anti-environmentalists and his many other enemies (the complainant was not pleased by the spin, according to this report).

But this is not a new narrative, either in Pachauri's or other cases; in fact, such rehabilitation of powerful men, whether in the eyes of the mainstream media, politics or the common man and woman, is par for the course, albeit a massively nuanced matter.

The two-and-a-half-year rehabilitation of AK Ganguly

Acknowledgements from Ganguly's book: Sweet or not so nice?
Acknowledgements from Ganguly's book: Sweet or not so nice?

AK Ganguly, retired judge of the Supreme Court and ex-chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), was a panellist on the Telegraph National Debate earlier this month; a lawyer who attended blogged that Ganguly's appearance without the slightest protest about his character, had convinced him that the “issue was 'now confined to the dustbin of history'”.

To jog memories, the issue in question is that Ganguly had resigned mere days from the state HRC before parliament had begun impeachment proceedings to remove him from office, after a three-Supreme-Court-judge committee in November 2013 had found prima facie evidence of “unwelcome behaviour” by the ex-judge towards one of his former student research assistants.

While Ganguly continued to deny all allegations in his resignation letter as “unfounded and baseless”, the way the wind was blowing and evidence was stacking up, it's fair to describe it as a narrow escape for him: more likely than not the presidential reference against him would have succeeded.

Also pertinent to mention is that towards the latter stages of the scandal the poor man (and it seems proportionate to use that adjective in this context), was hounded by TV camera crews on his morning walks and had effigies of himself burnt outside of his office.

But only seven months later, the rehabilitation began: several stories in July of 2014 stated matter-of-factly that Ganguly had received a "clean chit" from the police after the intern “refused” to testify.

As I explained in an article at the time, there were several facts missing in those stories, but the clean chit achievement was nevertheless unlocked as it has been by so many tainted movers and shakers who have escaped criminal prosecution (hoping that this rubs off to erase any moral culpability).

Powerful men have other tools available too. Late last year, for instance, in the acknowledgements of his book, Landmark Judgements That Changed India, Ganguly by name thanked four interns, including the one who had famously made the sex harassment allegation against him: "In writing this book, I received invaluable assistance from various interns. I would especially like to mention the names of [AA], [BJ] and [SJ]. [...] All of them were bright students of the West Bengal University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. It is futile for me to express my gratitude to these students as they are virtually like my children. I wish and pray that all of them have a bright future."

On one level, it is kindly uncle Ganguly making an innocent, even sweet statement of thanks to interns, who no doubt deserve credit for their often uncredited work.

On the other, him establishing himself as a father figure in this context is deeply inappropriate considering that one of the interns he named in his book had alleged that Ganguly had kissed her arm, told her he loved her and asked her to share a room with her.

One reasonable interpretation is Ganguly continuing to white-wash his own image, particularly as the intern's name is well-known after she made the initial allegations (without naming Ganguly) in her own name on a blog.

Even NUJS Kolkata - the college that provided Ganguly with student interns of whom he allegedly harassed one - recently re-welcomed Ganguly.

Ganguly had quit in January 2014 as NUJS guest faculty member because he did not want to “be a burden” following the brouhaha, with the college distancing itself from him after faculty and student protests. But exactly two years later, on 9 January of this year, Ganguly was chief guest at a campus event.

It is understood that Ganguly's former intern was in touch with the college about the invite with several faculty members registering their protest, and it emerged that an external organiser of the event had 'accidentally' invited Ganguly.

When asked via email why Ganguly was invited, NUJS vice chancellor, Professor Ishwara Bhat, responded only in an email with: "I have intimated Ms [SJ] on this matter. We are fully committed to the cause of protection of women and girls in the campus."

Pachauri claims victimhood
Pachauri claims victimhood
Legitimate question

It is instructive to look at the rehabilitation, or otherwise, of other powerful men accused of sexual harassment in the past few years in India.

Ex-Supreme Court judge Swatanter Kumar, for instance, has continued as chairman of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) after an aggressive defamation action and questionable gag order against several media organisations, as well as against the intern who filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment against him in the Supreme Court.

The original allegations have since receded into the background, with the court system currently tied up in knots amidst typical delays in deciding Kumar's former intern's plea to move the case out of the Delhi high court (where Kumar used to preside as a judge and is alleged to still carry significant influence, as perhaps evidenced by its wide ranging gag order that Kumar's lawyers Karanjawala & Co had tried to interpret as prohibiting anyone from publishing Kumar's photo).

Ganguly's, Kumar's, and Pachauri's rehabilitations, in-part and in varying degrees, would suggest the following roadmap for others finding themselves in similar situations and wanting to remain in public life: avoid allegations becoming proven facts, sometimes by stalling legal processes; lay low, let things blow over; then gradually and cautiously re-emerge into public life.

But at the same time, their stories also raise a legitimate question: how long should a powerful man accused (or even convicted) of sexual harassment be a persona non grata, publicly, particularly since powerful men often have a value that they can contribute to the public discourse?

How does the limitation period for (alleged?) sexual harassment stack up against (alleged or proven) corruption, or white collar crimes, for instance?

It is hard to tell whether it is the rape charge that has apparently made Tarun Tejpal a more permanently toxic brand than the others, or whether it has been the fact that Tejpal was jailed, that the media establishment had turned on one of their own with glee, or that the substance of the allegations went public (and viral), in unvarnished detail, very quickly.

When Tejpal was invited to the Times of India litfest as a speaker in November 2014, he was almost immediately uninvited after a public outcry, mostly on Twitter.

Or maybe that was just a function of time, having been not even a year after the first surfacing of the allegations against him?

There is no obvious answer except that such arbitrary inconsistency is an indictment of the legal system more than anything else, being linked to the legal and PR strategies that are pursued rather than any culpability or guilt.

Due to the gaps in our criminal and civil justice system, it becomes easy to try and skirt responsibility, while the powerful man, by definition, continues to have access to media and the corridors of power for months and years after the initial allegations die down. For a lifetime (or usually sooner, when all has been forgotten), alleged perpetrators can hide behind 'but it was never proven', which gradually gets reshaped into a clean chit and then into conference and party invites again, as in the good old days.

So, while it may seem that it is easy to destroy the reputations and life works of powerful men when initial allegations surface, for most it ends up being little more than a speedbump in their career that needs to be carefully managed.

It would be preferable, as it is so often when we speak about the legal system, if such cases were opened and shut in a few months, letting all parties involved get on with their lives and put the past behind them, without recourse to double-speak.

Pachauri picture by Evstafiev

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