Journalist and author Ghazala Wahab appeared before the Court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja on 10 December regarding the criminal defamation case filed by former Union Minister MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani who had accused him of sexual harassment in 2018. Wahab gave her statements and revealed some of her own experiences with Akbar when they worked at The Asian Age.
Wahab began by introducing herself and letting the court know that she hails from Agra and has been an active journalist for over 25 years now. She further informed that she was indeed the first person from her family who stepped out of Agra for work. She told the court that she joined the Delhi office of The Asian Age in 1994, and after leaving that she later joined The Telegraph in 1998, as reported by The Live Law.
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Geeta Luthra, who represents Akbar in the case, objected to Wahab's narration of her background information, which also included her professional details and publications over the years. With Luthra's incessant rattling, Rebecca M John, Ramani's counsel, took an objection and said, "I can't continue like this. Here's a witness who wants to tell her story. We should be respectful of that," adding that Wahab is allowed to complete her statement. To this, Luthra raised sections 6 and 9 of Evidence Act to object to the line of examination followed by John.
Luthra told the judge that statements given by Wahab don't qualify as res gestae under section 6 of Evidence Court and that she is just a witness and not the accused in the said defamation case. To this, the judge pointed out that the appreciation of evidence takes place only at a later stage. "What might be relevant for you might not be relevant to her," the judge said.
John, to this, read out the definition of defamation under the IPC, which lists truth as a defence. "Akbar has repeatedly cited damage to his reputation as a fact in his complaint. Therefore, examining the witness becomes imperative to establish that defence," John mentioned before the court. She further argued that while the witnesses of the prosecution were allowed to "make sweeping statements celebrating the reputation of Akbar," why aren't the defence witnesses "allowed to share their stories to establish their truth?" She further cited various judgments in the past which had allowed the accused to share their stories to establish their defence of truth, even if their statements showed the "complainant's reputation at the lowest ebb".
Luthra asked before the court that Wahab's cross-examination be done in a question-answer format with accommodation of her objections under section 6 being recorded. The judge overruled it and said, "There can't be any curtailment on defence conducting the examination to establish its case," adding that it's defence's prerogative to establish Wahab's case.
Wahab continued stating that when she joined The Asian Age, she reported to Mr Mittal and was later transferred to the features section, where she reported to Poonam Saxena. She further added that in the middle of 1996, The Asian Age's office shifted from KG Marg to Tolstoy Marg (in Delhi), as the former was under renovation. After the renovation, the second floor of the new location only comprised Akbar's office, Bureau and Features office.
"In 1996, when I was promoted as the Sub-Chief Editor, I was reporting directly to Akbar. My desk was placed in such a way, that Akbar could easily see me from his office even when the door was only slightly ajar," Wahab said informing the court that Akbar would keep the door of his office open and would shut them only during meetings. She recounted how once she saw Akbar staring at her. He also started sending her private messages through Intranet Messaging Service, she added.
She narrated to the court an incident which happened sometime around August-September in 1997. "Akbar called me to his room. When I went inside, he asked me to shut the door, and then asked me to look up a word in the dictionary which was placed on a low height stool across his desk," Wahab said adding that the dictionary was placed so low that one had to either bend down or squat.
When she squatted, Akbar came from behind and held her waist, recounted Wahab alleging that Akbar started running his hands from her breasts to her thighs. She said she was numb and she tried to push him away but he had held her on firmly also blocking the door from his back. This continued for a while and then he stopped, following which she ran out of the room straight to the washroom to cry. Wahab also mentioned a similar incident happened again when Akbar called her inside the room, shut the door behind her, held her shoulders and started kissing her. After she vehemently opposed his advances, he stopped and she ran to the parking lot and sat at the pavement crying.
A colleague of hers saw her on the pavement and asked what had happened, to which she narrated the entire incident. Wahab told the court that she went to Seema (Seema Mustafa, Delhi bureau chief, The Asian Age) hoping that she would confront Akbar. But, Seema told Wahab that she wasn't surprised by his behaviour and there's only little she could do about it. In fact, Seema apparently told Wahab that it was entirely her fault and she should've done something about it. Wahab told the court that she felt petrified and helpless. "Asian Age had no redressal mechanism/policy to deal with complaints of sexual harassment," she observed before the court.
Wahab also mentioned that those days calling out Akbar openly wasn't even an option given his public status. "Women journalists were not encouraged to complain against male bosses," she said. She further informed the court how her entire professional career flashed in front of her eyes and she figured she was all on her own. "I sent a message to Akbar telling him that I held him on high regard as an author but his unwelcomed sexual advances were unacceptable." In return, Akbar asked her to meet him. While she went thinking he would apologise, instead, he lectured her about his "genuine" feelings towards her. Wahab maintained that Akbar continued physically harassing her and she would always push him away. She would even devise tactics to keep him away and avoid his advances.
She further continued mentioning how Akbar had told her sometime around the second week of December 1997 that he wanted her to shift to the new office in Ahmedabad as a Features Editor. He said that she'll be given an apartment there, and whenever he would come to Ahmedabad he would stay with her, Wahab told the court. This prompted Wahab to consider quitting the job on a serious note. She kept clearing her desk on the pretext of joining the Ahmedabad office and on the day of leaving, she stayed at home and tendered her resignation. Wahab recalled how Akbar was furious about her quitting the job. Fearing that he might turn up at her house, she left Delhi and went to Agra without telling her parents about her sudden move.
Wahab concluded saying that she got inspired by the #MeToo movement to share her story against Akbar and how following her tweet, many other women journalists called out Akbar's predatory behaviour in the workplace. Wahab told the court that she was not looking at seeking legal remedies against Akbar and she's still not looking to prosecute him.
Luthra objected to all the statements given by Wahab as being irrelevant, not being facts in issue, hearsay and not falling under the purview of section 6 and 9 of Evidence Act.
The court proceedings were then adjourned for the day. The cross-examination is to take place on 11 December.
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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2019 19:33:04 IST