Facing allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by as many as six women journalists on record, as reported by The Indian Express today, Union Minister M J Akbar has been accused by a seventh journalist, for the first time of assault and molestation.
In a detailed account written for The Wire, Ghazala Wahab, executive editor of Force magazine, described several instances where Akbar allegedly molested her by grabbing her, rubbing his body against hers and forcefully kissing her in his office.
Wahab, who worked with The Asian Age from 1994 to 1997 — where Akbar was founder-editor — wrote that he would make her sit opposite him “while he was supposedly writing his weekly column” and if he “needed to look up a word in the gigantic dictionary placed on a low tripod on the far end of his cabin, he would ask me instead of walking across the room”.
The dictionary, she said was placed low, and she had to bend or squat to read it, with her back facing Akbar. Wahab wrote: “Once, in autumn of 1997, while I was half-squatting over the dictionary, he sneaked up behind me and held me by my waist. I stumbled in sheer fright while struggling to get to my feet. He ran his hands from my breast to my hips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist, his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts.” All this while, she wrote, “the wily smile never left his face”.
Her experience continued for six months, Wahab said. Every time Akbar called her into his cabin she wrote she “died a thousand times”. She would enter her room keeping the door slightly open and her hand on the knob. But Akbar would sometimes “walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips; and every time I would push him away and escape from his room”.
The “nightmare” as Wahab described her experience, started in the third year at the job when her desk was shifted to outside Akbar’s cabin and she was “face to face with him”. He would, she described, “sit at his desk and watch me all the time, often sending me lewd messages” and the newspaper’s intranet network.
When she planned to quit, she wrote, she wondered what “will happen if I continue to resist him? Will he rape me? Will he harm me? I considered going to the police, but got scared”. Wahab told Akbar that she did not “want him to behave like this with” her again, but instead of an apology, she wrote, he “looked pained at my protests and proceeded to give me a lecture on how I was humiliating him by suggesting that his emotions for me were not genuine”.
At one point, Wahab wrote, “after one particularly harrowing afternoon” in Akbar’s office, Veenu Sandal, the Asian Age tarot card reader who used to do a weekly column and had “become Akbar’s private astrologer” came to Wahab’s desk to tell her that Akbar was “truly in love” with her.
Express Editorial | Mr Akbar must go
When contacted, Sandal denied this as “nonsense” and said that in 20 years, she never “heard anybody saying that he molested us or he forced us into something.” “As a journalist if you cannot expose what is happening to you at that time then what are you worth, how will you expose what is happening to others. She’s speaking about this so much later? Why? There has to be a motive…What proof does she have?” said Sandal.
Referring to the #MeToo disclosures, Sandal said: “I am sure 90 per cent of the incidents are true but I am also sure there are 10 per cent where grudges are being taken out…(by) disgruntled elements. And I think Ghazala is one of them.” She also said that “unfortunately or fortunately” the moment is loaded for the accuser at the moment. “You have only Ghazala’s word and you have to look at whose credibility is greater.”
Once, along with a colleague, Wahab said she spoke to Seema Mustafa, then the bureau chief, who heard her, but “was not surprised” and told Wahab that the call was “entirely” hers about what she wanted to do.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Wahab declined to comment saying that she had shared the details in her piece.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday evening, Mustafa addressed Wahab’s reference to her. She wrote that over the years she has “been consistent in my condemnation — both on and off the record — of the culture at Asian Age, created by MJ Akbar”. She said that “we were never silent but our inability to be more vocal stemmed from the inability at the time — 20 years ago — of victims to publicly share the account of harassment”.
About Wahab complaining to her, Mustafa said that she did “not recall anyone coming forth” when she was at the newspaper, “yet, I believe Ghazala Wahab when she says that she confided in me”.
Journalist Shutapa Paul, who worked with India Today in Kolkata, when Akbar was with the organisation, put out a series of 33 tweets with details of what she said was her experience of working with Akbar, when he called her to his hotel room late at night and how she had to face repercussions in the newsroom because she refused to yield. Her accusations are consistent with statements of five other women who had spoken on Tuesday that Akbar would call them to their hotel room.
The Indian Express sent an email to Akbar on the latest allegations but no comment was available.