MJ Akbar defamation case: Details of the interview were 'bizarre and inappropriate', Priya Ramani's witness tells the court 

At the latest hearing of the defamation case filed by former Union Minister MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani, on 25 October, Ramani's witness Niloufer Venkatraman gave her statement before the Court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal

FP Staff October 25, 2019 15:00:00 IST
MJ Akbar defamation case: Details of the interview were 'bizarre and inappropriate', Priya Ramani's witness tells the court 
  • I was well aware of the interview because I was present on that very day with Ramani until a few minutes before the interview began, Niloufer Venkatraman told the court.

  • The details she (Ramani) described were so bizarre and inappropriate that I have a picture of it in my mind to this day, Venkatraman further added.

  • The court proceedings were adjourned for the day and the matter will be taken up next on 6 November.

At the latest hearing of the defamation case filed by former Union Minister MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani, on 25 October, Ramani's witness Niloufer Venkatraman gave her statement before the Court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal. The third round of recording Ramani's statement was completed on 9 September where she provided her account of the series of events that transpired in 1993 when Akbar had allegedly asked her to come up to his room at a Mumbai hotel for a job interview.

Venkatraman, who currently works as an editorial consultant for Roundglass Sustain which is a wildlife and conservation website, held the position of Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India Magazine from November 2011 to March 2017.

She spoke about the time (on 8 October 2018) when she opened her Twitter feed to find her Ramani's #MeToo account of the alleged sexual harassment she had faced under Akbar about which she had previously written in Vogue magazine in 2017.

"I clicked on the link and read the articles. Just a few days before her tweets I was wondering if she would call Mr Akbar out as I was well aware of the interview because I was present on that very day with her until a few minutes before the interview began," said Venkatraman adding how Ramani had reiterated the details of the interview to her the same night back in 1993.

Venkatraman mentioned she met Ramani for the first time in 1988 when both of them had enrolled for an evening course at the Xavier's Institute of Communication in Mumbai and they "quickly became friends". They kept in touch as Ramani went to the US for higher studies in 1991 at the same university where Venkatraman was doing her PhD. After Ramani and Venkatraman had finished their individual courses, both of them decided to travel together to India; they landed in Mumbai on 13 November, 1993.

"Priya and I stayed in touch both on the phone and met often. She was keen to find a job in journalism and was looking out for job opportunities," Venkatraman said.

She further added, "Sometime in December 1933, Priya called me on the office landline. She told me that she had earlier that day gone to the office of soon to be launched, The Asian Age and there she had met the editor, Mr Akbar and he had told her to come to Oberoi Hotel for an interview."

That day, both of them met at Venkatraman's mother's office at Nariman Point and walked out towards the sea-facing promenade opposite the Oberoi Hotel. "As we walked, we discussed the possible interview questions, salary expectations. I did kind of a mock interview [with Ramani]. A few minutes before 7 pm, I walked her to the entrance of the Oberoi Hotel and she went in and I left to go home," Venkatraman continued.

She adds how later that day, after dinner time, Ramani had called her and "sounded upset and distraught". When asked, Ramani told her that the interview hadn't gone as they had expected.

"To begin with, it was not conducted in the coffee shop or lobby. Instead, she had been called up to Mr Akbar's room where they were alone. I recall that she went on to describe her extremely uncomfortable details of what had happened a few hours earlier. She described feeling extremely uncomfortable as he offered her an alcoholic drink and was having a drink himself. She also described him singing old Hindi songs to her, which sounded most unprofessional...She narrated how he patted the surface next to him on a small sofa and asked her to sit close to him," Venkatraman told the court.

"The details she described were so bizarre and inappropriate that I have a picture of it in my mind to this day," she further added.

Speaking about the telephone call that night in 1993, Venkatraman told the court that both of them discussed whether Ramani should take the job [at The Asian Age] if she was offered it. "She asked me what I thought and I said that she should take it. In hindsight, I can see it was inexperience and naivete with which I said that," recalled Venkatraman. She also mentioned how Ramani had also confided with her that she was not going to tell her parents the uncomfortable details of the interview as it would upset them.

Ramani got the job at The Asian Age in Delhi. However, two weeks after joining the Delhi office, Ramani called Venkatraman to say that she had returned to Mumbai and would now work out of the Mumbai office of the publication.

"I have known Priya Ramani for 30 years and have remained close friends," Venkatraman concluded.

To this, senior advocate Geeta Luthra, who represents Akbar along with advocate Sandeep Kapur (Senior Partner, Karanjawala & Co), said she "needs time to cross-examine her because she has come prepared like she was a ghost in the alleged room (at The Oberoi)." Senior advocate Rebecca John, who represents Ramani, defended Venkatraman's testimony and objected to the adjournment sought by Akbar's team.

The Judge said that the court will only allow for a single-day of cross-examination from Akbar's side and declared that no further adjournment will not be given.

The court proceedings were adjourned for the day and the matter will be taken up next on 6 November.

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