MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani: Allegations of ‘witness tutoring’ mark second round of cross-examinations

Two witnesses, who know MJ Akbar for a collective 70 years, deposed in front of a Delhi court today.

WrittenBy:Gaurav Sarkar
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Cross-examination of witnesses appearing for ex-Union minister MJ Akbar continued today in the defamation case filed by him against senior journalist Priya Ramani. 

Previously on Monday, Veenu Sandal—the first witness from Akbar’s side—had appeared before the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal. Today, two other witnesses, Tapan Chaki and Sunil Gujral, took turns in the witness box for their respective cross-examinations by senior advocate Rebecca John, the counsel representing Ramani. 

Chaki, a balding man wearing a white full-sleeved shirt and grey trousers, was the first to take the stand. “I am a corporate communications consultant based in Kolkata,” said Chaki, beginning his statement. “I have known Mr Akbar for over 30 years. I have always been interested in journalism and used to contribute to The Statesman and the other Junior Statesman. When Mr Akbar became the editor of Onlooker, the magazine based out of Bombay, I used to contribute articles to Onlooker. I would send them from Kolkata to Bombay.”

Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for MJ Akbar, asked Chaki: “What is your view about Mr Akbar? What did you think of him and how was he in his healing with you and those around you?”

Chaki said: “I have the highest regard for Mr Akbar, both as a man and as a journalist, so much so that when he launched The Asian Age, I took the franchise of the paper in Mumbai. I was also the publisher of the Asian Age in all its that time three editions, Delhi, Bombay and London. He was highly regarded for his writing skills, administration skills, and as a person, he would get along very well with people.”

Luthra asked: “Was he exacting in his professional requirements?” 

Chaki said: “He was extremely demanding when it came to copy, schedules, and I think he had an uncanny sense of what constitutes news.” 

Luthra showed Chaki some tweets and articles posted by Ramani. 

“Have you seen and read these tweets?” asked Luthra. 

“Yes, I have seen and read the tweets and publications.”

“What was your reaction when you read these?”

“I was shocked. In fact, quite shattered on reading them,” replied Chaki. 

“Why were you so shocked and shattered?”

“Because I have known Mr Akbar all these years and there was never any occasion where anybody even mentioned to me that he is capable of doing such things. I mean … this was totally out of the blue.”

“What kind of reputation did Mr Akbar have?” 

“Impeccable reputation,” said Chaki. “I think these (tweets and articles) have caused enormous damage to his (Akbar’s) reputation built up over so many years.”

Chaki said he came to know about Ramani’s tweets and articles through “phone calls and direct conversations with friends and acquaintances”. He added: “They were as surprised and shocked and said that it’s quite unbelievable.”

John raised an objection. “This is completely hearsay.” 

Chaki concluded: “The tweets and publications damaged his (Akbar’s) reputation immensely among members of the public. In my estimation, it affected his reputation gravely and adversely.” 

Rebecca John then took over the floor and began her cross-examination of Chaki. She asked Chaki of the duration of his tenure at The Asian Age

“To the best of my recollection, I remained the publisher of The Asian Age from 1982, for a period of about seven years,” replied Chaki. 

“Did you ever meet with Miss Priya Ramani?” asked John. 

“I have never met with Miss Priya Ramani.”

“Have you met, during your tenure or otherwise, senior journalists like Harender Baweja, Ghazala Wahab, Kadambari Wade, Prerna Singh Bindra, Ruth David, Pallavi Gogoi, Suparna Sharma, Swati Gautam, Majilie De Puy Kamp and Tushita Patel?” asked John. 

Chaki replied: “I have had no occasion to interact with (them). I cannot even confirm whether they worked for The Asian Age or not.”

Responding to another of John’s queries, he said he had not read any tweet or article that had been published by other women who had accused Akbar of sexual misconduct. “However, I was informed of the same.” Chaki added that his friends and associates who had spoken to him about Ramani’s tweets and publications had not spoken to him about the tweets and publications of the other women. 

“Is it correct that you didn’t work with Mr Akbar when he was the editor of India Today?” asked John. 

“I was not associated with India Today at the time when Mr Akbar was its editor.”

At this point, John informed ACMM Samar Vishal that there were some confrontations that she wanted to address. “You had previously given your statement before this honourable court?” asked John. 

“It is correct that I had made a statement before this court on January 11, 2019, in this case.”

John said that the two statements—the one made by Chaki previously and the one made by him today—were contradictory. She specifically pointed out to the parts of today’s statement where Chaki had described Akbar as “extremely demanding when it came to copy” and as “getting along with his colleagues”. 

“I put it to you that haven’t stated this previously,” said John.

Chaki stuttered and fumbled and eventually stated that he had implied the same thing, but not used the same words. The court recorded that Chaki has contradicted his earlier statements and that he (Chaki) had not used the same words. 

“It is incorrect to suggest that I had heard of several instances of sexual misconduct while I was working with Mr Akbar at The Asian Age but I am concealing the same today,” said Chaki. “It is incorrect to suggest that the tweets and publications did not come as a shock to me nor was I disturbed or shattered reading the same … It is incorrect to suggest that my friends and acquaintances weren’t as surprised or shocked … It is incorrect to suggest that my friends and acquaintances did not say that they were quite unbelievable.”

The above string of suggestions was made by John for Chaki, but Akbar’s counsel vehemently opposed this. “Everything can’t come in suggestions,” said Luthra. However, ACMM Samar Vishal said: “If you do not give suggestions in a criminal case, it means you have already lost it.” 

Chaki said: “It is incorrect to suggest that I have given evidence in this case to fulfil a legal requirement … It is incorrect to suggest that I have deposed in the present case because I have a close professional relationship with Mr Akbar … It is incorrect to suggest that I am deliberately feigning ignorance about reading the tweets and articles of multiple other women … It is incorrect to suggest that I am a false and tutored witness.”

With this, Tapan Chaki’s cross-examination came to an end. 

No sooner did the second witness, Sunil Gujral, who was waiting in the hallway outside till this time, enter the courtroom was ushered out from the door itself by Geeta Luthra and another senior counsel member representing Akbar. 

“There is tutoring going on right outside this court,” alleged John, addressing ACMM Samar Vishal. 

Gujral, a fair, wrinkle-faced man with white hair, entered the witness box and took his oath. “I will speak the truth and nothing but the truth…” He then began his deposition: “I did my schooling from Modern School in Delhi and my graduation from Delhi University. At present, I’m a businessman…”

“Where and how did you meet Mr Akbar?” Luthra asked him. 

“I moved to Calcutta in 1980 to establish my business there and that is where I met Mr Akbar,” said Gujral. “He was my neighbour.” 

“What was the extent of your interactions with Mr Akbar?,” asked Luthra.

“My interactions (with Mr Akbar) started as being a neighbour. Then, our wives and children were of the same age, and they started interacting with each other. Slowly, we became good family friends.”

Luthra asked Gujral when had he started a “professional association” with Akbar. He responded: “In the early 1990s, I moved back to Delhi and in 2010 when Mr Akbar was starting Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper, he asked me to assist him in the administrative side of the business of publishing. I was the printer/publisher for around three years for The Sunday Guardian.”

Gujral said he found Akbar to be “a perfect gentleman holding a good reputation in society and in the forum of journalism and as an author”. He said Akbar was editor of Sunday magazine when they met. “His reputation was impeccable in society. In my capacity as a neighbour, colleague, and friend, I had never heard anything negative against him. I found him [to be] a very hard working man, keeping long working hours and  travelling for political stories on journalism.”

“Have you read the tweets and publications of Miss Beena Ramani?” asked Luthra, and corrected herself to say “Priya Ramani”. Gujral said yes.

“What was your reaction after reading this?” asked Luthra.

“It was embarrassing for me and it had tarnished the image of Mr Akbar in my eyes and lot of other people whom I know,” said Gujral. “Somebody sent the tweet to me (I do not have a Twitter account) over a social media application and that is how I read the tweets and articles.”

He continued: “A lot of people who are our friends and acquaintances and business associates started contacting me to understand and to know what was happening and what Mr Akbar was doing as it came as a surprise to most of the people who contacted me. Most of these people knew of my association with Mr Akbar. I know Mr Akbar for almost 40 years.” 

Rebecca John took over the floor for her cross-examination of Gujral. 

“Mr Gujral, while you were in Calcutta, you knew Mr Akbar in his personal, is this correct?” she asked him. 

“In Calcutta, I knew Mr Akbar in my personal capacity,” Gujral. “My professional relationship with him started only in 2010.”

John asked Gujral whether Akbar or his family had a property in Maharani Bagh in Delhi—which is close to his (Gujral’s) house. “It is correct,” responded Gujral.

“Mr Gujral, did you extend a personal loan of ₹5 lakh to Mr Akbar in 2016?” asked John.

“I do not remember whether I extended a personal loan to Mr Akbar in 2016.”

“I put it to you that in the affidavit filed by Mr Akbar with the Election Commission, prior to his election in the Rajya Sabha, he had declared that you had given him a loan of ₹5 lakh,” said John. 

At this point, the counsel for MJ Akbar vehemently began objecting. Senior advocate Geeta Luthra said that the contents of a document cannot be put to a witness if the document pertained to another person and if the document has not been executed by the witness himself. 

“It is legally sustainable and it will be asked,” said John. 

However, ACMM Samar Vishal overruled Luthra’s objection and said that the objection would be decided at the time of the judgement. 

An argument broke out between the two opposing counsels (John and Luthra) when John allegedly said “this is the kind of witness you bring…” Luthra told John: “Just because you are in a privileged position doesn’t mean you…”Luthra once again objected and said that she would take her witness out if such remarks were passed. 

John responded: “This is the kind of aggression they show against me … it is very unbecoming.”

Gujral’s cross-examination continued. 

John asked Gujral whether he had read various tweets and articles that journalists like Harender Baweja, Ghazala Wahab, Prerna Singh Bindra, and Kadambari Wade had written against Akbar.  “I did not read any tweet or publications or articles written by the above-mentioned persons about the allegations of sexual misconduct relating to Mr Akbar,” said Gujral. 

He said: “In my interaction with my friends, acquaintances, and business associates, the allegations other than those made by Ms Ramani were not brought to my notice … It is incorrect to suggest that I am aware of several instances/allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr Akbar, made by other women journalists, but I have deliberately concealed the same … It is incorrect to suggest that I was well aware of Mr Akbar’s reputation qua some of his female colleagues but I have deliberately and forcefully stated that he had an impeccable reputation.”

At this point, a couple of the junior counsel members representing MJ Akbar began interrupting Rebecca John. 

Addressing ACMM Samar Vishal, John said: “Sir, can I also ask Miss Geeta Luthra to take the lead here? Are any of my juniors … I completely respect the two senior counsels here but we have a rush of people … as if everything I am saying is stupid. So many of them (younger counsels) are correcting me.”

“It’s not my first trial,” said John, looking down at her papers. In an undertone, she added: “Maybe yours.”

Gujral continued: “It is incorrect to suggest that I have come to depose in favour of Mr Akbar because of my long-standing personal and financial relation with him. It is incorrect to suggest that I am a false and tutored witness to fulfil a legal requirement.”

With this, Gujral’s cross-examination came to an end and proceedings for the day were adjourned. 

The court will next take up the matter on August 2. 


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