Senior Journalist Priya Ramani testified today in front of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal at the Rouse Avenue District Court House complex, in regards with the criminal defamation case filed against her by ex-Union Minister MJ Akbar.
At around 12 PM, courtroom number 203 was packed to the brim with lawyers, journalists, as well as friends and family of Ramani who had come out in a show of support as she led evidence in her defence for the first time in front of a court. NDTV’s Barkha Dutt and Sreenivasan Jain were also present.
ACMM Samar Vishal entered and took his chair at 12:14 PM and administered the oath to Ramani before the court began recording her statement.
Senior Advocate Rebecca John, counsel for Miss Ramani, asked her client to tell the court something about her educational and professional qualifications.
“I have been a journalist for 25 years,” said Ramani. “I did my Bachelor’s in Psychology at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and graduated in 1991. In August of that year, I went to the US for a Master’s in Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia.”
“After I returned, I worked at many news organisations as a journalist. My first job was at The Asian Age from January to October 1994. I then joined international news agency Reuters as an Equities Correspondent covering South Asian stock markets. Next, I became Deputy Editor of Elle, a lifestyle magazine. After that, I worked at India Today magazine as a Special Correspondent. I then became the Editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1999. Next, I joined the Indian Express as an Associate Editor and National Features Editor. In 2007, I was part of the team of founding editors of Mint newspaper where I worked for eight years, first, as the Editor of Mint Lounge, the weekend paper, and then with the additional title of Deputy Managing Editor. After Mint, I joined a digital publishing startup Juggernaut. These days, I write a weekly column for Mint Lounge, contribute to Vogue magazine and many other news websites. I live in Bangalore with my nine-year-old daughter, my husband and down the road from my ageing in-laws.”
“I came back from the US in November 1993 and began looking for a job in Journalism,” said Ramani. “I heard that MJ Akbar, a famous editor, whom I had grown up reading and who was one of my professional heroes, was starting a new international daily newspaper. I went to the office in Prabha Devi, Mumbai, to hand in my resume and check if they had any vacancies. It so happened that Mr Akbar was visiting from Delhi that day and I met him…”
The court typist’s computer got hung at this point, evoking small laughter from the gallery due to its uncanny timing.
The problem was rectified and Ramani continued. “He (Akbar) asked me to come to the Oberoi Hotel for an interview at 7 PM that same day. I said ok and left. I caught a bus back to my home in South Bombay, which was very close to the Oberoi, and called my friend Niloufer Venkataraman.”
Noting Ramani correcting the typist’s grammar and punctuation, Barkha Dutt, who was sitting in the first row of the gallery, made a small and soft joke about how “she is subbing her own testimony.”
“Why did you call her (Niloufer)?” John asked Ramani.
She (Ramani) said that she had met Niloufer at an evening course at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, back in 1988, and that the duo had become friends and remained so ever since. “In fact, when I went to Temple University, I stayed with Niloufer before I found accommodation. She was doing her PhD at Temple University at the same time. We met there often and we even came back to Bombay together on November 13, 1993.”
Upon being asked by John, Ramani told the court that her friend Niloufer, at the time, used to work out of her mother’s travel agency called Cosmos Travels, in Nariman point, which is a few minutes away from the Oberoi hotel.
An objection was raised by Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, counsel for MJ Akbar. Addressing John, she said: “Ma’am, please don’t ask leading questions…I am requesting…”
“Whatever I am asking is fine,” said John.
ACMM Samar Vishal said that Ramani hadn’t “named anything” and asked the witness to continue.
“I called on the landline and asked her (Niloufer) if she could meet me at 6 PM to help me prepare for the interview,” said Ramani. “She agreed. At 6 PM, I took a bus to Nariman Point and reached Cosmos Travels. We walked out to the Marine drive sea-face and discussed possible interview questions and my salary expectations. Niloufer even quizzed me on Current Affairs. At 7 PM, she dropped me to the Oberoi.”
Lowering her gaze towards her hands, Ramani continued: “When I reached the lobby, I looked around expecting to see Mr Akbar (in the lobby). I couldn’t spot him so I asked the reception to connect me to Mr Akbar. Mr Akbar came on the line and asked me to come up to his room. I was silent, hesitant. Mr Akbar reiterated that I should come up to his room. This was not what I expected. I thought the interview would be in the coffee shop or in the lobby. But I was 23, I didn’t have the confidence to say ‘No, I’ll wait for you in the lobby.’ I didn’t feel like I could dictate the terms of the interview. I was uncomfortable—but I went up. I rang his room bell. Mr Akbar answered and I entered.”
“The room was his bedroom. It was small, enclosed; the bed was turned down for the night. There was a small two-seater sofa near the bed. There was a big window and I could see that it was a sea-facing room. There were two chairs and a small table adjacent to the window and we sat there. I felt ill at ease to be in such an intimate space for a professional interview. I was acutely aware that I was alone in this room with him.”
“What happened next?” asked John.
“He asked me why I had gone to the US to study journalism,” replied Ramani. “I replied that it was my dream to be a journalist, that this job was important to me, especially since it was my first job. He then asked many personal questions. He wanted to know if I was married, I said no. He wanted to know if I have a boyfriend, I replied no. He asked me many questions about my family. I told him they were keen that I have an arranged match. He offered me an alcoholic beverage from the minibar. I refused. He got up and made himself a drink. I think it was Vodka. He asked me about my music preferences. When I replied, he started singing old Hindi songs to me.”
“I felt extremely uncomfortable at all these inappropriate personal questions. He did not discuss my writing skills, my knowledge of current affairs, or any other journalism-related question. Then, he moved to the small two-seater sofa next to the bed and gestured to me to come sit in the tiny space next to him. I was already feeling unnerved by his inappropriate behaviour. Now I was concerned for my physical safety. I knew I had to leave the room immediately. I got up and said I had to leave.”
“As I was leaving, Mr Akbar said his office would follow up about the job,” said Ramani, her voice shaking slightly. “I caught a taxi home, and later that night, from my landline, called Niloufer at her own landline.”
“This part should not come,” objected Geeta Luthra. “Who she called etc is not relevant. She can call and speak to anyone…it doesn’t come under our view of evidence…”
“Why?” asked ACMM Samar Vishal. “It is immediately connected to the incident.
Luthra protested further and said that Ramani could say what had happened between her and MJ Akbar, but not what happened between her and others.
However, ACMM Samar Vishal told Luthra to consider her objection overruled. “Please proceed,” he told Ramani.
“I called her (Niloufer) on her landline and told her what had happened,” said Ramani. “She was shocked to hear about Mr Akbar’s behaviour. I told her I couldn’t tell my parents because they would ask me to refuse the job offer if I got it. I would have to give up my dream of being a journalist. We discussed whether I should even accept the job if I got it, with such a man at the helm of this organisation.”
“With our limited experience and the enthusiasm of youth, we reasoned that it was a new newspaper, there would be many employees, and that the Editor would be a busy man who wouldn’t have time for a young journalist. I swore I would not be alone in a room with him (Akbar) ever again.”
Ramani said that The Asian Age offered her a job as a Correspondent at their Delhi office, where she began working in January 1994. “After 10 days of working in the Delhi office, I asked the News Editor for a transfer to Bombay,” she said. “I was not able to find good accommodation (in Delhi) and I thought I could save on rent by living with my parents. The transfer was accepted immediately. I moved to Bombay, and within a fortnight of joining The Asian Age, I was working in the Bombay office.”
“I never met Mr Akbar alone, in the Delhi office or in the Bombay office, again,” she said. “We always interacted at edit meetings, or with the whole office when he visited Bombay.”
When Ramani showed the court two of her visiting cards from during her days at The Asian Age, Luthra objected. “These are not admissible…”
However, ACMM Samar Vishal said that he was writing her (Luthra’s) objection down and would decide it at the time of judgement.
“I left in ten months to join Reuters,” continued Ramani. “I never worked with Mr Akbar ever again.”
At this point, Ramani’s counsel drew her attention to an article in Vogue magazine, which Ramani confirmed she had penned.
“Do you want to say anything about it?” asked John.
Ramani replied: “Vogue’s Features Editor Shahnaz Siganporia called me and asked if I could write an article about the behaviour of male bosses in the context of the American MeToo movement and the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which ranged from calling women to his hotel room and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and rape.”
Ramani said that while researching for the Vogue article, she couldn’t “help but remember my personal story of my first male boss,” which is why she began the article with her MJ Akbar story. “I never named him,” she said. “The first four paragraphs of the article were a brief account of what happened at the Oberoi Hotel in 1993. The rest of the article was about the behaviour of a certain type of male boss in general and specific allegations about producer Harvey Weinstein.”
Ramani said that the portions in quotation marks in her article, like “watch me shower”, “can I give you a massage”, “a shoulder rub” and “I’m ready for my blow job now”, referred to specific allegations against Weinstein, made by many women. “I mainly read four articles about the sexual harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein and these allegations were sourced from there,” Ramani told the court.
At 130 PM, the court broke for lunch.
Once proceedings resumed, Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra vehemently objected to the four articles, that Ramani had used as research for her Vogue piece, being exhibited in court. After listening to heavy arguments between both counsel, ACMM Samar Vishal observed that the “marking and exhibition of documents during evidence is only for the purpose of identification” and “whether a document is provided or not shall be decided as per law during final arguments.”
“If they’ve been taken by surprise today, that’s their fault,” remarked John at the objections raised by Luthra. “All these documents were given to them…do your homework.”
Referring to her tweet on October 8, 2018, Ramani said: “Exactly a year after my Vogue article, the MeToo movement began gaining momentum in India on Twitter. Actor Tanushree Datta accused a colleague of sexual harassment at the workplace. After this, many women from the fields of film, entertainment, and stand up comedy began naming people who had sexually harassed them at the workplace.”
When asked by John how did she know this, Ramani replied: “I saw and read all their tweets on Twitter and in the newspaper articles that followed. On October 5, 2018, journalists such as Sandhya Menon and Anoo Bhuyian called out Editors they had worked with. On October 6, I saw a tweet from Force Magazine Editor Ghazala Wahab, asking when the floodgates would open about Mr Akbar. On October 7, an author, Shunali Khullar Shroff, had replied to Ghazala Wahab’s tweet saying she too had been wondering the same. That same day, a journalist I’ve worked with, Prerna Singh Bindra, a former member of the Wildlife Advisory Board of the Government of India, tweeted about ‘a brilliant, flamboyant editor’ who had called her to his hotel room late at night in her first job.”
“Seeing all these women, I felt compelled to speak up about my experience with Mr MJ Akbar in 1993, and so I removed the anonymity that I had given Mr Akbar in my Vogue article one year ago, and named him as the Editor who had sexually harassed me.”
She said that she had, in a tweet, linked her vogue article and had begun the piece with her MJ Akbar story. “I have already explained that only the first four paragraphs of the Vogue article were about the 1993 incident. I said I never named him (Akbar) because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. I used inverted commas to denote the sarcasm.”
“Sexual harassment can take many forms,” said Ramani. “It can be physical, verbal. By saying he did not ‘do’ anything, I was honestly disclosing that there was no overt physical attack. But that did not excuse Mr Akbar’s sexually coloured behaviour.”
“Over the years, many of my colleagues and ex-colleagues had shared similar or significantly worse stories of their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of Mr Akbar. My tweet was to highlight the fact that we normalise sexual misconduct, and unless it results in physical assault, we do not take it seriously. I used the word ‘predator’ in the context of my personal experience with Mr MJ Akbar and the shared experiences of many other women. I also used the word to emphasise and highlight the difference in age, influence, and power between Mr Akbar and myself. I was a young journalist. He was a famous editor, 20 years older than me, who called me to his bedroom in a hotel for a job interview.”
She added: “A predator is more powerful than his prey.”
Ramani went on to say that she tweeted again on October 10, 2018, and this time she tagged ten women who had spoken up against MJ Akbar. “After Ghazala, Prerna, Shunali, and I tweeted about Mr Akbar, many women shared their experiences of sexual harassment by Mr Akbar. Some women replied immediately to my tweet; others wrote their own articles on news websites. Many women tweeted; some used other social media platforms like Medium to share their stories.”
Ramani named the ten people she had tagged in her tweet.
A small commotion broke out in the courtroom at this point. A member of the gallery and a lawyer who was standing and witnessing the proceedings got into an altercation. The lawyer informed ACMM Samar Vishal that the person was abusing him. ACMM Samar Vishal told the layer to inform him if this happened a second time, and he would remove everyone who is not connected with the case, from the courtroom.
Ramani continued: “On October 14, I found out through media reports that Mr Akbar had returned from his foreign tour. By this time, more than 12 women had spoken up about Mr Akbar. I read in a tweet and article by Firstpost that Mr Akbar had handed in his resignation and hence had I tweeted this. Later on, the news turned out to be false and Mr Akbar resigned a few days later.”
“The same day, the Bruhan Mumbai Union of Journalists and the Network of Women in Media wrote a statement addressed to the President and the Prime Minister, supporting me,” said Ramani. “I downloaded the statement the next day on October 15, 2018. That day, I also learnt through media reports that Mr Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case against me. I issued a statement and posted it to my Twitter account.”
At 4 PM, ACMM Samar Vishal called for an end to the day’s proceedings and said that Ramani’s testimony would be further recorded on Monday.