New Delhi: As India reaches a year since the #MeToo movement began here in 2018, journalist Priya Ramani took the stand in a Delhi court on Saturday and spoke about the sexual harassment she says she experienced at the hands of M.J. Akbar, a former Union minister in the Narendra Modi government.
“A predator is more powerful than his prey,” said Ramani, while describing Akbar’s allegedly sexually coloured overtures towards her when she was a 23-year-old looking for a job in 1993.
In 2002, Akbar was a newspaper editor, the author of several books and a critic of Narendra Modi over the Gujarat riots. Akbar later joined the BJP government at the Centre when Modi became prime minister.
Ramani has been a journalist and editor since the early 1990s and continues to write regularly for several publications. She was a founding editor of the business newspaper Mint.
Ramani’s allegations against MJ Akbar
Ramani explained her first interaction with Akbar in 1993 when she applied for a job at Asian Age in detail. Akbar was then the editor, and was nearly 20 years older than Ramani – who was 23 at the time.
Ramani said that when she reached the Oberoi Hotel for the interview, Akbar asked her to come up to his hotel room. She said she thought the interview would be in the lobby or the coffee shop but being young, she “didn’t have the confidence” to oppose Akbar. She said that she reached Akbar’s hotel room and that his bed was already made ready to sleep.
Ramani said the interview contained nothing about her educational experience, journalistic abilities or knowledge of current affairs. Instead, Akbar asked her about her family, and whether she was married or had a boyfriend. Akbar allegedly began to sing Hindi songs.
He also allegedly began to drink alcohol and offered Ramani the same, she said, which she refused. Akbar asked her to sit close to him on a small two seater couch near his bed. Ramani said that at this point she was “concerned for her physical safety. I knew I had to leave the room immediately. I got up and said I have to leave”.
Once home, Ramani said she called up a good friend of hers, Niloufer Venkataraman and told her what happened. Venkataraman had helped Ramani prepare for this interview and had dropped her to the Oberoi Hotel.
“I swore I would not be in the same room alone with him again,” Ramani told the court about Akbar.
How #MeToo led to Ramani naming Akbar
Ramani then told the court how she came to write a piece for Vogue in 2017 about sexual harassment, which was partly about Akbar. In 2017, Ramani wrote the piece without naming anyone but in 2018, she revealed that the piece was partly about Akbar, in its initial bits.
In a 2018 tweet, she said “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. #ulti”
— Priya Ramani (@priyaramani) October 8, 2018
Ramani described what led her to come out and talk about Akbar after 25 years since the alleged incident: “Exactly a year after my Vogue article, the #MeToo movement began gaining momentum.”
She told the court that #MeToo in India kicked off after Bollywood actress Tanushree Datta alleged that actor Nana Patekar had sexually harassed her while working on a movie. Several other women, largely non-celebrities, started coming out with stories of sexual harassment from various fields. She also mentioned journalists coming out with stories about sexual harassment in Indian media, including Sandhya Menon and this reporter.
After this, she began to see more stories or posts about sexual harassment in journalism, including one from Ghazala Wahab, who asked when the floodgates would open about Akbar. Others like Shunali Khullar Shroff also replied asking the same question.
— Ghazala Wahab (@ghazalawahab) October 6, 2018
Another journalist, Prerna Singh Bindra also named Akbar soon after, describing a mode of operation similar to what Ramani said, where Akbar would allegedly invite her to his hotel room on the pretext of work.
“Seeing all these women I felt compelled to speak about my experience with Akbar in 1993,” said Ramani. “And so I removed the anonymity I had given Akbar in my Vogue article and named him as the one who had sexually harassed me.”
She then reiterated that the whole article in Vogue was not about Akbar, but just the first few paragraphs were. Ramani had said this in her tweet from October 2018 as well.
At this point, Ramani wanted to read out her tweet from October 2018 when she named Akbar. Akbar’s lawyer, Geeta Luthra objected – even though this tweet is the very reason why Akbar has sued Ramani.
Ramani did not read out the tweet in court finally.
“By saying he did not ‘do’ anything, I was saying there was no overt physical attack. But that did not excuse his sexually coloured behaviour,” said Ramani.
Ramani went on to name a total of 14 other women who had also come out with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by Akbar. The women are: 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), Kadambari Wade (Twitter), Kanika Gahlaut (Indian Express), Ruth David (Medium), Prerna Bindra (Twitter), Tushita Patel (Scroll), Swati Gautam (Quint).
The allegations range from meeting young women in bath robes in hotel rooms to rape (Pallavi Gogoi, wrote an article in the Washington Post alleging that he had raped her when she was in her 20s and living in Delhi).
Ten of us @_sabanaqvi @prernabindra @ghazalawahab @kadambarim @shutapapaul @suparnasharma @harinderbaweja @shumaraha @153anju have painted you a clear portrait of media’s biggest sexual predator. How many more stories do you need to hear? #MJAkbar
— Priya Ramani (@priyaramani) October 11, 2018
She also spoke about at least 20 journalists who put out a statement saying they would be willing to testify in Ramani’s favour and against Akbar. Ramani also mentioned statements of support put out by the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists and Network of Women in Media, India.
Ramani showed the court a WhatsApp message she received from her friend Venkatraman, after Ramani named Akbar in October 2018. In that message, Venkatraman expressed how happy she was that Ramani had finally spoken up after 25 years.
After nearly three hours of a hearing on Saturday, this case was adjourned. The matter will continue on Monday at noon.