MJ Akbar, a former journalist and reputed editor, has become a frequent name floating on the internet since the recent eruption of the #MeToo movement in India. Nine journalists have called out the now Rajya Sabha member and the Minister of State for External Affairs, who has also previously held various positions in multiple news media organisations, including The Telegraph, Asian Age and India Today.
These survivorsâ accounts paint a stomach-churning pattern to his sexual abuse - set up job interviews with aspiring women journalists in hotel rooms, repeatedly call them to his office cabin for meaningless conversation and chatter, entice them with major stories, send them out of the workplace and meet them at a hotel at odd hours.
Job interviews at hotel rooms
One of the first survivors of workplace sexual harassment to bring MJ Akbarâs name to the fore, Priya Ramani, a journalist formerly with India Today, The Indian Express and Mint, first wrote about her encounter with him a year ago. She did not expose his name then but dubbed him as a âmale editorâ who behaved inappropriately, in an account titled Dear Male Boss.
As the #MeToo Movement began to gain momentum in October 2017, Priya now made it clear that the detailed account in Vogue, was about Akbarâs misconducts.
In the 1994 incident, she recounts how MJ Akbar interviewed her in a luxury south Mumbai hotel, offered her a drink (which she refused), asked her to sit next to him on the bed and even sang her romantic Hindi songs after enquiring her musical preferences.
In her account, she also goes on to talk about the nature of power dynamics in professional spaces and how she continued working with Akbar for several years but swore never to be alone in a room with him ever again.
Incidentally, she had ended her 2017 account saying, âWeâll get you all one day.â
More survivors came out after Priyaâs account.
Sharing a similar experience as Priya, author Shuma Raha told The Indian Express, that she called for an interview with Akbar for a job at Asian Age, to a hotel in Kolkata in 1995.
âWhen I reached the lobby, he asked me to come upstairs and I didnât think too much of it but there was a level of discomfort about sitting on the bed while giving an interview,â Raha told IE. He later asked her to join him for a drink later. This discouraged her from taking up the job.
Journalist Prerna Singh Bindra replied to Priyaâs tweet, recalling a similar invite from Akbar to a hotel. âHe was this brilliant, flamboyant editor who dabbled in politics, who called meâŚ to his hotel room to 'discuss work'.... made life at work hell when I refused, could not speak up due to various compulsions, but yes #MeTooIndia,â she tweeted without taking his name.
Later, on Tuesday, she mentioned his name in the subsequent tweets, where she mentions how Akbar made lewd comments during a meeting. âOne of the girls told me later he had asked them to meet him in the hotel too. I was alone in the city, vulnerable, fighting battles on personal fronts. I kept quiet,â she said.
Freelance journalist Kanika Gahlaut, who worked with MJ Akbar between 1995 and 1997 at the Asian Age and other publications, says she was forewarned of his âglad eyeâ and that he âdid it to everyoneâ.
Speaking to The Indian Express, she said, âHe said to come for breakfast in the morning to the hotel and we knew that he sort of paws and allâ. She, however, managed to wriggle out of the invite with excuses.
Suparna Sharma, who is currently the Resident Editor of The Asian Age, Delhi, was in her early 20s when she had her first brush with Akbar. While making a page of the newspaper, Akbar was standing behind her. âHe plucked my bra strap and said something that I donât remember now. I screamed at him,â she told The Indian Express. In another instance, she says, he stared at her breast when she wore a T-shirt that had a writing on it and muttered something under his breath, which she ignored.
Reacting to Priyaâs tweet, journalist Harinder Baweja said, âSo many of us have an MJ story. âCan I come over to your house with a bottle of rum?" he said. NO, was the answer.... Couldnât 'do' anything. Some donât get the meaning of No... they move on to the next, donât they,â she tweeted.
Meeting at odd hours
Although journalist Shutapa Paul replied to Priyaâs tweet, calling out MJ Akbar, she did not reveal much. She took some time to gather her thoughts and relive the series of events that happened eight years ago when she was working in India Today in Kolkata.
Finally, on Wednesday, she recalled her days as a 26-year-old journalist who had just lost her father in 2010. âToday, Iâm ready to talk about the sexual predator that is MJ Akbar,â she began.
Iâm better equipped to handle the trauma and stress if a similar incident happened today but as a 26-year-old who had just lost her father in 2010, I struggled badly. Today, Iâm ready to talk about the sexual predator that is #MJAkbar. #MeToo 2/nâ Shutapa Paul (@ShutapaPaul) October 10, 2018
In a string of tweets, she recalls how she had a rewarding career graph until âMJ Akbar, a well-known, rockstar editor, had taken up the reins of India Today,â she tweeted.
As he made frequent visits to Kolkata bureau, he made several sexual advances and harassed her, including squeezing her elbow, inviting her to hotels at odd hours, threatening her and forcing her to drink.
A few times, he would just stare at her while she discussed her story ideas, making her feel uncomfortable.
Once, when he asked her to drop by his residence, he hugged her. âMJ Akbar gave me a hard hug; I ducked whatever else could have followed and fled. He seemed amused at my ducking,â he wrote.
She even skipped the meetings with him at late hours at a hotel. Rejecting Akbarâs overtures spilled over to her profession. From a reporter who was doing impactful stories, she was relegated to small stories.
âFor days, I was depressed, traumatised and very low. I hadnât even gotten over the untimely demise of my father and here was someone the same age as my father who was causing me irreparable emotional damage,â she says in her account.
âI wish I had fought back then but I didnât know how. The only way I could, was to work hard and keep proving myself professionally. I hope this fight can bring about lasting change in our society and workplace,â she wrote.
Physical assaults to emotional harassment
Journalist and author Ghazala Wahabâs account of MJ Akbarâs persistent sexual abuses against her are deeply upsetting and harrowing. She is the latest survivor to corroborate the string of allegations against the central minister.
Recounting her #MeToo experience in a post in The Wire, she said she joined The Asian Age in Delhi in 1994, where MJ Akbar was the editor then. While she was aware of his flirtations with the young sub-editors and indecorous jokes and comments, she brushed it aside as office culture. However, little did she know that her ordeal was about to begin.
In 1997, when Akbarâs lusty eyes fell on Ghazala, who got her desk shifted just outside his office cabin. Ghazala details how he started sending her salacious messages on the Asian Age intranet network and later started calling her into his cabin for trivial chatter.
She then lists a catalogue of triggering occasions where he sexually assaulted her. Once, while writing his weekly column, Akbar asked her to hand him a huge dictionary placed on a low tripod in his cabin. While she was half-squatting over the dictionary, Ghazala recounts, âhe 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. Not only was the door shut, his back blocked it. In those few moments of terror, all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind. Finally, he released me.â
In other instances, he would forcefully kiss her but she would manage to free herself. On a then colleagueâs suggestion, she apprised then Bureau Chief Seema Mustafa of the matter. When Ghazala wrote to Akbar warning him not to harass her again, he called her back to his cabin, saying how she humiliated him and suspected his emotions for her as not genuine.
His harassment continued - âHe would 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,â she writes.
He later resorted to emotionally harassing her, even when she finally quit.
âMughal Emperor who hunted the new bellesâ
Saba Naqvi was another survivor who spoke up. Though she does not reveal his name in the article, she christens him as âa grand Mughal Emperorâ, âthe Badshahâ and âhis Majesty the Editorâ in her account in Dailyo. She, however, retweeted a tweet that mentioned that the editor in question was MJ Akbar.
It was her first job as a trainee was in Calcutta in the late 80s. She would manage to run every time she saw âthe editorâ coming from a distance.
Once, he landed up at her apartment, on the pretext that he had come to Russell Street for his article on a series on poverty in her region. He would summon her to his office on multiple occasions for meaningless conversations when he would speak to her chest than her face. Saba even says he managed to get her boyfriend transferredâŚ âto get useless young men out of the way while he hunted the new belles (oops, trainees),â she writes.
Though she says Akbar never laid a hand on her, she urges women âto ensure that more male bosses are deterred from acting as sexual bullies.â
Anju Bharti, who wrote her account on Twitter, has since deleted her account.
Kadambari Wade, who worked at the sports desk at Asian Age at the age of 22, said that MJ Akbar would often stare at her chest while talking to her. âHe would stand behind at the desk. Too close. Or whatever. Then 1 time, I was âelectedâ to go tell MJ Akbar about a problem on a sports page. The hope was that he wouldnât scream abusively at me like he would at everyone else. He yelled, while his eyes roved,â she wrote on Twitter.
(4/7) Mr. Akbar continued making me feel very uncomfortable till shortly thereafter, I fled. I came out & told Bobilli Vijay Kumar, my sports editor, but he laughed and said, âthatâs just Akbar, donât worry. Heâs like that with everyone.â It happened again though. @priyaramaniâ Kadambari M. Wade (@KadambariM) October 10, 2018
(5/7) He would stand behind at the desk. Too close. Or whatever. Then 1 time, I was âelectedâ to go tell MJ Akbar about a problem on a sports page. The hope was that he wouldnât scream abusively at me like he would at everyone else. He yelled, while his eyes roved. @priyaramaniâ Kadambari M. Wade (@KadambariM) October 10, 2018
Ruth David, a UK-based journalist recounted her MJ Akbar experience in a post published on Medium. In her account, Ruth wrote about how MJ Akbarâs eyes used to wander and how he tried to kiss her.
âThen he began pitching me a transfer to another bureau, where he said he would set me up in an apartment and come over for home-cooked meals,â Ruth wrote. âThen he began throwing into conversations how attracted he was to me and how much he cared about me,â Ruth added.
Malini Bhupta, a former Deputy Editor at India Today, tweeted about how MJ Akbar made her life hell. âI wasnât junior & he made my life hell. I was Deputy Editor India Today. His tactic is to abuse & destroy you professionally so you grovel. I didnât relent so he wanted to sack me but Mr Purie didnât allow it. I quit in Jan 2011. It is abuse of power,â she wrote.
@mjakbar Men like him are vermin. You wrote a lot. I didnât even bother because he wasnât even worth my words or time. In 2010 I went on leave for 3 months after verbal abuse & intimidation. I then quit. Petty man wanted to sack me and then refused to give release letterâ Malini (@malinibhupta) October 10, 2018
I wasnât junior & he made my life hell. I was Deputy Editor India Today. His tactic is to abuse & destroy you professionally so you grovel. I didnât relent so he wanted to sack me but Mr Purie didnât allow it. I quit in Jan 2011. It is abuse of power. #MeToo #SackMJAkbarâ Malini (@malinibhupta) October 10, 2018
Majlie de Puy Kamp, who interned at the Asian Age newspaper at the age of 18, told HuffPost India about how she was sexually harassed on her last day at the newspaper. MJ Akbar was a friend of her parents. âHe grabbed me right under my shoulders, on my arms, and pulled me in and kissed me on my mouth and forced his tongue into my mouth, and I just stood there,â she told the newspaper. MJ Akbar was 56 at the time.
Swati Gautam, the founder of NecessitySwatiGautam, wrote in a blog on the Quint, how when invited for a college event, he invited her to his hotel room to discuss the event, and opened the door in a bathrobe.
âThe door opened and the Bathrobe welcomed me. Mr Bathrobe was on the bed while I was kind of squirming on the single sofa in the room, unable to exactly fathom what in hell was the matter with the world which seemed perfectly normal sometime back,â wrote Swati. Following this, he rolled her a glass, and asked her to make him a drink. âBending down, he rolled the glass in his hand towards me. And I kept looking at it near my feet, petrified and totally lost,â she added.
The 16th woman to have come forward with accusations against MJ Akbar is Tushita Paul, who, in a piece for Scroll, wrote about how when she was a trainee at the Telegraph, incessantly called her home number, and once invited her over and opened the door in his underwear.
Sometime later, when they both used to work at Deccan Chronicle, he called her to his cabin on the pretext of discussing her pages. âWhen I reached your room, you were sullen, sitting there drinking tea and in a vile mood. You started yelling at me about being late, about my work. I was trying to mumble some words. Suddenly you got up, grabbed me and kissed me hard â your stale tea breath and your bristly moustache are still etched in the recesses of my memory,â she wrote.
He allegedly did the same thing again, the next morning. âWhere did you disappear? Iâve been looking for you â we have to discuss your page.â And with that you ushered me into the empty conference room, grabbed me again and kissed me,â she added.