At least six women journalists have come on record to accuse Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour when he worked as a newspaper editor.
Akbar, on a visit to Nigeria with a trade delegation, did not respond to an email, calls and WhatsApp messages sent to him seeking his comment. He is the first political public figure to feature in the growing list of men — so far largely from the media, film and entertainment — named in India’s own #MeToo movement that is gathering momentum since it broke on social media last week.
Priya Ramani, formerly of India Today, The Indian Express and Mint, was the first to state on record that Akbar had called her to his hotel room. In a piece she wrote in October 2017 for Vogue India, Ramani described an experience she had with an editor when she was 23 years old and he was 43. The editor, she wrote, called her for a job interview at a “plush south Mumbai hotel where you always stayed”. She wrote that “When I got to the lobby, I called you on the house phone. Come up, you said.”
She describes the interview as “more date, less interview” during which, she wrote, he offered her a drink and sang her “old Hindi songs”. He also asked her to sit on his bed, “gesturing to a tiny space near you,” which she declined to do.
On Monday, Ramani tweeted a link to that piece saying: “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.”
Ramani later joined Akbar’s team. When contacted by The Indian Express, she declined to comment.
Discussing her experience of being invited by Akbar to a hotel room in Mumbai, freelance journalist Kanika Gahlaut, who worked with Akbar from 1995 to 1997 in various capacities at the Asian Age and other publications, said that she hadn’t read Ramani’s piece “but I don’t need to since I worked with him for three years”.
Speaking to The Indian Express where she has also worked, Gahlaut said: “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 said.
She said he once invited her to his hotel. “He said come for breakfast in the morning to the hotel and we knew that he sort of paws and all”. Gahlaut 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.”
She wasn’t sure, she added “if everyone got hit (on)”, but “I certainly did, and my friend did” but neither of them faced any repercussions, she said.
Suparna Sharma, currently the Resident Editor of The Asian Age, Delhi, was in her early 20s, she said, when she became a part of the launch team of the newspaper where she worked from 1993 to 1996. She reported to Akbar. One day, she told The Indian Express, that 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,” recalled Sharma.
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 said 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”.
It was embarrassing and uncomfortable, Sharma said. “These transgressions were routine. No one was spared and at that time there were no committees one could go to.”
Sharma said 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.
Sharma, too, has worked for The Indian Express.
In another case, author Shuma Raha told The Indian Express, that she was asked to come for an interview with him to the Taj Bengal in Kolkata in 1995, for a job at the Asian Age. “When I reached the lobby, he asked me to come upstairs and I didn’t think too much of it but there was a level of discomfort about sitting on the bed while giving an interview,” Raha said.
She said that Akbar offered the job and said, “Why don’t you come over for a drink later?” Raha said that the comment unnerved her, and was a major reason she did not take up on the job offer.
Tweeting on October 7, journalist Prerna Singh Bindra mentioned a similar invite to a hotel without naming Akbar at first. She said this “brilliant, flamboyant” editor called her to his hotel room to “discuss work” after she had “put the edition to bed — read midnight & made life at work hell when I refused.”
On Monday, however, Bindra mentioned Akbar’s name. “After i refused to go to the hotel at night…things got nasty”. In subsequent tweets, she said that Akbar made “lewd comments once when we we had a meeting with the entire features team. One of the girls told me later he had asked them to meet him in the hotel too. I was alone in the city, vulnerable, fighting battles on personal fronts. I kept quiet.”
Bindra has also worked for The Indian Express.
Another journalist came out against Akbar on Tuesday. Shutapa Paul, retweeing Ramani’s tweet naming Akbar, wrote, “#MeToo #MJAkbar 2010-11 while in @IndiaToday in Kolkata”. Paul didn’t respond to a message from The Indian Express.
Gahlaut said that Akbar “did not push” once he was told no. “However, I totally understand that some women, because of the power he holds, might feel the fear in taking a stand, that I did take.” She added that “it’s always a risk to speak your mind to power, because you don’t know how it will be taken. I totally understand that and I understand that not everyone cannot be forced to take that risk”.
She also mentioned that “there was so much misogyny, oppression, demeaning and humiliation of women in the many organisations I have worked at” that Akbar was just one of the many.
Akbar, Gahlaut said, “always gave me my due” and she also “learned a lot from him”.
Sharma reiterated the same sentiment. She said that “You must remember that this was all in the ‘90s. Akbar was this intellectual giant, a star editor/journalist and it was a dream to be able to work with him…at Asian Age, he had put together a team of solid seniors and hungry, ambitious, young reporters and deskies. Many of us, the younger lot, were either the first or second generation of working women in our families. We were tough…and believed, nothing could bring us down, not even these transgressions. He recognised potential and I learnt a lot from him, but this does not mean he wasn’t a predator, or that I can ever forget what he did to so many women.”
Responding to the allegations on social media, 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.
The BJP did not respond to these allegations. When Akbar’s senior, Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj was asked by a reporter to comment on the issue, she did not.