Me Too’: sexual harassment survivors speak up against minister MJ Akbar
MJ Akbar, a former journalist and reputed editor, has become a frequent name floating on the internet since the recent eruption of the #MeToo movement in India. Nine journalists have called out the now Rajya Sabha member and the Minister of State for External Affairs, who has also previously held various positions in multiple news media organisations, including The Telegraph, Asian Age and India Today.
These survivors’ accounts paint a stomach-churning pattern to his sexual abuse – set up job interviews with aspiring women journalists in hotel rooms, repeatedly call them to his office cabin for meaningless conversation and chatter, entice them with major stories, send them out of the workplace and meet them at a hotel at odd hours.
Job interviews at hotel rooms
One of the first survivors of workplace sexual harassment to bring MJ Akbar’s name to the fore, Priya Ramani, a journalist formerly with India Today, The Indian Express and Mint, first wrote about her encounter with him a year ago. She did not expose his name then but dubbed him as a ‘male editor’ who behaved inappropriately, in an account titled Dear Male Boss.
As the #MeToo Movement began to gain momentum in October 2017, Priya now made it clear that the detailed account in Vogue, was about Akbar’s misconducts.
In the 1994 incident, she recounts how MJ Akbar interviewed her in a luxury south Mumbai hotel, offered her a drink (which she refused), asked her to sit next to him on the bed and even sang her romantic Hindi songs after enquiring her musical preferences.
In her account, she also goes on to talk about the nature of power dynamics in professional spaces and how she continued working with Akbar for several years but swore never to be alone in a room with him ever again.
Incidentally, she had ended her 2017 account saying, “We’ll get you all one day.”
More survivors came out after Priya’s account.
Sharing a similar experience as Priya, author Shuma Raha told The Indian Express, that she called for an interview with Akbar for a job at Asian Age, to a hotel in Kolkata in 1995.
“When I reached the lobby, he asked me to come upstairs and I didn’t think too much of it but there was a level of discomfort about sitting on the bed while giving an interview,” Raha told IE. He later asked her to join him for a drink later. This discouraged her from taking up the job.
Journalist Prerna Singh Bindra replied to Priya’s tweet, recalling a similar invite from Akbar to a hotel. “He was this brilliant, flamboyant editor who dabbled in politics, who called me… to his hotel room to ‘discuss work’…. made life at work hell when I refused, could not speak up due to various compulsions, but yes #MeTooIndia,” she tweeted without taking his name.
Later, on Tuesday, she mentioned his name in the subsequent tweets, where she mentions how Akbar made lewd comments during a meeting. “One of the girls told me later he had asked them to meet him in the hotel too. I was alone in the city, vulnerable, fighting battles on personal fronts. I kept quiet,” she said.
Freelance journalist Kanika Gahlaut, who worked with MJ Akbar between 1995 and 1997 at the Asian Age and other publications, says she was forewarned of his “glad eye” and that he “did it to everyone”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, she said, “He said to come for breakfast in the morning to the hotel and we knew that he sort of paws and all”. She, however, managed to wriggle out of the invite with excuses.
Suparna Sharma, who is currently the Resident Editor of The Asian Age, Delhi, was in her early 20s when she had her first brush with Akbar. While making a page of the newspaper, Akbar was standing behind her. “He plucked my bra strap and said something that I don’t remember now. I screamed at him,” she told The Indian Express. In another instance, she says, he stared at her breast when she wore a T-shirt that had a writing on it and muttered something under his breath, which she ignored.
Reacting to Priya’s tweet, journalist Harinder Baweja said, “So many of us have an MJ story. “Can I come over to your house with a bottle of rum?” he said. NO, was the answer…. Couldn’t ‘do’ anything. Some don’t get the meaning of No… they move on to the next, don’t they,” she tweeted.
Meeting at odd hours
Although journalist Shutapa Paul replied to Priya’s tweet, calling out MJ Akbar, she did not reveal much. She took some time to gather her thoughts and relive the series of events that happened eight years ago when she was working in India Today in Kolkata.
Finally, on Wednesday, she recalled her days as a 26-year-old journalist who had just lost her father in 2010. “Today, I’m ready to talk about the sexual predator that is MJ Akbar,” she began.
In a string of tweets, she recalls how she had a rewarding career graph until “MJ Akbar, a well-known, rockstar editor, had taken up the reins of India Today,” she tweeted.
As he made frequent visits to Kolkata bureau, he made several sexual advances and harassed her, including squeezing her elbow, inviting her to hotels at odd hours, threatening her and forcing her to drink.
A few times, he would just stare at her while she discussed her story ideas, making her feel uncomfortable.
Once, when he asked her to drop by his residence, he hugged her. “MJ Akbar gave me a hard hug; I ducked whatever else could have followed and fled. He seemed amused at my ducking,” he wrote.
She even skipped the meetings with him at late hours at a hotel. Rejecting Akbar’s overtures spilled over to her profession. From a reporter who was doing impactful stories, she was relegated to small stories.
“For days, I was depressed, traumatised and very low. I hadn’t even gotten over the untimely demise of my father and here was someone the same age as my father who was causing me irreparable emotional damage,” she says in her account.
“I wish I had fought back then but I didn’t know how. The only way I could, was to work hard and keep proving myself professionally. I hope this fight can bring about lasting change in our society and workplace,” she wrote.
Physical assaults to emotional harassment
Journalist and author Ghazala Wahab’s account of MJ Akbar’s persistent sexual abuses against her are deeply upsetting and harrowing. She is the latest survivor to corroborate the string of allegations against the central minister.
Recounting her #MeToo experience in a post in The Wire, she said she joined The Asian Age in Delhi in 1994, where MJ Akbar was the editor then. While she was aware of his flirtations with the young sub-editors and indecorous jokes and comments, she brushed it aside as office culture. However, little did she know that her ordeal was about to begin.
In 1997, when Akbar’s lusty eyes fell on Ghazala, who got her desk shifted just outside his office cabin. Ghazala details how he started sending her salacious messages on the Asian Age intranet network and later started calling her into his cabin for trivial chatter.
She then lists a catalogue of triggering occasions where he sexually assaulted her. Once, while writing his weekly column, Akbar asked her to hand him a huge dictionary placed on a low tripod in his cabin. While she was half-squatting over the dictionary, Ghazala recounts, “he sneaked up behind me and held me by my waist. I stumbled in sheer fright while struggling to get to my feet. He ran his hands from my breast to my hips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist, his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts. Not only was the door shut, his back blocked it. In those few moments of terror, all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind. Finally, he released me.”
In other instances, he would forcefully kiss her but she would manage to free herself. On a then colleague’s suggestion, she apprised then Bureau Chief Seema Mustafa of the matter. When Ghazala wrote to Akbar warning him not to harass her again, he called her back to his cabin, saying how she humiliated him and suspected his emotions for her as not genuine.
His harassment continued – “He would put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips, and every time I would push him away and escape from his room,” she writes.
He later resorted to emotionally harassing her, even when she finally quit.
‘Mughal Emperor who hunted the new belles’
Saba Naqvi was another survivor who spoke up. Though she does not reveal his name in the article, she christens him as “a grand Mughal Emperor”, “the Badshah” and “his Majesty the Editor” in her account in Dailyo. She, however, retweeted a tweet that mentioned that the editor in question was MJ Akbar.
It was her first job as a trainee was in Calcutta in the late 80s. She would manage to run every time she saw “the editor” coming from a distance.
Once, he landed up at her apartment, on the pretext that he had come to Russell Street for his article on a series on poverty in her region. He would summon her to his office on multiple occasions for meaningless conversations when he would speak to her chest than her face. Saba even says he managed to get her boyfriend transferred… “to get useless young men out of the way while he hunted the new belles (oops, trainees),” she writes.
Though she says Akbar never laid a hand on her, she urges women “to ensure that more male bosses are deterred from acting as sexual bullies.”