Pallavi Gogoi, a former reporter at The Asian Age and the current Chief Business Editor at National Public Radio in New York, has accused former Union Minister M J Akbar of rape, repeated sexual abuse, and violent behaviour.
Over a dozen women have accused the editor-turned-politician and Rajya Sabha MP of sexual harassment but Gogoi’s account, published in the Washington Post Thursday, is the first to level serious allegations of rape against him.
Akbar and his wife, Mallika, issued separate statements Friday and said Gogoi’s account was “false” and a “lie”. Earlier this week, Akbar recorded evidence in his defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to name him in a Twitter post on October 8.
Gogoi, who joined The Asian Age’s Delhi office in the early nineties at the age of 22, in her article detailed how Akbar, then the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, “used his position to prey” on her. Gogoi stated: “What I am about to share are the most painful memories of my life. I have shelved them away for 23 years.”
According to Gogoi, she was allegedly raped while on an assignment in Jaipur. Akbar had asked her to come over to his hotel to discuss a story. “In his hotel room, even though I fought him, he was physically more powerful. He ripped off my clothes and raped me. Instead of reporting him to the police, I was filled with shame. I didn’t tell anyone about this then. Would anyone have believed me? I blamed myself. Why did I go to the hotel room?”
Being a “star-struck” young reporter, Gogoi says, she took his verbal abuse from the beginning. However, she said, it was when she became the op-ed editor in 1994, a year into her job, that Akbar assaulted her for the first time in his office behind closed doors.
“I went to show him the op-ed page I had created with what I thought were clever headlines. He applauded my effort and suddenly lunged to kiss me. I reeled,” she wrote adding that she immediately confided in her colleague Tushita (Patel) who witnessed the look on her face as she emerged from his office “red-faced, confused, ashamed, destroyed.”
She also described a second incident a few months later when she was summoned to Mumbai to help launch a magazine. “He called me to his room at the fancy Taj hotel, again to see the layouts. When he again came close to me, to kiss me, I fought him and pushed him away. He scratched my face as I ran away, tears streaming down,” she said.
Gogoi said that after she returned to Delhi, she chose not to quit the paper despite a “livid” Akbar threatening “to kick me out of the job if I resisted him again.”
Describing the alleged sexual assault in Jaipur, she said, “his grip over me got tighter”. “I stopped fighting his advances because I felt so helpless. He continued to coerce me. For a few months, he continued to defile me sexually, verbally, emotionally. He would burst into loud rages in the newsroom if he saw me talking to male colleagues my own age. It was frightening. And I died a little every day.”
Gogoi also detailed how the abuse continued even after she was sent to The Asian Age’s London office with Akbar flying into a jealous rage when he spotted her talking to male colleagues “he hit me and went on a rampage, throwing things from the desk at me – a pair of scissors, a paperweight, whatever he could get his hands on”. She states that she finally quit when Akbar summoned her back to Mumbai and went on to take up a job as a reporting assistant at Dow Jones in New York.
Gogoi, now a US citizen, said that she is speaking out in the wake of all #MeToo accounts by many journalists whom Akbar has threatened to sue. She said: “He feels he is entitled to make up his own version of ‘truth’ today, just like he felt entitled to our bodies then.”
Hours after Gogoi’s account was published, Akbar issued a statement terming as false the allegations of rape and violence. “Somewhere around 1994, Ms Pallavi Gogoi & I entered into a consensual relationship that spanned several months. This relationship gave rise to talk & would later cause strife in my home life as well. This consensual relationship ended, perhaps not on the best note,” said he said.
The statement also said that people who worked with him are willing to testify and that “at no stage, did the behaviour of Pallavi Gogoi, give any one of them the impression that she was working under duress”.
His wife, Mallika Akbar too issued a separate statement that dismissed Gogoi’s account as a “lie” and said, “I have been silent all this while as a ‘me too’ campaign has been unleashed against my husband, Mr M.J. Akbar.”
She said that Gogoi’s article alleging rape had forced her to step in and blamed Gogoi for causing “unhappiness and discord” in her family more than 20 years ago. “I learned of her and my husband’s involvement through her late night phone calls and her public display of affection in my presence.”
“I had confronted my husband at the time and he decided to prioritize his family.”
Mallika also said that Tushita Patel (who had earlier accused Akbar of assault) and Pallavi Gogoi, who were often at their home “happily drinking and dining with us”, didn’t carry “the haunted look of victims of sexual assault”.
In her account, Gogoi also said that she had shared her ordeal with Suparna Sharma. Speaking to The Indian Express, Sharma said: “M J Akbar had a pattern then, in the way he preyed on and sexually abused and assaulted women, and he has a pattern now, in the way he is reacting to allegations against him.”
Sharma, presently the Resident Editor for The Asian Age in Delhi, pointed out that in Gogoi’s case, Akbar was the boss who preyed on a junior he had brought to The Asian Age from The Telegraph, from Calcutta to Delhi.
“He’s ignoring their massive age gap. He’s conveniently ignoring incidents she has narrated, often witnessed by others, of how he manipulated her to be alone and vulnerable by sending her off to other cities on assignments and then going there himself and assaulting her, of breaking her spirit. The power equation between them never changed… Pallavi had to literally run away, to another country, to save herself, and start her life and career from scratch.”
Meanwhile, the Editor’s Guild of India, in a statement Friday, said that it is “discussing further course of action” in view of the ‘fresh, and serious allegations of sexual misconduct” against Akbar, a past president of the Guild. The Executive council will ask for his response to the allegations, the statement said, following which “a decision on his membership will be taken”.