"The best way to eliminate poverty is to empower women. If you invest in women, you invest in future." " This was a statement believed to have been made recently in Nigeria by India's junior minister of external affairs MJ Akbar, quite ironic at present, given the myriad of sexual harassment charges piling up against him amid the #MeToo movement gaining ground in India.
"Ten of us have painted you a clear portrait of the media's biggest sexual predator. How many more stories do you need to hear?" journalist Priya Ramani tweeted on Thursday, tagging the nine other women who made public in detail their experiences " some horrifying " with Akbar.
Women have recounted their ordeals with Akbar right from the 1980s till as recently as in in 2010-2011. Ranging from sexual harassment, sexism and abuse of power in his capacity as an editor, they recalled Akbar's despicable behaviour.
It was Ramani's tweet on Monday that triggered the initial outpouring of messages claiming sexual harassment charges against Akbar. One of them tweeted: "So many of us have an MJ story." Little did we know the extent of what she meant by "many".
On Monday, Ramani revealed that an article she wrote for the Vogue in October 2017, in light of the sexual harassment charges against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, that Akbar was the editor she had written about.
Without naming Akbar in the article, Ramani wrote how he had invited her to a hotel room in Mumbai for an interview and made uncomfortable advances towards her. She was 23 years old, while he was 43. "Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer¦" she wrote.
- Priya Ramani (@priyaramani) October 8, 2018
Prerna Singh Bindra
Writer and conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra also took to Twitter to recount her experience with Akbar.
"He was this brilliant, flamboyant editor who dabbled in politics, who called me " my first job " to his hotel room to 'discuss work' after I put the edition to bed " read midnight " and made life at work hell when I refused. Couldn't speak up due to various compulsions, but yes #MeTooIndia. It was #MJAkbar I do not say this lightly¦ I know the consequences of false accusations and it has been now 17 years and I have no concrete proof," she said.
#metooinindia #MeToo I have been asked by various journalists to talk to them on #MJAkbar . I can't now, the hurt, the bewilderment, trying to negotiate this terrible space while hanging on to your dignity, your livelihood & being on your own is still a raw hurt.1/2
- prerna singh bindra (@prernabindra) October 10, 2018
Wahab's could arguably be one of the most detailed and horrifying accounts which have come out since the #MeToo movement picked up pace in India, as well as among the women who have spoken up about their distressing encounters with Akbar.
In her article, Wahab wrote that during her initial years at the newspaper, she "accepted everything as part of the office culture " Akbar's flirtation with young sub-editors, his blatant favouritism and his bawdy jokes".
"His eyes fell on me. And my nightmare began," the journalist wrote in an article for >The Wire on the ordeal Akbar put her through during her time at The Asian Age. She goes on to narrate her harrowing experiences with Akbar, his persistence in trying to force himself on her in his cabin at The Asian Age office, the emotional tactics he resorted to when he realised his physical advances would not work and also how he got the newspaper's tarot card columnist to tell her he really loved her.
"In the last 21 years, I had put all this behind me. I was determined not to be a victim and not let one monster's debauchery ruin my career, even though occasionally I had nightmares. Maybe now the nightmares will stop," she wrote in conclusion.
Founder-Editor of NewCrop, Paul made public Akbar's unwanted advances towards her and repeated invitations to his hotel room.
"MJ Akbar told me how journalists working together often 'grew close' and things could happen between them. He told me I should accompany him on his foreign visits," Paul wrote, as she shared multiple instances of Akbar's misconduct while they worked at India Today.
She wrote that after rejecting his advances multiple times, she "became completely invisible in the organisation". "From a reporter who was doing impactful stories, I was relegated to being a nobody," she said, adding that she was left with no choice but to quit India Today.
I'm better equipped to handle the trauma and stress if a similar incident happened today but as a 26-year-old who had just lost her father in 2010, I struggled badly. Today, I'm ready to talk about the sexual predator that is #MJAkbar. #MeToo 2/n
- Shutapa Paul (@ShutapaPaul) October 10, 2018
"The man never laid a hand on me " but I have no doubt that this was harassment by the boss...," writer and journalist Saba Naqvi said.
In an article for dailyO, she recounted her experience with Akbar at her first job with the Ananda Bazar Patrika in the 1980s in Kolkata. Naqvi wrote about how she was eager to work with who "we were all told" was "God's gift to the profession". But her perception of him changed soon after, as he made his intentions known and began to make advances towards her. Naqvi wrote that Akbar even went to the extent of transferring her then boyfriend (now the father of her child) from being a sub-editor on the Kolkata desk to a reporter in Darjeeling.
"It's worth writing about this now as I have, over the years, heard of similar stories in newsrooms of regional and vernacular papers and TV channels, where women continue to put up with predatory behavior," Naqvi wrote. "In my list of editors, he is the worst I ever encountered... I sensed a danger and was someone who got away."
Kadambari M Wade
Another former journalist at The Asian Age, Wade took to Twitter to recount her ordeal in 1998 while working as a sport reporter at the newspaper with Akbar in charge.
In a thread of seven tweets, she highlighted how Akbar would always look at her chest while talking to her. "Sir, I'd much prefer if you'd look at my face instead of my chest when you're talking to me," she said she told him.
"Mr Akbar continued making me feel very uncomfortable till shortly thereafter, I fled. I came out and told Bobilli Vijay Kumar, my sports editor, but he laughed and said, 'that's just Akbar, don't worry. He's like that with everyone," Wade shared on Twitter.
(4/7) Mr. Akbar continued making me feel very uncomfortable till shortly thereafter, I fled. I came out & told Bobilli Vijay Kumar, my sports editor, but he laughed and said, "that's just Akbar, don't worry. He's like that with everyone." It happened again though. @priyaramani
- Kadambari M. Wade (@KadambariM) October 10, 2018
It was journalist Baweja who tweeted, saying, "So many of us have an MJ story", after Ramani's first tweet calling Akbar out for harassing women he worked with. "Can I come over to your house with a bottle of rum?" was one of the tactics she said Akbar used.
So many of us have an MJ story. "Can I come over to your house with a bottle of rum?" he said. NO, was the answer.... Couldnt 'do' anything. Some dont get the meaning of No... they move on to the next, dont they https://t.co/eMnO6Y3PNX
- Harinder Baweja (@shammybaweja) October 8, 2018
In response to Ramani's tweet, journalist Bharti shared how Akbar, during his time at India Today, got drunk at a party, "took females in a pool and had 'fun'. She said it was at a party hosted by Aroon Purie.
Mine was in India Today late night party thrown by Aroon Purie, how he got drunk and took females in pool and had 'fun' what he said ...@anjanaomkashyap @PadmajaJoshi @PreetiChoudhry #Metoo #MeTooIndia
- anju bharti (@153anju) October 9, 2018
The current resident editor of The Asian Age, Suparna Sharma also accused Akbar of harassing her. Speaking to The Indian Express, Sharma said that she reported to Akbar from 1993 to 1996, and that during that time, he had plucked her bra strap and said something to her "which I don't remember now" but made her scream at him.
She also recalled an incident in which she once went to Akbar's cabin at the office, he kept staring at her chest breast and said something she ignored. Sharma also added that such incidents were routine with Akbar, and there were "no committees one could go to".
Raha also shared her ordeal in response to Ramani's tweet. She said that she, too, had an encounter with Akbar after he invited her to a hotel room for an interview.
"In this case, #MeToo. Year: 1995, Place Taj Bengal, Kolkata. After that encounter, I declined the job offer," she tweeted. "I must clarify, however, that he didn't actually "do" anything. But the whole experience of an interview sitting on a bed in a hotel room followed by an invitation to come over for a drink that evening was rattling and deeply uncomfortable."
In this case, #MeToo. Year: 1995, Place Taj Bengal, Kolkata. After that encounter, I declined the job offer.
- Shuma Raha (@ShumaRaha) October 8, 2018
"I wasn't junior and he made my life hell," wrote Malini Bhupta, also in response to Ramani.
Bhupta said she was the deputy editor India Today when he used various tactics to "abuse and destroy you professionally, so you grovel". "I didn't relent so he wanted to sack me, but Mr (Aroon) Purie didn't allow it. I quit in January 2011. It is abuse of power," she shared on Twitter. #MeToo #SackMJAkbar
"Men like him are vermin... In 2010, I went on leave for three months after verbal abuse and intimidation. I then quit. Petty man wanted to sack me, and then refused to give a release letter."
I wasn't junior & he made my life hell. I was Deputy Editor India Today. His tactic is to abuse & destroy you professionally so you grovel. I didn't relent so he wanted to sack me but Mr Purie didn't allow it. I quit in Jan 2011. It is abuse of power. #MeToo #SackMJAkbar
- Malini (@malinibhupta) October 10, 2018
The freelance journalist, too, spoke to The Indian Express to describe how Akbar's behaviour towards everyone was inappropriate when she worked with him from 1995 to 1997.
"One did hear, from the beginning, from before we joined that MJ (Akbar) had a glad eye, and we were forewarned".She said he "did it to everyone".
Describing an incident, Gahlaut told The Indian Express that Akbar had invited her to a hotel room once, to which she agreed but did not show up. However, she added that Akbar "wouldn't push" once he was told "no", contrary to the accounts of the other women who had spoken out against him so far.
This is only a list of women who came out on record against Akbar, once considered the most powerful figure in the field of journalism. There are so many other women who have anonymously " for various reason, primarily to prevent distressing their family " also shared their traumatic experiences while working with Akbar. One such journalist, writing for Firstpost, shared a chilling account of her experience with Akbar, once again, in a hotel room.
In another instance of Akbar inviting a young journalist up to his hotel room, a woman told Firstpost that when she reached his room, "I found the door ajar. MJ Akbar, with his boots on, lay sprawled on the bed. I introduced myself and stood at the open door and answered his questions. He frowned and told me, 'Will let you know.' The interview did not last long. I did not get the job."
The #MeToo movement has gained momentum in India and support for the cause is only rising, as is the call for Akbar's resignation or for the government to sack him. At this point, it is hard to decide whether it would be a good thing or bad if more women name Akbar in their #MeToo experiences " good, as it will only add to the case against Akbar; and bad, as the women had gone through the experience and have to live with the trauma.