With ‘Me Too’ movement gaining significant momentum in India, six women have come forward and accused sexual harassment by union minister in Prime Narendra Modi government and former journalist MJ Akbar.
“Akbar is an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer.” “You know how to pinch, pat, rub, grab and assault. Speaking up against you still carries a heavy price that many young women cannot afford to pay,” said Journalist Priya Ramani who wrote her ordeal in an article in October 2017 for Vogue India without naming Akbar.
She has now confirmed in a tweet that the allegation was against Akbar. Ramani has worked for India Today, The Indian Express and Mint. According to her accounts, Akbar had called her for a job interview to his “plush south Mumbai hotel” when she was 23 and he was 43.
She said that Akbar did not meet her in the hotel lobby and insisted that she meet him in his room. According to her, there, he offered a drink. Although she refused, he drank vodka, sang old songs to her and asked her to sit close to him. She described the interview as “more date, less interview”.
“I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator – maybe they’ll share,” she tweeted with a link to her Vogue India story on Monday.
According to Indian Express, Ramani later joined Akbar’s team. When she was contacted by news daily, she declined to comment. MJ Akbar has not yet responded. He is currently in Nigeria.
Akbar, who has been the editor of prominent newspapers like The Telegraph, Asian Age and The Sunday Guardian, is a member of the Rajya Sabha from the BJP and currently MoS for External Affairs.
The accusation against Akbar comes amid a series of similar sexual misconduct allegations on social media against men in the entertainment and media industries. Well known public figures like Nana Patekar, Vikas Bahl, Alok Nath, Rajat Kapoor, Chetan Bhagat, Hindustan Times journalist Prashant Jha among others have been accused of sexual harassment by colleagues.
Freelance journalist Kanika Gahlaut, who worked with Akbar from 1995 to 1997 at the Asian Age and other publications faced a similar problem. She told IE, “One did hear, from the beginning, from before we joined that MJ (Akbar) had a glad eye, and we were forewarned”. Akbar “did it to everyone.”
She told the newspaper that Akbar had asked her to come for breakfast in the morning to the hotel. She said she agreed to go but then didn’t show up. “Then called him and said sorry sir, I overslept and couldn’t come. He was OK with it. He never bothered me and I continued to do well. He never subjugated me or took it out on me,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
Other journalists, Suparna Sharma, currently the Resident Editor of The Asian Age, Delhi who worked from 1993 to 1996 with Akbar, told IE that one day, she was making the page one of the paper, Akbar was “standing behind” her. “He plucked my bra strap and said something which I don’t remember now. I screamed at him.”
She mentioned another incident that took place a “little later”. She was wearing a T-shirt with something written on it and walked into his cabin at work, “and he stared at my breasts and then said something which I ignored”.
In another incident, she told the newspaper that she had witnessed, a young woman who had just joined office “came in wearing a pair of shorts” and Akbar “came out of his office, looked at her as she bent down to pick up something, and gestured at me to ask who she was”.
“These transgressions were routine. No one was spared and at that time there were no committees one could go to,” she said.
Sharma told the newspaper that at least three women confided in her about his sexual misconduct. “He pursued almost all women in the same way – meetings in hotels, dangling plum assignments at them, sending them out of town and then arranging to meet them in a hotel, or insisting that they take a car ride with him. He mostly preyed on young women who lived alone, loved their jobs and were bright and ambitious,” she said.
A woman journalist named Shuma Raha said Akbar called her to his hotel room for an interview for Asian Age in Kolkata’s Taj Bengal in 1995. She said that he didn’t “do” anything, but “an interview sitting on a bed in a hotel room followed by an invitation to come over for a drink that evening was rattling and deeply uncomfortable”. She said she declined the job offer.
Another journalist, Prerna Singh Bindra, said Akbar also called her to his hotel room to ‘discuss work’ after she had fired the edition at midnight. She alleged that he “made life at work hell” for her when she refused.
Journalist Shutapa Paul, retweeing Ramani’s tweet naming Akbar, wrote, “#MeToo #MJAkbar 2010-11 while in @IndiaToday in Kolkata.”
The ministry of external affairs has not yet issued a statement on the allegations. When journalists asked the minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj whether an internal probe to examine the allegations would be set up, she did not respond and walked away.
At a regular party briefing, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra was asked but he also declined to comment.
On the other hand, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told reporters that it is an “extremely serious matter and the minister concerned needs to speak up”. Tewari added that “silence cannot be a way out” and that the matter should be investigated.