There comes a time in the life of every institution when it outgrows its founders. With luck, this is a moment the institution can prepare for, putting in place people and systems that can take the institution forward, retain the spirit and philosophy behind it, and yet open itself to change. Charismatic, articulate, strong and committed founders bring a vision, a dream that has the capacity to resonate with others, and inspire and infuse them with the energy to join in what must be a collective enterprise to take that vision forward. And yet, such leadership can only ever be the catalyst for something that has to be a larger movement.
TEHELKA did not have the luxury of making a smooth transition to a new moment when the reins could pass into new hands. Instead, the unfortunate incidents that took place at THiNK last November launched the institution headlong into an unprecedented crisis, depriving it of not one but two of its key founders and, very likely, much of the funding that their connections were able to bring in.
And yet, it’s important to remember that while those individuals — Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury — have had to step down, the institution itself remains, albeit on shaky ground. Should it be allowed to die just because those at the helm have had to step down? The short answer to that should be a clear ‘No’. There are many reasons why TEHELKA must stay alive, and why those of us who believed in what it was trying to do must keep it alive.
TEHELKA created a space in our lives — at a moment when such spaces were shrinking rapidly — where bold and subversive questions could be raised, where issues such as human rights, tribal rights, caste, class and gender found a space and were fearlessly articulated, where passionate and angry journalism had a voice and so much more.
As a feminist, it’s difficult for me to forget the exposé of 20 of Delhi’s top police officers and their views on sexual violation. Or the profiles of Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Soni Sori, Irom Sharmila and indeed even the sympathetic and empathetic profile of the unfortunate Sunanda Pushkar.
Ought that space to disappear just because the editors have stepped down? Clearly not. It is such spaces that provide the oxygen in an increasingly oppressive environment where voices of resistance have to struggle to be heard.
There is another reason why institutions should not be allowed to die out so easily. TEHELKA is not only the journalistic space, the space of ideas that is so valuable. It is also an institution that employs people, provides them a livelihood and enables them to earn not only money but also self-esteem and experience. What will happen to the lives of these people if the institution closes down? When people are in regular jobs, there are other obligations they take on in their lives, which are premised on the promise of a salary and surety of employment. School fees, instalments on purchases, bank loans and so on. The shutting down of TEHELKA will mean that its staff — not only journalists, but also administrative and support staff — will suddenly find themselves on the road. Who will take the responsibility of their lives?
The TEHELKA debacle — or perhaps one should not term it that as the incidents that took place relate to the editor, Tarun Tejpal, and not to the magazine — but however one might term it, the incidents that took place in Goa and the subsequent developments also alert us to another important thing: the importance of transparency, especially for organisations that see themselves as fulfilling a political purpose. TEHELKA was located firmly in this space, and had there been openness about its finances, and the constraints on running such an organisation, perhaps the backlash would not have been as strong, nor would the actions of an individual have impacted so many.
Every such incident offers us important lessons and there is much to be learnt for many of us from this moment too. If we can learn from these to keep a voice like TEHELKA alive, that will be enough.