MJ Akbar’s Enduring Legacy? Sexual Predation & Toxic Work Culture

If a woman had walked into a newsroom run by MJ Akbar back in the 1990s, she would have been pleased to see an office staffed by many young women. The office did have men, but largely, women in their early 20s are who Akbar chose as his team of journalists. The desk at Akbar’s ambitious journalistic venture The Asian Age – which marked his return to the industry and exit from a short political career – was mostly run by women too.

This could have gone on to set the benchmark for a safe workspace, except it didn’t.

The newsroom had Akbar, known then as a ‘maverick’, with his sharp understanding of politics and an unparalleled news sense – someone cub journalists would jump at the chance to learn from.

Also Read: Maybe MJ Akbar Didn’t Harass Me Years Ago. Maybe I Imagined it All

A Legacy of Predatory Behaviour

But this ‘maverick’ was – as he ensured – the centre of their universe. “Everything revolved around him. Be it marketing or HR, every single person brought into The Asian Age was hired by him. He decided what happened, who got what designation and who got what salary,” says Suparna Sharma, Resident Editor of The Asian Age, to The Quint. She had worked under MJ Akbar in 1993 when he was editor at the paper.

“He hired everyone, whether it was a sub-editor or a trainee, Akbar was the one hiring them,” says Suparna.

But this ‘maverick’ was also a terror, with his bouts of shouting and berating. “He would change the atmosphere within a second.”

“He marked our copy with his red-ink-filled Mont Blanc pen, crumpled our printouts and often threw them in the garbage bin, as we shuddered. There was never a day when he didn’t shout at one of us at the top of his voice. We rarely measured up to his standards,” recounts Pallavi Gogoi in The Washington Post, who worked under Akbar when she was 22 and barely out of college.

“Akbar wore his erudition lightly. A little too lightly. He screamed, he swore, and he drank in the office,” Ghazala Wahab recounted in a piece for The Wire.

His junior at The Asian Age Suparna at that time says, ‘If he was pursuing you, he would throw in more work your way, he’d lure you with work’.

Akbar had calculative method, where he used assignments — mostly outside the city, jobs and promotions — to get young women alone.

He’d use exciting work to lure young women away into strange cities, smart enough not to use boring, day-to-day work, says Suparna to The Quint.

"“He always used work, most of these women were young, dying for opportunities. They wanted to work. He used assignments, jobs and promotions to get women.”"

“In the sense, it was not like a transactional thing – so many times it would happen, like when someone would want to interview a certain person, he would say, “I will take you to that person,” he would create a scenario where he is alone with this girl and then he would violate her privacy.”

“He would send girls out of town for an assignments and land up there. That’s how he used work, not as bait, but to create a situation where the girl will be alone,” she explains.

Suparna, who was once a part of the newsroom run by MJ Akbar, recalls how everyone in the newsroom called him ‘Dadu’, a Hindi word for fondly referring to paternal grandfather because Akbar was so much older than the young women he hired.

Starting from 1971 when he began as a trainee in The Times of India, MJ Akbar had soared in his journalistic career but he had voluntarily opted for a sabbatical to start his political career when he fought elections on a ticket from Congress party in 1989. 

But Akbar is also remembered for transferring women from his newsroom to another city’s bureau, to isolate them in a foreign city and go meet them.

“If you had a family here, and you were working here, he would send you to another city where you would be alone and then he would land up there. He wouldn’t tell these things about transferring you from Delhi office to another city, say Kolkata, as a part of the deal for working under him,” Suparna said, explaining Akbar’s behaviour.

“Suppose if you are a senior-sub here, he would say, ‘I will make you chief sub there because you’re so good at your work. You stand out’ – that’s what he’d say and he’d send you somewhere,” Suparna said.

Only to then pursue the woman he had set his sights on.

Also Read: ‘Not Consensual’: Pallavi Gogoi After MJ Akbar Denied Rape Charge

MJ Akbar: India’s Most-High Profile #MeToo Case

The storm of serious allegations against Akbar all began with Priya Ramani’s tweet on 8 October. And one after another, more tumbled out. More than half a dozen women journalists came forward and told their stories alleging that MJ Akbar had molested, sexually abused, harassed and even raped them.

“He started asking me to proofread the new book he was writing, in his office, sitting on his dark leather chair, while he stood close behind and offered massages ostensibly because I looked stressed. And when I refused, he would try and kiss me as I squirmed away,” Ruth David, only a teenager back then, wrote in a post online.

The allegation by Priya Ramani was, "You offered me a drink from the mini bar (I refused, you drank vodka), we sat on a small table for two that overlooked the Queen’s Necklace (how romantic!) and you sang me old Hindi songs after inquiring after my musical preferences. You thought you were irresistible.

“The bed, a scary interview accompaniment, was already turned down for the night. Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I’m fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again,” Priya Ramani wrote in Vogue when the first wave of MeToo reared its head in the West in 2017. While this account did not explicitly name MJ Akbar, Ramani, the author of this piece, divulged that it was indeed about him a year later on 8 October in a tweet.

Ghazala Wahab, Editor of news magazine The Force, also recalled how Akbar sexually harassed her multiple times. “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,” Ghazala Wahab recalled in a piece for The Wire.

In another separate account, Wahab recalls, “After one particularly harrowing afternoon, when he shooed-off my protective colleague from his office so that he could paw me, Veenu (Tarot reader at The Asian Age) came to my desk and told me that Akbar was truly in love with me.”

Apart from sexual harassment in the workplace, Akbar has also been accused of inappropriate behaviour in hotel rooms, where he’d often invite women.

Tushita Patel, another journalist, had alleged that she was 22 when she had gone to meet him and he had opened the door wearing nothing but his underwear. She has also written in her account that MJ Akbar had forcefully kissed her twice, a year later in Hyderabad.

These are only four accounts out of a total 32 women who have alleged inappropriate behaviour from Akbar.

Also Read: MJ Akbar Accused Again: Why Women Chose Silence to Avoid Losses

Akbar’s Attempt to Resurrect His Career, One Tweet at a Time

Facing heat as accounts dating back to the 1990s resurfaced in 2018 and all at once, MJ Akbar finally resigned from his position in his capacity of Minister of State for External Affairs on 17 October.

“Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity, I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in personal capacity,” his resignation letter read, thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Many saw Akbar’s resignation as a step towards victory for the women who have accused him. He was even removed from Editors’ Guild of India’s board where he was a member.

As the allegations came when the #MeToo movement was at its zenith, many believed that this was, finally, the beginning of the end for Akbar.

But after the initial flurry, the media moved on, obscuring the fact that MJ Akbar’s political career hasn’t suffered a dent, as he continues to be a member of India’s ruling party, the BJP.

Ever since Akbar announced his resignation on Twitter and stepped down as MoS, he has attempted to engineer the resurrection of his political career, aided by the Hindustan Times, in an op-ed he wrote. Akbar, in his column, opined that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has restored the equilibrium between the government and RBI.

He has also tweeted over 120 times, from the time he resigned on 17 October last year till 9 January, with almost half of his tweets praising India’s Prime Minister, BJP President Amit Shah, Union Minister Arun Jaitley and Bharatiya Janata Party.

On 28 December, Akbar even replugged an old speech he had given on the Triple Talaq Bill in Parliament, in which he makes an impassioned plea for women’s rights.

‘I Knew Akbar Would Push Back’

Resigning was very unlike MJ Akbar, a man who thrives on power, say women who have worked with him.

“Two things are very important to him – power and his reputation. Letting go of any kind of power is very important to him. I had no doubt in my mind that MJ Akbar would push back, that he would issue a statement defending himself. He is who he is and he is that kind of a man,” says Suparna.

Akbar slapped a defamation case on Priya Ramani on 15 October last year for “wild, false and baseless allegations” which is slated for its next hearing on 11 January 2018.

Defamation Case: Akbar’s Last Defence

Though she refused to comment on the ongoing matter in the court, Priya’s lawyer, Rebecca John, spoke about defamation, its chilling effect on free speech and how it acts to muzzle voices of criticism.

“If this going to be the backlash and this is going to be the response, then we haven’t learnt anything. These women were trying to say something, they were trying to a find a place to be heard,” Rebecca told The Quint.

Also Read: Shocked & Dismayed: Survivors React to MJ Akbar’s Rebuttal

“A lot of women will be hesitant. This will have a muzzling effect on women coming out and exposing terrible incidents that have happened in their life. It did have a muzzling effect because the movement peaked and it’s quiet now,” Rebecca said, adding that even generally when people file defamation cases – whether criminal defamation or civil defamation – against individuals, it has a muzzling effect.

"“The naming and shaming that happened was a long time coming because institutions failed women who complained of sexual harassment. We have to ensure that the movement now enters the next stage and evolves into something that will sustain the test of time — and that includes the process of revision of laws and education and awareness about rights.”" - Rituparna Chatterjee

But the #MeToo movement didn’t roil the world, only to die with a whimper.

Independent journalist and Me Too activist Rituparna Chatterjee points out that at its peak in October, the second wave of the movement sustained on momentum.

Which is precisely the route that MJ Akbar’s case has taken, Chatterjee said, adding that MJ Akbar deserves his day in the court as any citizen of this country – and justice will take its course.

Also Read: Relationship Based on Coercion Not Consent: Gogoi on MJ Akbar

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