For over three decades, the predations of MJ Akbar have been shrugged off as a “rite of passage” in the newsroom. That changed this week.
Since Monday, the former journalist and now Union minister of state for external affairs has been named in a range of sexual harassment charges. The most serious charges, so far, have been made by Ghazala Wahab, who wrote in The Wire about her last six months at the Asian Age, where she worked from 1994 to 1997, during which time Akbar was editor.
They were six months of physical and mental abuse at the hands of Akbar, alleges Wahab, who gives harrowing details of how she would be called into his office, repeatedly groped and kissed against her will, and finally, forced to leave her job and the city to escape the clutches of the editor.
The allegations against Akbar fit into a pattern. Together, they form the image of a man now described as the “King Kong of sexual harassment”, whose transgressions were as well known as his editorial brilliance, whose reputation was preserved by the silence of senior journalists and colleagues.
“I heard people refer to the Asian Age Delhi office as Akbar’s harem,” writes Wahab.
The editor Akbar rose to prominence early in his career as a journalist. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had been editor of two magazines. Sunday, the magazine he started editing in 1976, was noted for the feisty, fresh attitudes it brought to Indian journalism in the post-Emergency period. In 1982, he launched the Telegraph, which would go on to become one of the largest dailies in eastern India. By the late 1980s, when a young Saba Naqvi joined the Telegraph in Kolkata, Akbar already had a formidable reputation. “We were all told he was god’s gift to the profession,” she writes in Daily O.
Akbar followed up his successful run at the Telegraph with a brief stint in politics, contesting as a Congress candidate and then advising the ministry of human resources, before returning to journalism and launching the Asian Age in 1994. By then, he also had several well-admired books under his belt.
A number of the journalists who speak of harassment in that decade start with how much they admired Akbar’s work and looked up to him. “While I had decided to be a journalist even before I knew how to spell the word, exposure to Akbar’s books turned desire into passion,” writes Wahab.
Priya Ramani, who mentioned Akbar anonymously in an article last year but named him in a tweet this week, writes, “I grew up reading your smart opinions and dreamt of being as erudite as you. You were one of my professional heroes.” Her tweet kickstarted the wave of allegations.
For all those who have chosen to speak up, “the illusion had to shatter”. Going by the accounts, the objects of the editor’s interest were usually very young women, just starting out in their careers as journalists. Some, like Wahab, did not come from big cities and their objections to Akbar’s behaviour around the newsroom were rejected as “small townish”. Many were bright, ambitious women, committed to their jobs, hungry for opportunities to write and report.
In a hotel room In many cases, the advances allegedly began before women entered the workplace. They took place in job interviews held in hotel rooms, where the lines between the personal and professional allegedly grew blurred, usually much to the discomfort of the interviewee.
In her article for Vogue last year, Ramani spoke of “the bed, a scary interview accompaniment”. As the meeting progressed, Ramani wrote, she was offered a drink, which she refused, and old Hindi songs were sung by Akbar. At one point, he allegedly asked her to sit in a “tiny space” close to him.
Journalist and author Shuma Raha, who interviewed with Akbar for a job at the Asian Age in 1995, said she was called to the Taj Bengal in Kolkata. “I went, but of course I didn’t know the meeting would be in his hotel room – you assume it would be in the lobby or coffee shop,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking it through, but I was aware it was highly inappropriate and I was uncomfortable. When the meeting ended, he asked me to come for a drink in the evening (the meeting was in the morning). That’s when it definitely came out to me. I decided I didn’t want to work in a place where he would be the boss.” Raha declined the job offer.
Forcing drinks on unwilling young women seems to have been a pattern as well. Shutapa Paul, a journalist who joined India Today in 2010, when Akbar was editor, had a similar account of her first meeting with him, a few months into the job. On Wednesday, Paul went public with her charges on Twitter. At the meeting, Akbar allegedly spoke about how journalists who worked together often “grew close”. “Things could happen between them,” Paul recounts Akbar telling her.
Like Naqvi at the Telegraph in the late 1980s and Paul at India Today in 2010, the women who became objects of interests were often offered plum reporting assignments and space for their stories. “The next few days at work were great. I couldn’t put a step wrong. My stories were doing well,” said Paul, describing the aftermath of the first meeting. More such rendezvous were requested, she alleges, and when these advances were rebuffed, the stories and the bylines dried out.
On Page 1 duty The other vulnerable group seems to have been sub-editors who were given desk jobs that involved working closely with Akbar. Wahab alleges that he molested her as she bent over a dictionary to look up a word for his weekly column. Even Seema Mustafa, former bureau chief at the Asian Age, who has written a cautiously worded article in The Citizen which sometimes reads like a defence of Akbar, admits, “But yes women were promoted out of turn, brought on to Page 1 sub-editing as he handled that directly, and there were whispers about specific girls on the desk.”
A woman who worked at the Asian Age in 2001 said, requesting anonymity: “All the youngsters were eventually put on Page 1 duty, which meant we had to go into his office alone every day so that he could draw up the page.” Eventually, Akbar’s advances towards young women on Page 1 duty seemed to have entered the whisper network. “I was discussing this with a former colleague,” she said. “She remembers me warning her about him when it was her turn for page 1 duty, just as I was warned myself. Asian Age had its inbuilt warning system!”
The alleged offences varied. While Wahab describes full-fledged assault, the Page 1 journalist from 2001 speaks of a hand placed on hers in what seemed to be a deliberate gesture. Journalist Suparna Sharma, who was part of the launch team of the Asian Age from 1993 to 1996, has said he “plucked my bra strap” one day as she was working on Page 1 of the newspaper.
Naqvi recalls a meeting at his office where “it seemed he would lunge” had a secretary not walked in that very moment. Prerna Singh Bindra, another journalist, recalled “lewd comments” made at a meeting with the features team. “He yelled, while his eyes roved,” said Kadambari M Wade, who had joined the sports desk at the Asian Age in 1998.
Everybody knew Akbar’s predations, by all accounts, were an “open secret”. Naqvi speaks of entering the Telegraph office in the 1980s and being told by friends that the “editor has a new fancy”, namely, her. When her boyfriend at the time was abruptly transferred out of the city, she continues, the running joke was that Akbar had “engineered” the move to get him “out of the way”.
While friends and colleagues conspired to created informal defence mechanisms against Akbar, senior journalists seem to have done little to stop him. In her testimony, put out on Twitter on Wednesday, Wade claimed she spoke to then sports editor, Bobili Vijay Kumar, who allegedly laughed off her complaint. “That’s just Akbar, don’t worry,” Kumar is alleged to have told her, “he’s like that with everyone.”
Wahab said she actually reported her case to the bureau chief at the time, Seema Mustafa. “She was not surprised,” Wahab writes, but left it up to the young sub-editor to decide what she wanted to do about the situation.
Mustafa, for her part, said she does not remember the incident. “I do not recall anyone coming forth while I was at the Asian Age, and yet, I believe Ghazala Wahab when she says that she confided in me,” she said in an email to Scroll.in. “Although I had only recently been confirmed in the Asian Age, I hope that when I said she should take a call, it meant that the decision to report the harassment she faced was hers to make, but she had my support if she chose to report it.”
But there were few avenues to report harassment, Mustafa acknowledged. “We did not have sexual harassment committees or social media, and the only course of redressal was to file a complaint with the cops,” she said. “This was perhaps the reason that journalists of my generation were forced to fight sexual harassment directly or remain silent.”
A power dynamic Apart from Wahab, not many have spoken of physical harassment so far. In several cases, Akbar seems to have dropped the matter after his propositions were refused. “That man never laid a hand on me,” Naqvi writes, “but I have no doubt it was sexual harassment by the boss.” Ramani said she escaped the hotel room that night and did not name him in her Vogue article because he did not “do” anything.
But then, he probably did not have to. Akbar seems to have exuded a sexual threat combined with the fear a very powerful man could generate. Several accounts speak of shouting and abrasive behaviour in the same breath as sexual harassment. Female journalists are said have run for cover as the editor strode down the corridors. Naqvi writes that if you had caught his eye, it was “fight, flight or succumb”. These spaces, where Akbar exercised total control over female employees, could be newspaper offices, hotel rooms, his own home or their homes.
For decades, talk of Akbar’s alleged predations have circulated in whisper networks and industry gossip. “It was very common for people to say that he had hit on them, had called them over,” said Aakar Patel, who was also an editor at Asian Age. While they became common knowledge, it was still half knowledge. “Those women who were hit upon and rejected him would talk about it, laugh it off; but those who succumbed would probably not talk about it,” Patel suggested.
But that is not the only reason Akbar’s worst offences were brushed under the carpet. They were “normalised”, Patel said, because in newsrooms a couple of decades ago, “men behaved in a certain way and it was tolerated”. If a woman complained about sexual harassment by a male boss, “there was no question of her getting justice,” he said. “The times were different”.