A day after Union Minister M J Akbar filed a criminal defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani, one more woman alleged that he had assaulted her, and as many as 20 journalists who have worked under him went on record to ask the court to “consider testimonies of sexual harassment of some of us at the hands of” Akbar and of others “who bore witness to this harassment.”
In their statement issued Tuesday, the women, three of whom head newsrooms today, said that Akbar has refused to “acknowledge” or “atone” for his actions that have been the cause of “immense pain and indeed harm to many many women over the years”.
The 20 women include Meenal Baghel who is Chief Editor, Mumbai Mirror; Manisha Pande; Tushita Patel; Kanika Gahlaut; Suparna Sharma, Resident Editor, The Asian Age, New Delhi; Ramola Talwar Badam; Kaniza Garari; Malavika Banerjee; A T Jayanthi, Editor, Deccan Chronicle; Hamida Parkar; Jonali Buragohain, Sanjari Chatterjee, Meenakshi Kumar, Sujata Dutta Sachdeva, Hoihnu Hauzel, Aisha Khan, Kushalrani Gulab, Kiran Manral, Christina Francis and Reshmi Chakraborty.
Except for Francis, who worked at Deccan Chronicle, all other women worked at The Asian Age and worked with Akbar in Delhi, Mumbai or Hyderabad when Akbar was Editor-in-chief. Only three of them had spoken about harassment by Akbar earlier – Suparna Sharma, Gahlaut and Tushita Patel. The statement also said that that when Ramani spoke out against him, “she spoke not only about her personal experience but also lifted the lid on the culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation” that Akbar had “engendered and presided over at The Asian Age”.
Akbar, they said, filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani “for calling out his predatory behaviour towards the young women he employed” when he was the proprietor and editor of The Asian Age, “despite the powerful testimonies of several other women who have stepped forward to speak out against his sexual misconduct”.
When contacted, Baghel said that the letter has not been sent to Ramani’s lawyer and it’s “for the court to take cognisance” of it. Akbar’s lawyer was unavailable for comment. Aisha Khan, who now works at The New York Times, told The Indian Express that she was “very lucky that nothing as bad as what happened to” Ghazala Wahab happened to her. Earlier, Wahab had written a detailed account in The Wire alleging that Akbar kissed her without consent, and touched and molested her as well.
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“He would stare at you and make uncomfortable comments. I had a mark on my neck and he would ask, ‘What’s that?’ He would imply it’s a love bite or something, something more salacious in his words,” she said.
Khan said: “…I was sitting doing page one and he came up behind and kind of rubbed my shoulders and I was uncomfortable”. She said she would “shrink away and get out of his reach”. “We were uncomfortable, a lot of us we didn’t like being called to his office,” Khan added. “We didn’t like doing Page 1 because it meant we had to go to his office and he might come later and stand behind you.”
One of the reasons she said she quit the newspaper, she said, was because “if you were young and pretty and ambitious, there was an assumption that you used all that with Akbar to get ahead” as and “you got tainted” as everybody in outside media circles “knew of Akbar’s reputation, it wasn’t a secret”. On the other hand, it might feel like you couldn’t advance if you didn’t play along,” she added.
Buragohain, who worked with the features team at The Asian Age for three years starting 1995, said that “it was an unhealthy, toxic environment”. Corroborating Wahab’s experience, Buragohain said she was “in office when the incident” that Wahab wrote about took place.
“She came out of the room, her cheeks were red. She was disturbed but composed. She ran to the washroom. She disclosed the incident to us – her colleagues – at different times”, she said. “Everyone knew, even the men in the office. I have watched women come running out of his room.”
Buragohain has never met Ramani, she said, but when she read the “experiences that women shared on Twitter, it hit me”. She said she remembered those years, “and what happened with Wahab” and she “had to say something”.
Earlier, in a report published by web portal Scroll, Tushita Patel, part of the team that started The Asian Age, alleged three incidents of sexual harassment and assault – one in which Akbar opened the door of his hotel room in his underwear and twice when he forcibly kissed her.