Trigger warning: This article contains details about sexual assault and harassment which may be triggering to survivors.
New Delhi: Ghazala Wahab, editor of FORCE magazine and a security and defence journalist of long-standing, took the stand in a Delhi court on Tuesday and recounted her experience of having been sexually harassed by former journalist and BJP minister, M.J. Akbar while working under him as a cub reporter in the 1990s.
Akbar had been the junior minister of external affairs until last October when he stepped down after a number of women accused him of sexual harassment. About 16 women have come out so far with their own stories, one of them an editor who wrote on Washington Post that Akbar had raped her in 1994.
Notably, Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra and her team laughed among themselves while Wahab was narrating her ordeal to a packed court room.
Despite 16 women narrating various incidents of sexual harassment which took place through the span of Akbar’s career, Akbar has sued only one of the women, journalist Priya Ramani, for defamation. Wahab had come to the court on December 10, as a witness for Ramani in this defamation case.
Besides the rape allegation against Akbar, the other graphic testimony so far has been by Wahab. Last October, spurred by the #MeToo movement, Wahab wrote a piece on The Wire, recounting for the first time the story of the harassment she had faced at Akbar’s hands 21 years ago.
Today, Wahab gave the court much the same information as her piece.
‘Directly attacking the reputation’
Rebecca John, Ramani’s lawyer, began the hearing by asking Wahab to describe how she started her career.
No sooner had John asked this, and even before Wahab had begun to answer fully, Luthra began to object. She also objected to Wahab introducing herself. Wahab had been explaining that she is from Agra and has been a journalist for 25 years.
John and the judge, additional chief metropolitan magistrate Vishal Pahuja, both tried to reason, saying that Wahab was just introducing herself and a witness on the stand is expected to be free to speak. John told the judge that Luthra is trying to rattle the witness. Wahab then briefly gave a professional introduction of herself.
After this, John asked Wahab: “Tell me about your time at Asian Age.” It was at the Asian Age newspaper that Wahab first came in contact with Akbar, who was the editor of the newspaper in the 1990s.
Wahab had not begun answering when Luthra objected again, shouting in the court: “No she can’t ask this question. I’m sorry.”
Luthra and John then spent about 35 minutes arguing on whether Wahab could be allowed to answer the very first question about her time at the paper. Luthra said that Section 6 and 9 of the Indian Evidence Act explained that only relevant information could be brought into a case of libel, and that Wahab was saying irrelevant things.
Of course at this time, Wahab had not even begun answering the question so she arguably could not have said “irrelevant things”. “Before hearing the question or answer, how can you presume its relevance?” asked the judge.
John, asking the judge if she could speak, quickly ran through several excerpts from the trial so far, including the definition of defamation, Akbar’s petition where he claims his reputation has been damaged, and various parts of her cross examination of Akbar where she had asked him about Wahab and he had responded.
“Akbar’s entire complaint is based on the fact that he claims to have an impeccable reputation. During my cross examination, I had confronted him with a series of allegations made by multiple women. Not just by my client. And including by the witness who is currently on the stand,” said John to the judge.
“His claim is that he has an impeccable reputation. I am entitled to contest this…I am directly attacking the reputation of M.J. Akbar,” she said. The judge eventually overruled Luthra’s objections, recorded it in the notes, and asked John to continue.
Akbar’s lawyers laugh while witness narrates ordeal
Shortly after 3 pm, Wahab managed to finally begin describing her allegation of sexual harassment against Akbar.
She spoke about how as a 26-year-old, she was given a desk which was close to Akbar’s office. Akbar often kept the door open, where her desk was in his line of view. “Many times when I looked up from my computer, I saw him looking at me,” she said. She spoke about how he would also send her personal messages about her appearance, on the office intranet system.
She then described how, one day in 1997, he called her into his room and asked her to find a word in the dictionary. He had placed a dictionary on a low table. Wahab squatted on the floor to look through the dictionary. “As I squatted, Akbar came behind me quietly and held me by my waist.”
One of Luthra’s assistants began laughing as Wahab described this. Throughout Wahab’s testimony, she and many of the interns kept turning to each other and laughing, sometimes covering their mouths with their books.
Wahab continued narrating her story. She said she was shocked that Akbar had held her waist and then lost balance. Akbar helped her to stand but then “ran his hands from my breast to my hips.” She said she had gone numb from shock when Akbar started to rub her breasts.
“Finally he released me and I ran out of his office into the toilet to cry,” said Wahab.
She then said that the very next day, Akbar called her into his room again, shut the door and then placed her between him and the door and forcibly kissed her. “I clamped my mouth and turned my face,” she said.
She said she and her colleague at work then went to the editor, Seema Mustafa, and told her about it hoping she could talk to Akbar about this. Mustafa apparently told them that she was not surprised to hear this but that Wahab would have to decide on her next course of action for herself.
At this point, Luthra, who had been talking to her colleagues throughout the testimony, laughed out loud.
Wahab said that she sent Akbar a message and told him she was uncomfortable with what he had done. He called her into his office once again and then shouted at her for having humiliated him and his “genuine emotions” towards her.
She says Akbar continued to harass her, but her “tipping point” came when he suddenly offered her a big promotion, but in Ahmedabad. He said the company would take care of her accommodation but that he himself would visit from time to time, and would stay with her in the same accommodation.
“I decided to quit Asian Age,” says Wahab. She spoke about how she began applying for jobs and while hoping for something to materialise, finally resigned, went back to her hometown, and waited until she finally was offered a job at The Telegraph where she worked for several years.
“The #MeToo movement gave women a safe platform where they could unburden themselves and share their ordeal. Since the #MeToo movement gave me courage to share my story, I hoped my account would give courage to other women to help them find their voices,” said Wahab.
With this, Wahab wound up her testimony, but not without a few more objections from Luthra. The hearing will continue tomorrow, when Luthra is due to cross examine Wahab.
Note: The story was updated at 1806 on December 11, 2019.