Women

#MeToo Singes Modi Government as M.J. Akbar Is Accused of Molestation, Harassment

Several accounts of the former newspaper editor-turned BJP minister violating consent and conducting uncomfortable interviews with female journalists in hotel rooms have come to light.

Trigger warning: This article contains details about sexual assault and harassment which may be triggering to survivors.

New Delhi: With #MeToo jolting the Indian media with one account after the other, big names have been tumbling out with each passing day. Among the latest to be named by survivors is veteran journalist and minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar. So far, allegations of sexual harassment have been made against him by nine journalists.

On Thursday, Union minister Smriti Irani was asked about the allegations against Akbar and said that she hopes women speaking out get justice. “I think the gentleman concerned would be in a better position to speak. I appreciate that the media is accosting his female colleagues, but I think that it is for the gentleman concerned to issue a statement, not for me as I was not present there,” NDTV quoted the textile minister as saying. “Women go to work to live their dreams and earn a respectable living. More and more women are winning support. I feel there are enough instruments to deliver justice. Hope these women get justice.”

Previously, Maneka Gandhi was the only Union minister to have spoken out about the allegations. “There should be an investigation… Now that women have started speaking out, we should take it seriously,” she had said.

On Tuesday, minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj was asked whether the ministry will be internally probing the allegations against Akbar. In a video of the encounter, Swaraj can be seen ducking the questions and walking away.

The MEA has so far declined to comment on the matter. Sources in the MEA have said that the allegations of misconduct do not pertain to his tenure as a minister of the government.

The allegations

Former Mint Lounge editor Priya Ramani was the first to call him out, via a tweet. Ramani had written about her whole experience in a Vogue India article in October 2017 where she called out a ‘celebrity editor’ without naming him for his inappropriate behaviour with women journalists. She also described how Akbar set up interviews with women journalists in hotel rooms “with drinks at hand”.

Also read: Dark Underbelly of Indian Media Revealed as Scores of Journalists Say #MeToo

“You are 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. Sometimes you are inconvenienced when the stories get out and you are asked to take a time out. Often, you are quickly reinstated. Why would you need to evolve, right?” the article opens.

On Monday, Ramani publicly identified Akbar as the central character of her piece.

Within hours, at least three more women journalists made allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar, who is presently a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and has been at the helm of renowned newspapers like The Telegraph, The Sunday Guardian and the Asian Age.

On Tuesday, October 9, journalist Prem Panicker also added another account of M.J. Akbar harassing a young woman in 1994 while he was recruiting for the Asian Age. He told The Wire that his cousin, who is now deceased, was a fresh graduate who applied for a reporter’s job and went to the Leela Kempinkski in Mumbai to be interviewed by Akbar. After being greeted by his assistant, she entered the bedroom area and sat on the couch, when Akbar proceeded to sit beside her, put his arm around her and ask her about herself.

Panicker said the interview concluded mere minutes after his cousin told Akbar that she was interested in journalism because her cousin Prem Panicker was one too – and that he was waiting in the hotel lobby for her. She recounted the entire incident to Panicker at a cafe immediately after. Panicker said his cousin eventually did not enter journalism, adding that “in newsrooms across this country, there are many, similar stories involving Akbar. Not all of them got away by being able to claim a relationship with a journalist.”

On Wednesday, journalist Shutapa Paul, the founder-editor of NewCrop, detailed her own account of harassment from Akbar on Twitter. In 2010, Paul has said, she joined India Today in Kolkata as a 26-year-old reporter. By the end of her first year there, Akbar had taken over as editor of the publication.

Whenever he came to Kolkata, Paul has said, Akbar would invite her to his hotel, usually after 8 pm. He would then drink and ask her to do the same.

After this incident, the next time Akbar was in Kolkata and tried to make late night appointments, Paul said she always avoided going. And after multiple refusals, she became “completely invisible in the organisation”. “None of my stories were getting approved, what ever I wrote was being ridiculed at edit meetings. Some Delhi colleagues told me about this,” she said.

Ghazala Wahab, who worked with Akbar in Asian Age, wrote a detailed first person account on The Wire of how Akbar molested her. “The next evening, he called me in his cabin. I knocked and entered. He was standing next to the door and before I could react he shut the door, trapping me between his body and the door. I instinctively flinched, but he held me and bent to kiss me. With my mouth clamped shut, I struggled to turn my face to one side. The jostling continued, without much success. I had no space to manoeuvre. Fear had rendered me speechless. As my body was pushing against the door, at some point he let me go,” she wrote.

Saba Naqvi too wrote an article detailing harassment by Akbar in Kolkata.

On October 10, sports journalist Kadambari M. Wade, who is now based in the US, tweeted about her experience of harassment from Akbar. According to her, across multiple interactions, Akbar stood too close and stared at her chest. When she told her sports editor, he reportedly said, “That’s just Akbar, don’t worry. He’s like that with everyone.”

“I don’t recall if MJ Akbar & I ever spoke again. Blank. I would not have been able to work in AA if it hadn’t been for a bunch of sports desk colleagues who treated me just like a colleague & protected me. They shouldn’t have needed to. I’m grateful they did,” she concluded.

The Wire has contacted Akbar to seek his response to these allegations and others that have been shared with The Wire and this report will be updated if he responds.

A screenshot of The Wire‘s attempt to reach M.J. Akbar.

Akbar, The Wire has learnt, is out of the country at present and is scheduled to return in three days.

What began with Tanushree Dutta accusing her co-star Nana Patekar of harassing her repeatedly, snowballed when AIB comedian Utsav Chakraborty was accused on October 4 of sexually harassing a woman on social media by sending her “unsolicited dick pics” and asking for her nude pictures.

Soon after, journalist Sandhya Menon shared an account of being harassed by K.R. Sreenivas, currently resident editor of the Times of India in Hyderabad, in 2008 when they both worked at the Bangalore Mirror.

Menon followed that account with another one about Gautam Adhikari, former editor in chief of DNA in Mumbai. Following a night out with Menon and a friend, Menon said Adhikari kissed her without consent and then later asked her not to tell anyone.

Also read: Editorial: The Indian Media’s Moment of Reckoning

Hindustan Times chief of bureau Prashant Jha has also stepped down after allegations against him were levelled by a former colleague.

After seven women petitioned the Times of India to take action against its Hyderabad editor K.R. Sreenivas, he has been sent on ‘administrative leave,’ according to a statement sent out by the organisation.

AIB co-founder and CEO, Tanmay Bhat has also stepped away from the company in light of his inaction after the woman accused Chakraborty of sexual assault. Gursimran Khamba, another AIB co-founder, was also hit by allegations and he has been sent on a temporary leave of absence from AIB until there is more clarity on the matter.

Update: This story was updated at 6:30 pm on October 9 to include Prem Panicker’s account of his cousin being harassed by Akbar in 1994.

Update: This story was updated at 6 pm on October 10 to include Shutapa Paul’s and Ghazala Wahab’s accounts.

Update: This story was updated at 6 pm on October 11 to include Kadambari M. Wade’s account.

Update: This story was updated at 11 am on October 12 to include Smriti Irani’s comment.

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