By Prarthana Mitra
Former journalist and Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar, the first public servant in high office to be accused in the #MeToo movement by US-based journalist Priya Ramani and 14 other women, filed a defamation suit against Ramani before stepping down from his post. A Delhi court heard the case on Thursday, taking cognisance of the complaints and announcing that Akbar’s testimony will be recorded next on October 31.
Here’s what happened
Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal first heard a brief argument by Akbar’s counsel, Geeta Luthra, at the Patiala House on Wednesday, and later issued his order saying, “I take cognisance of the complaint under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.”
Luthra reiterated why the criminal defamation suit was necessary, citing the multiple allegations levelled against her client, which he denies from the outset, for having caused irreparable damage to his reputation as a journalist, that he built over four decades.
The Magistrate later affixed October 31 as the date for recording of pre-summoning evidence presented by Akbar and his witnesses involved in the case. The plaintiff did not appear before the court on Wednesday but is likely to be present on the next date, which is when the court will decide on summoning Priya Ramani, but only after recording the testimonies of Akbar and other witnesses of the prosecution.
Priya Ramani, an Indian reporter based overseas, was the first to name a high ranking official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, as scores of other names were being offered up by female journalists across the nation since October 5.
Without naming him, Ramani detailed his harassment of her for the first time in her 2016 Vogue article titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.’ On Monday, October 8, she came forward with the identity of her harasser, who was already an extremely influential editor by then. “I was 23, you were 43,” the tweet read, as she recounted how the founding editor of The Telegraph had made her feel uncomfortable in a hotel room at Oberoi, Mumbai, during a prospective job interview.
Within a week, at least 14 other women came forward with similar allegations. The Wire published senior journalist Ghazala Wahab’s account. Here’s an excerpt.
He was standing next to the door and before I could react he shut the door, trapping me between his body and the door. I instinctively flinched, but he held me and bent to kiss me. With my mouth clamped shut, I struggled to turn my face to one side. The jostling continued, without much success. I had no space to manoeuvre. Fear had rendered me speechless. As my body was pushing against the door, at some point he let me go. Tear-stricken, I ran out. Out of the office. Out of the Surya Kiran building and into the parking lot. Finding a lonely spot, I sat down on the pavement and cried.
A former sub-editor, Tushita Patel, also accused union minister M.J. Akbar of sexual harassment. In her article for Scroll.in, Patel talks about how Akbar constantly coerced her to meet him at his hotel. She eventually gave in, and says that Akbar only had his underwear on when she met him. Patel later became a senior sub-editor. Akbar summoned her as she was late in completing her pages. When she visited him at his hotel, Patel says Akbar suddenly “got up, grabbed me and kissed me hard.”
Akbar who has had a prolific career as an editor at several of the largest media organisations in the country, later made his foray into politics and enjoyed a seemingly insulated professional reputation so far. But in the wake of #MeToo, the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi called for an investigation into the allegations followed by demands of his resignation by the Congress, and an immediate probe by BJP minister Smriti Irani.
Alleging a conspiracy to ruin his reputation and goodwill, Akbar filed the suit before resigning on Tuesday, and has enlisted an arsenal of 97 lawyers to defend him against Ramani. “Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity, I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity,” Akbar, 67, said in a statement.
Nineteen journalists have since come out in support of Ramani, saying she was not alone and that they would testify in court against Akbar.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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