'His eyes fell on me, my nightmare began': Women share harrowing experiences with MJ Akbar
In the new stories shared about MJ Akbar, women have recounted behaviour ranging from harassment and sexism to abuse of the power dynamic between an editor and his subordinate.
Editor's note: This article has been republished in the light of junior foreign minister MJ Akbar's return to India. Akbar has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 14 women journalists and is expected to respond to the allegations amid growing call for his resignation.
Following Rituparna Chatterjee's report — Is India’s #MeToo moment here? Women are angry and they are naming and shaming their abusers — Firstpost will publish a series of articles collating personal accounts of those who have made allegations of harassment, along with responses from those who have been accused of such behaviour. This is an ongoing exercise and will be updated to reflect new developments. If you wish to draw our attention to instances of harassment you may have experienced or witnessed, tweet to us @firstpost with the hashtag #MeToo.
India's #MeToo moment has reached Delhi's corridors of power, with the Congress party seeking an investigation against Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar over several allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the journalist-turned-MP by women he worked with in the past. Congress national spokesperson Manish Tewari also demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi clarify his party's position on the charges. "The prime minister should speak on the allegations against his minister," Tewari told the media on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, several fresh accounts of harassment have begun to emerge following the initial outpouring against Akbar. We messaged Akbar on WhatsApp, but have received no response, though the notification indicates that the message was delivered. A text message, calls to his mobile and his official MEA phone, too, went unanswered.
Of the new stories — they recount behaviour ranging from harassment to sexism to abuse of the power dynamic between an editor and his subordinate — the earliest comes from a woman who, in the mid-90s, was a freelancer in Mumbai (she requested that her name be withheld).
"The Asian Age had just started (the paper launched in 1994). I used to write for The Times of India's magazine as a freelancer during my UGC fellowship days. I had just finished my doctorate and was moving to Kolkata to join my husband. I was looking for a job... I get an interview call and am told that the editor will meet me. Not at the office. But at the hotel (she does not recall the name, but said it was 5-star). 'He is coming for just the day… too busy,' I was told," she said.
"When I went up to the hotel, I informed him over the house phone. [I was] told to come up. When I reached, 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 nature of Akbar's interactions was summarised in a piece in Vogue by journalist Priya Ramani, who did not name him but later put out a tweet that said:
— Priya Ramani (@priyaramani) October 8, 2018
In her piece Ramani, described how Akbar called her to his room in a plush Mumbai hotel and asked her to sit on the bed. Writer and journalist Harinder Baweja also details her experience over the phone: "It was the 90s, he (Akbar) called me on the landline phone. He asked if he could come over to my house with a bottle of rum? I wasn't working with him. Just the fact that he felt free enough to call me and ask me that…" she said.
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
'His eyes fell on me. And my nightmare began'
On Wednesday, journalist Ghazala Wahab, too, shared her experience with Akbar in an article for The Wire. On 6 October, she had tweeted: "I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar", but did not elaborate on it. Wahab said she decided to write her "Akbar story" after much persuasion by her former colleagues at The Asian Age, where she worked with him.
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" in her third year 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.
As Wahab's article began to be shared widely on social media, people began to question the lack of action by Seema Mustafa, the bureau chief of The Asian Age then. According to Wahab's article, Mustafa "was not surprised" when she narrated her ordeal to her and had also said that "the call was entirely mine; that I should decide what I wanted to do".
In an article for The Citizen, of which Mustafa is the editor, she wrote: "She (Wahab) says she spoke to me, and I am sure she is right. If she spoke to me, she did not share the details as she has written them now."
— seemamustafa (@seemamustafa) October 10, 2018
Mustafa also speaks out vehemently against the #MeToo movement, calling it a "powerful voice", but one that is "too subjective" and "arbitrary".
"It has no responsibility. All I require is the right gender, access to Twitter, and I can level any allegation against anyone for it to be believed hook, line and sinker and for the man to be pilloried beyond belief," she wrote.
However, she she does go on to express "full support and solidarity for Ghazala Wahab" and all the women who "used the hashtag to share traumatic experiences" and also write that Akbar "needs to lose his job" for his "behaviour".
'He made life at work hell when I refused'
Writer and conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra also took to Twitter to recount her experience of 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.
'The man never laid a hand on me, but I have no doubt that this was harassment'
Writer and journalist Saba Naqvi, too, recounted her experience with Akbar at her first job with the Ananda Bazar Patrika in the 1980s in Kolkata. In an article for dailyO, she wrote about how she was eager to work with what "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 on 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.
"The man never laid a hand on me — but I have no doubt that this was harassment by the boss... 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."
'He told me how journalists working together often grew close'
Founder-Editor of NewCrop Shutapa Paul is the latest to make 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 and how she learned to avoid his suggestions for late evening "meetings" at hotel rooms.
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.
The next morning, I woke up to cryptic text messages from #MJAkbar. Paraphrasing them: ‘You should know what’s important to you. Your career or other things’. I assured him that my career was very important to me and I would work hard on my stories. #MeToo 21/n — Shutapa Paul (@ShutapaPaul) October 10, 2018
"I have spoken about my experience and this person's abuse of power to a clutch of people in the last few yrs. To think that MJ Akbar is now more powerful than ever makes me shudder. But I draw courage from brave women everywhere and am now getting this monkey off my back."
No comment from BJP, but Congress wants investigation
The BJP, of which Akbar is a member, has remained largely silent. A party spokesperson did not respond to a phone call and a text message asking for a comment. Sushma Swaraj was asked by journalists at a Ministry of External Affairs event to comment on the allegations against Akbar, but she chose not to. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, too, refused to comment on the subject when questioned about it at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting.
Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha said over the phone: "Any industry, be it media, corporate, entertainment, politics, one thing is evident — the Harvey Weinstein moment of India has truly arrived. We have been a patriarchal and misogynistic society, and there would have been sexual exploitation. The current revelations are a manifestation that this is rampant. The allegations against Akbar are of a very serious nature, and all political parties must do their own internal investigation to create their own ethical playbook, which if anyone violates, there should not just be disciplinary action, but he should be asked to face internal party probe and legal consequences."
Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.
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