#MeToo: MJ Akbar's use of 'predatory' tactics, sexual harassment in newsroom — 18 women share their ordeal
Women have recounted harrowing experiences with MJ Akbar, including behaviour ranging from sexual harassment to sexism to abuse of power in his capacity as the editor of a number of leading publications.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include the accounts of women who shared their stories of junior foreign minister MJ Akbar after the article was published.
“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.
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. #ulti https://t.co/5jVU5WHHo7
— 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
Anju Bharti 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
Malini Bhupta “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. “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.
UK-based journalist with Bloomberg Ruth David, who had worked with Akbar in 1999 at The Asian Age, recounted in a blog how he had "sexually harassed her as a teenage trainee in his newsroom".
"Like any good journalist, Akbar asked so many questions, wanting to know every small detail to be used in a slow-burn game of sexual conquest. 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 narrated in her blog.
Majlie de Puy Kamp
Another foreign journalist, Majlie was 18 years old when she interned at The Asian Age in 2007 and found herself at the receiving end of Akbar's misconduct. In an interview with HuffPost, Majlie said she "had met Akbar through her parents who had worked as foreign correspondents in Delhi in the 1980s".
"He grabbed me right under my shoulders, on my arms, and pulled me in and kissed me on my mouth and forced his tongue into my mouth, and I just stood there," she said, recalling the incident that took place during one of her interactions with Akbar in his office. "What he did was disgusting, he violated my boundaries, betrayed my trust and that of my parents."
Majlie's father even confronted Akbar after the incident over email, to which Akbar replied saying, "These are issues that are so prone to misunderstanding that there is no point debating them. My profoundest apologies if there was anything inappropriate."
Entrepreneur Swati Gautam wrote her "MJ story" for The Quint, describing how she had to face Akbar "in a bathrobe" when she went to meet him. Swati said she had gone to invite Akbar for the annual Father Jorris Memorial Nihil Ultra Debate of the Alumni Association of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. She was "a young, almost naïve convenor" of the association.
"Akbar asked me to meet him at the Calcutta airport. As he strode down with ‘The Stare’ and a small handbag, he said we would talk in the car. Fair enough. Our conversation in the car was about everything but the debate... At The Taj hotel, he went up to his room, saying that he would freshen up and then talk. A while later, I was requested to come upstairs to discuss the event and his potential participation. The door opened and the Bathrobe welcomed me. Mr Bathrobe was on the bed while I was kind of squirming on the single sofa in the room, unable to exactly fathom what in hell was the matter with the world which seemed perfectly normal sometime back," she wrote.
Tushita Patel, who was part of the founding team of The Asian Age, shared her account on Scroll.in, a day after Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani. "If I don’t speak up now, I feel I’ll be complicit in your crimes," she wrote on Akbar.
Patel, who resigned from the newspaper in 2000, mentioned two accounts of the harassment she faced at the hands of Akbar. "It was 1992, Calcutta. I was a trainee at The Telegraph. You had left journalism for politics and had come to visit Calcutta. A group of my colleagues was going to meet you at your hotel. I was asked if I’d like to meet MJ Akbar. Who didn’t? Sure. I went along... After that day, you found out my home phone number (from someone else) and started calling me incessantly, asking me to come and meet you at your hotel."
Patel recalls how when she went to meet Akbar at his hotel, he greeted her in his "underwear". "You opened the door dressed only in your underwear. I stood at the door, stricken, scared and awkward. You stood there like the VIP, amused by my fear. I did go in and carried on blabbering out of fear till you finally put on a bathrobe. What would you say that was? Does greeting a 22-year-old in a state of undress pass your test of morality? Is that not 'doing' something? I have visions of you like that. After that, it’s a bit hard to imagine you as the Minister of External Affairs representing India," Patel wrote, after he said in his statement rubbishing the allegations against him, saying "he didn't 'do' anything".
She described another incident that took place when she was a senior sub-editor at the Deccan Chronicle and Akbar was the editor-in-chief. "You came into town and summoned me to your hotel to discuss my pages. I was late (I had to finish my pages). When I reached your room, you were sullen, sitting there drinking tea and in a vile mood. You started yelling at me about being late, about my work. I was trying to mumble some words. Suddenly you got up, grabbed me and kissed me hard — your stale tea breath and your bristly moustache are still etched in the recesses of my memory," Patel recounts her horror.
But that was not it. Patel wrote that the next day, Akbar was looking out for her at the office and told her that they had to "discuss her page". "You ushered me into the empty conference room, grabbed me again and kissed me," she wrote.
These are only the 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 reasons, 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.
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.