Law

M.J. Akbar's Memory Eludes Him on the Stand Again in Priya Ramani Defamation Case

Akbar claimed to not recall most instances of sexual harassment levelled against him by at least 18 women.

New Delhi: On the second day of cross-examination, M.J. Akbar, the former minister in the Narendra Modi government, claimed he could not remember many of the women who have publicly accused him of sexual harassment.

In October 2018, journalist Priya Ramani and at least 17 other women had accused Akbar of sexual harassment, and in one case, even rape. Despite the various accounts on public platforms, Akbar decided to sue only Ramani for criminal defamation.

However, while on the stand at a district court in Delhi, under oath to tell the truth, Akbar said he could not remember many of the women who have accused him of harassment. He also said that he had not read the tweets or the news reports where the women had come on-record with their allegations.

Akbar claimed he was being made aware of several of these cases for the first time in the courtroom itself by Ramani’s lawyer during the cross-examination.

Some of the 18 women who have made allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar and the platforms they used include: Priya Ramani (Vogue/Twitter), Pallavi Gogoi (Washington Post), Ghazala Wahab (The Wire), Saba Naqvi (DailyO/Twitter), Majlie de Puy Kamp (Huffington Post), Shuma Raha (Indian Express/Twitter), Harinder Baweja (Twitter), Shutapa Paul (Twitter), Suparna Sharma (Indian Express), Anju Bharti (Twitter), Malini Bhupta (Twitter), Kadambari Wade (Twitter), Kanika Gahlaut (Indian Express), Ruth David (Medium), Prerna Bindra (Twitter), Tushita Patel (Scroll), Swati Gautam (Quint) and Sujata Anandan (Twitter).

In court today, Priya Ramani’s lawyer Rebecca John asked Akbar briefly about a few of these women: Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Shuma Raha, Shunali Khullar Shroff, Majlie de Puy Kamp, Harinder Baweja, Shutapa Paul and Kadambari Wade. Akbar said he could not remember that Ramani had asked to be transferred from Delhi to Mumbai, just about ten days after working in his Delhi office. He also said he did not remember Shroff and Wade and had not read the accounts of Wahab, Paul or Khullar.

Akbar has also been accused of rape by Pallavi Gogoi, who is currently the chief business editor for NPR in the US. She said he raped her when she was 23 years old: “In his hotel room, even though I fought him, he was physically more powerful. He ripped off my clothes and raped me.”

Akbar put out a statement saying it was a consensual relationship.

Also read: Can’t ‘Recall’ Details, Says M.J. Akbar in #MeToo Sexual Harassment Defamation Case

Ghazala Wahab, writing in The Wire, described how Akbar allegedly molested her, “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.”

Several women, including Ramani, described a similar pattern of sexual harassment, where Akbar insisted they meet him for job interviews at hotel rooms.

Tushita Patel described her interaction with Akbar, saying, “You opened the door dressed only in your underwear. I stood at the door, stricken, scared and awkward.” Many spoke of how he insisted that they drink alcohol with him.

Tweets and journalistic investigations cited

For all the criticism that the #MeToo phenomenon received, where women around the world used social media to accuse men of sexual harassment, many of these posts took on importance in court today.

Several tweets by women who described their harassment by Akbar (such as Shuma Raha’s), or tweets of women who suggested they had heard about these incidents (such as Shunali Khullar Shroff’s), were presented in court today. Ramani’s lawyer John, put these forward to Akbar. Akbar claimed to be unaware of even the tweets he had been tagged in, such as Wahab’s.

John also cited major journalistic investigations by Jodi KantorMegan Twohey and Rachel Abrams at the New York Times, and by Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker against men like Harvey Weinstein. She asked Akbar if he was aware that journalists had thoroughly investigated such allegations. Akbar and his lawyer said this was irrelevant and that they were not aware of these reports.

Also read: Thank You Very Much, Mr. Akbar

Akbar’s failing memory

MJ Akbar’s weak memory was on display on the first day of his cross-examination earlier this month too. On that day, he said he could not recall that the Delhi high court had convicted him for “deliberately false reporting.” Akbar published an apology on this in the Asian Age and also paid a court-ordered fine.

At the previous hearing, Akbar was not visibly accompanied by any friends or family. Today, his sister was in court behind him while he was on the stand. Five of Akbar’s security officers were also in the court room, plugged in to walky-talkies and one was positioned close to Ramani; Ramani was standing opposite to where Akbar was seated.

Also read: #MeToo: 19 Women Journalists Speak out Against M.J. Akbar, Support Priya Ramani

The counsels for the two sides continued to spar in court with Geeta Luthra objecting to questions from John even before she could ask the question. She also said that there was “derisive laughter” in court and the judge may need to send people who had gathered to attend the hearing, out of the court room.

Apart from these 18 cases of women who have alleged sexual harassment by Akbar, 17 colleagues of these women also approached a Delhi court to inform the judges that they had all been aware of these incidents of harassment, which largely happened through the 1990s.