A month after its inauguration, on May 4, the Rouse Avenue District Court Complex located at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg played host to its first-ever high-profile case: the deposition of ex-Union Minister MJ Akbar. This was in connection with Akbar’s defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani.
Earlier in October, Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual misconduct. Subsequently, Akbar had filed a defamation case against the journalist under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code. He had termed the sexual harassment allegations levelled against him as “false, frivolous, unjustifiable and scandalous.” In her response, Ramani had pleaded not guilty. In February, amid a strong show of support from close friends and members of the Indian journalism fraternity at the Patiala House Court Complex, Ramani was granted bail by the court.
Today, much drama took place during the 120-minute hearing at courtroom number 203 of the Rouse Avenue Court building, where Akbar was recording his statement in front of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal. It’s also where he would be cross-examined by Ramani’s counsel, Rebecca John. This classroom-sized courtroom with freshly-painted walls was divided into two corners—much like that of a boxing ring. In one corner, to the right of ACMM Samar Vishal, was Akbar and his comparatively large team of lawyers. This included his counsel, Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra. In the other corner, a calm Ramani stood with arms folded across her chest. Her counsel, Senior Advocate Rebecca John, sat at a table to her left, along with two of her junior lawyers. You could picture a U-shape, where Akbar and company take up one side of the curve, while the other is occupied by Ramani and John. As for the curve itself, it was occupied by ACMM Samar Vishal, who was presiding over the deposition. Luthra and John sat next to each other, in perpendicular view of the ACMM.
Also in attendance were journalists Barkha Dutt (Tiranga TV), Faye D’Souza (Mirror Now), Nidhi Razdan (NDTV), Suparna Sharma (Asian Age), and Javed Mansari, who sat on two rows of sofa-like benches at the back of the tightly-packed courtroom. They had come to support Ramani and be witness to the court proceedings. Journalists—armed with notebooks and pens—were lined up against the wall on the far left of the room.
Akbar began recording his statement by narrating his educational qualifications—where all he had worked, the positions he’d held, the books he’d authored and the languages they were published in. “These books were widely appreciated and published across the world in a number of languages,” he said, adding that all this had culminated into establishing a good reputation as a “serious writer”. After 20 minutes of meandering through his past qualifications, Akbar spoke about his political work. He said he had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and was appointed as the party’s spokesperson. Later, he went on to become a part of the Ministry of External Affairs. “At the moment, I am privileged to be a Member of Parliament from Madhya Pradesh,” he added.
There were several undertones of “tch-tch” coming from the gallery during Akbar’s statement. Meanwhile, he answered all of Luthra’s questions concisely, and to the point. John looked on at the proceeding, seldom interrupting, knowing well that her chance to cross-examine Akbar was just a couple of minutes away. It was going to be a long couple of minutes.
Akbar went on to reiterate that Ramani’s allegations of sexual misconduct had damaged his reputation. He said that his complaint was filed against a tweet that Ramani had posted last October. Ramani’s tweet was based on a 2017 article that she had written for Vogue magazine.
Akbar pointed out that he was on an official tour in Africa at the time of tweet, and got the details of what had transpired only once he was back in India. “There was a curious anomaly,” said Akbar, measuring and pacing his words carefully so that the stenographer could keep accurate minutes of his statement. “The original article in Vogue did not contain my name. I can infer that this was because the inclusion of my name would have been defamatory. The tweet, however, referred specifically to me, MJ Akbar.”
He further described the language used in the tweet as “deeply offensive, malign, mala fide, in bad faith and a web of fabrication spun out of lies.” He also said the allegations made against him were false. Luthra went on to ask him if this had damaged his reputation, and he answered in the positive. He said the allegations had affected his public reputation as well as his reputation amongst close friends and family. Pursuing the same line of questioning, Luthra further asked Akbar to name some of the people because of whom his reputation was lowered—which he did.
“What would you say was the per se effect of this?” she went on to ask. Responding Akbar said, it was defamatory in nature and had led to “lowering of prestige in the public space”. Once again, Luthra pursued the same line of questioning. “So what was the immediate damage done to you?” At this point, amid another chorus of “tch-tch” from the gallery, ACMM Samar Vishal said that the same question was being repeated. “I think we’ve already said that it damaged your reputation,” Vishal told Luthra, Akbar’s counsel. Nevertheless, Luthra’s next question still pointed in the same direction. “How have you been harmed and affected?” At this point, laughter erupted from the gallery—where Ramani’s friends were seated. “We’re not exactly challenged in language,” John, Ramani’s counsel, observed sarcastically.
The floor was then given to Senior Advocate Rebecca John for cross-examining MJ Akbar. “Mr Akbar, you have told this court about various engagements with newspapers and joining the BJP but you did not inform the court about your association with the Congress Party,” John said. No sooner was the question asked, Luthra opposed it. She said that John was “playing to the gallery”. Miffed by the sudden interruption, John told Luthra not to interrupt her and attempted to continue what she was saying—only to be interrupted again. Luthra emphasised that all questions must be asked in a question-answer format. John’s frustration at being interrupted twice—within minutes of her opening statements—became evident to the courtroom. “They had a tight script and she (Luthra) was putting words into his mouth,” John said, referring to certain prompts by advocates from Akbar’s team. “I am asking your honour to control proceedings in the court and (sic) to protect me and my client. I cannot cross-examine in this atmosphere. A lot of my questions will be contested but let’s get to that point first!” John added. However, she was interrupted yet again by Luthra, at which point the gallery chorused “Oh God”. Luthra followed this up with: everyone who is not an accused should leave the courtroom. At this point, John reminded her counterpart that it was an open-court proceeding.
Meanwhile, ACMM Samar Vishal said that the cross-examination should be done in question-answer form. “Is it correct that you were MP from Congress Party from Kishanganj, Bihar from 1989 to 1992?” John asked Akbar. To this Akbar said, yes. Akbar’s counsel, Luthra, once again interjected with “this was all irrelevant”, but the ACMM said her objection wasn’t allowed.
Continuing with the cross-examination, John asked Akbar if the Delhi High Court had issued a contempt notice to him for deliberate, false reporting of court proceedings in 2003, when he was the editor-in-chief of The Asian Age. “I do not remember,” said Akbar. Once more, John was interrupted by Luthra. John appealed to the ACMM to control the ongoing proceedings. “Your honour, this has to be controlled. It is becoming a farce,” she said. Addressing Luthra to her left, she said: “You do not have to show your power here. This is my cross-examination. Please sit down.”
Referring to the contempt notice issued by the Delhi HC, John said that Akbar had paid ₹2,000 as fine in the matter. Once again, Akbar stated that he could not recall the matter. “He doesn’t remember, it seems,” John said as she shuffled some papers.
Ramani’s counsel then moved on to ask Akbar about job openings at The Asian Age back in 1993—a year before the newspaper was launched. Were there many job openings, she asked. To which Akbar said, “Yes, there were a number of openings.”
“Did Ramani first meet you in The Asian Age office in Bombay in 1993 when she was looking for a job?” John asked. “I cannot recall,” came Akbar’s response. John and Luthra once again got into a verbal spat. In the heat of the moment, things escalated quickly. Another lawyer from Akbar’s team took great offence when John called him and the other lawyers as Akbar’s “helpers”. The lawyer said: “I won’t tolerate this. A senior should first know the decorum of the court. You’re playing for the gallery.”
By this time Ramani had taken a seat on the sofas at the back of the room, amidst her friends and supporters. John addressed the ACMM: “Will your honour give me space to ask questions? I would have completed 50 questions by now.” Picking up from where she left off, she asked: “Did Ramani first meet you in The Asian Age office in Bombay in 1993 when she was looking for a job?” Akbar responded with another “I do not remember.” John went on to say that Akbar, at the time, had told Ramani that he was busy and had asked her to meet him at the Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point at 7 pm that day. “I do not remember,” came Akbar’s response. Luthra once again interrupted and urged the court to adhere to the question-answer format agreed upon previously. At this point, ACMM Samar Vishal said: “This is a defamation case. If she (Ramani) is convicted, she will be jailed for two years. Let her defend herself properly. It is a major case.”
It was nearly 12 pm by now, and the proceedings had gone on for almost two hours. Patience was running thin in the courtroom, and tempers were right on the edge. With the ACMM agreeing to Luthra’s request for adjournment of proceedings, John asked her final question. “I put to you, Priya Ramani reached Oberoi Hotel for the job interview with her friend Nilofer Venkataraman who dropped her there and left,” John asked Akbar, who said there wasn’t any way for him to attest to the same. ACMM Samar Vishal announced that MJ Akbar’s cross-examination would continue on May 20.
A loud chatter erupted the minute the proceedings came to an end for the day. Most of the senior journalists who had come to show their support for Ramani began exiting the courtroom and gathered in the corridor outside. “Where is my gallery,” laughed John, as she too exited the courtroom. Those gathered around told John jokingly that they could never imagine being a lawyer. As Ramani and her friends were clicking a group picture in the corridor, MJ Akbar walked out of the courtroom, flanked by two bodyguards and surrounded by his team of lawyers. As this human convoy walked by Ramani’s group, there was an awkward moment of silence during which the duo avoided making eye contact with each other.