‘I think you are unprepared today’: Court tells MJ Akbar’s counsel

Priya Ramani’s chief examination came to an end today.

WrittenBy:Gaurav Sarkar
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Journalist Priya Ramani’s testimony in the MJ Akbar defamation case continued being recorded today at the Rouse Avenue District Court House Complex. India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai and The Wire’s Siddharth Varadarajan were present among the gallery members, as was Ramani’s husband Samar Halarnkar. 

Once the oath was administered, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal asked the witness to pick up from where she had left off on Saturday.  

Ramani went on to complete her testimony. 

“I spoke the truth when I disclosed my experience about my first job interview in the Vogue magazine as well as in my tweet on 8.10.2018,” she said. “It is important and necessary for women to speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace. Many of us are brought up to believe that silence is a virtue. In all my disclosures pertaining to Mr Akbar, I spoke the truth, in public interest and for the public good. I hoped that the disclosures that were a part of the MeToo movement would empower women to speak up and to better understand their rights at the workplace.”

Clearing her voice, she addressed ACMM Samar Vishal: “Sir, one last thing. This case has come at great personal cost to me. I have nothing to gain from it. I am a well regarded, respected journalist. I live a quiet life with my family in Bangalore. It’s not easy for any woman to make such disclosures. By keeping silent, I could have avoided the subsequent targeting. But that would not have been the right thing to do.”

With this, Priya Ramani’s chief examination came to an end. Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra took to the floor to cross-examine the witness. 

“Can you tell us which other journalists did you admire as a student, while you pursued your studies?” she asked Ramani.

“There were many journalists whom I admired when I was pursuing my studies,” said Ramani. “Growing up, I read Suman Dubey…Harinder Baweja in India Today magazine.

Luthra pointed out that she was talking specifically about the time period before December 1993. “Can you give us some more names…”, she asked. “If there were many…then give us any five or 10 names…”

“She has already said,” ACMM Samar Vishal. 

“Can you tell us what magazines and newspapers did you read during your growing up period, till you finished your studies?” Luthra asked Ramani.

“I used to read The Times of India,” replied Ramani. “In those days there were not too many newspapers in Bombay. I remember reading Afternoon Dispatch and Courier (Afternoon DC). I also read India Today magazine, and at the Xavier’s Institute of Communication, at an evening journalism course in 1988, we also had access to…newspapers that were not published in Bombay, such as Telegraph.”

Luthra asked Ramani about the article she had written from January 1994 till October 1994.

“When I worked in Delhi, in the first 10 days, the paper hadn’t launched yet, and we mainly did dry runs, and I attended many political press conferences,” said Ramani, adding that when she moved to Mumbai, she was a Business Journalist and used to cover the Bombay Stock exchange (BSE).

Luthra said she was not asking for her (Ramani’s) history. “It’s a specific question…,” she said.

“I wrote many articles about the Bombay Stock Exchange where stockbrokers had gone on strike,” replied Ramani. “In fact, I had a report on the stock exchange every day during that time, for several months. I don’t remember the exact headlines of these titles I wrote on the BSE.”

Luthra then asked Ramani to state how many articles—and their specific headlines—had she written in 10 months during which she was at The Asian Age.

“Give me a calculator and calculate nine months, one article a day…don’t count Sunday,” said Ramani, adding that she did not remember the specific headlines. 

Luthra inquired about the duration of Ramani’s tenure at Reuters and what she wrote there. 

“I worked at Reuters for about 3.5 years,” said Ramani. “I used to do multiple daily stock reports and the weekly stock market trend, but now I cannot recall the specific headlines of these.”

Luthra asked Ramani for the specific date to which the latter said she did not remember the exact date. 

“Sir, I may have some of my old offer letters at home…I can bring them next time for specific dates,” Ramani addressed ACMM Samar Vishal. 

“Can you give your appointment letter for The Asian Age,” Luthra asked her. Ramani replied in the negative. 

“When did you receive the appointment letter?” Luthra asked her.

“I received the appointment letter a couple of days after the meeting with Mr. Akbar,” replied Ramani. “I don’t remember the exact date… sometime in the second or third week of December 1993.”

Upon being asked by Luthra, Ramani said that she the Mumbai Bureau Chief of The Asian Age had, at the time, given her appointment letter.

Luthra then asked Ramani what had she written for Elle during her tenure there. “Give us some prominent articles…”

“By this time, I was Deputy Editor, and my responsibilities included managing the team, conceptualising the issue..editing articles written by juniors,” said Ramani. “I wrote much less, but I do have specific articles at my home in Bangalore, and I can get them next time.”

“I am asking you right now,” said Luthra.

“I do not have the names of the articles write now…,” said Ramani.

When Ramani was adhering to Luthra’s next question, about five prominent articles written by her for Elle, Luthra objected once again. “Sir, doesn’t she have to be to the point?” she addressed ACMM Samar Vishal. 

“If she has not even completed…how can you decide if it is an answer or not,” said ACMM Samar Vishal. “We should wait at least till the complete answer comes.”

However, Luthra said that the part of Ramani’s earlier response, where she talks about whether she wrote more or less, was “irrelevant.” She said that she wanted to ask about Cosmopolitan Magazine as well, whether Ramani could tell her the exact date of her joining Cosmopolitan.

“What about India Today magazine?,” said Ramani. “I thought we were going in order…”

The gallery members laughed. 

Luthra now circled in closer. “When did you finish your course and at the time of finishing, which places did you apply with, for job interviews, apart from The Asian Age?” she asked. 

“I finished my course in June 1993,” replied Ramani. “I was in the US after that…did a six-week week fellowship at Poynter Institute of Media Studies/ Then I returned to Philadelphia and took some time out. I returned to Mumbai in November 1993. In those days there were not too many job opportunities. I heard that the Times of India paid journalists a thousand rupees and made them trainees no matter what their educational qualifications are. Someone at the Xavier’s Institute of Communication, where I had done the evening course, told me that The Asian Age was hiring and so I applied there first.”

“Would it be correct to say that knowing your course was getting over in June 1993, you did not apply for any job before you completed your course…”, asked Luthra. 

“I came back to India (from Philadelphia) and started applying. No, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I applied to The Asian Age.”

“Would it be correct to state that there were many other well known prominent publication houses for magazine and newspapers in India viz Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and other cities at the time in 1993?” asked Luthra. 

“Not as many as there are today…” replied Ramani.

“I put to you that your so-called dream of being a journalist was not contingent upon your being hired by The Asian Age specifically,” suggested Luthra.

“It was not a ‘so-called’ dream,” responded Ramani, adding that the newspaper was a “good opportunity to realise my dream.”

“If there had been no vacancy at that time in The Asian Age, would you have stopped pursuing journalism?” Luthra asked her. 

Ramani swiftly responded with a “No”, but her counsel Rebecca John objected saying that this was a “hypothetical and speculative” question.

Luthra continued cross-examining Ramani. “I put to you that the reason you took up the job with The Asian Age was because no such interview—in the circumstances alleged by you—ever happened.” She was referring to the incident alleged by Priya Ramani, between her and MJ Akbar, at the Oberoi Hotel back in 1993, when he had called her for a job interview.  

“It is incorrect,” replied Ramani. 

“I put it to you that this is the reason you never applied to any other publication,” said Luthra. “I put to you that more than two decades later, you have maliciously concocted this story to damage Mr. Akbar’s reputation.”

“It is incorrect,” said Ramani.

At 1:20 PM, the court broke for lunch. Proceedings resumed at 2:15 PM. 

Luthra resumed Ramani’s cross-examination. She asked her whether she knew about the IPC provisions for sexual harassment, to which Ramani said that she was aware of the Vishakha guidelines but not of the IPC.

“I put to you that the criminal law in India has always had provisions for redressal for cases of harassment,” said Luthra. Ramani said she wasn’t aware, and reiterated that she only knew the Vishakha guidelines. 

“Are you aware that in 2012, a bill was introduced in Parliament titled Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal)?” asked Luthra. 

“I am aware that the sexual harassment law came into effect in 2013…,” said Ramani. 

“I put to you that the sexual harassment guidelines and law have existed since the current criminal laws have existed in India, since 1860,” said Luthra. 

ACMM Samar Vishal stepped in and said: “The word criminal law is very vast. She (Ramani) is not a lawyer. You’ve already asked about IPC…”

He also said that the law stated by Luthra was not criminal law. “This enactment is not in respect with criminal provisions if I am correct,” said ACMM Samar Vishal. “It is not a criminal piece of legislation.” He asked Luthra to rephrase her question. 

“I put to you that a redressal mechanism for sexual harassment existed before 2013 also under the Indian law,” said Luthra to Ramani. 

“I am aware of the Vishakha case, and it’s guidelines and the sexual harassment law of 2013,” Ramani replied. “I am not aware of any other redressal mechanism… before Vishakha judgement.”

“Would it be correct to say that in 2013, many women in India had spoken about various allegations against men at the workplace?” asked Luthra.

“I remember that after the Nirbhaya gang-rape case in 2012, women did speak about violence against themselves,” said Ramani. “Many women shared stories of childhood sexual abuse and harassment on the streets.”

“Do you know whether there was an allegation against a former editor in chief of a magazine in 2013?” asked Luthra. 

ACMM Samar Vishal asked her (Luthra) to name the magazine and/or the editor-in-chief. Luthra said Tehelka.

“You are doing that case, so you are asking…,” said a smiling ACMM Samar Vishal to Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra. Some of the gallery members laughed, as did Luthra. She continued. 

“Do you know that there were allegations of sexual harassment as well against a doctor in Bengaluru, a senior journalist in Kolkata and against a newsreader in Chennai, amongst others in 2013?” she asked Ramani. 

Referring to one of the three instances pointed out by Luthra, ACMM Samar Vishal said: “In that, you are on the other side…,” he said with a smile. 

Luthra said she was “generally asking”.

ACMM Samar Vishal told Ramani and her counsel: “You can answer generally then…” 

Ramani said that she needed to know “the specifics” of what Luthra was asking. 

“Good answer,” remarked Luthra.

Luthra then asked Ramani whether she had written an article titled “Sorry Boss, we have found our voice” back in November 2013. 

“Was there a movement of people so-called having ‘found their voice’ and speaking up in 2013?” she asked Ramani.

“Many women spoke up after the Nirbhaya gang rape,” replied the witness. “It may have been described as ‘finding their voice’ in media reports.”

“Did you write an article titled ‘Sorry boss, we have found our voice’ back in November 2013?” Luthra asked her. A printout of the article was then put to Ramani and the court. 

“Yes, it looks like my article,” said Ramani.

Referring to the article, Luthra said that at the time in 2013, when “tales were tumbling out,” Ramani had made no allegations against her client MJ Akbar. She told Ramani that her allegations against MJ Akbar had come up for the first in October 2018. 

“I named Mr Akbar in 2018, yes,” said Ramani. 

Luthra went on to make a flurry of suggestions. “It is wrong to suggest that I (Priya Ramani) had made these allegations in 2018 deliberately, maliciously, and in bad faith, to malign the image of the complainant,” she suggested. “I put to you, according to your own article [from 2013 ], there were plenty of opportunities and existing platforms to speak out against any allegations of sexual harassment against the complainant prior to 2018.”

“This is incorrect,” responded the witness. 

John began saying something, but Luthra remarked that she could not “try and be the witness.”

“She has said it is incorrect—end of story,” said Luthra. 

“It is wrong to suggest that I (Priya Ramani) did not make these allegations against the complainant before 2018 as no such incident ever happened,” suggested Luthra. 

At this point, a member of the prosecution objected to Advocate Bhavook Chauhan allegedly trying to look at the question sheet they (prosecution) were using. 

ACMM Samar Vishal said this was like what happened during exams, and everyone laughed. 

Luthra continued with her suggestion. “It is wrong to suggest I (Priya Ramani) did not name Mr Akbar in my article published in the Vogue since nothing happened. It is wrong to suggest that I named the complainant and attributed the article to him only as an afterthought in my tweet.”

Ramani clarified that only the first four paragraphs in her Vogue story were referring to MJ Akbar. “I have already clarified this…” she said. 

However, Luthra said that even though Ramani had stated the same during her chief examination when she (Luthra) puts it to her now in the form of a suggestion, “it has to be read in conjunction with the chief.”

“But she has to clarify, otherwise in final arguments, you will say …,” said ACMM Samar Vishal. 

Luthra went on to suggest that nowhere in the Vogue article had Ramani “made any clear distinction” that there were two parts to it, i.e. the first four paragraphs that refer to MJ Akbar, and the remainder of the article. 

“What is your intention?” asked ACMM Samar Vishal to the prosecution. 

“She (Ramani) is trying to draw an artificial distinction in her article,” said Luthra.

She also suggested that nowhere in Priya Ramani’s tweet had she “made any clarification or explanation that the Vogue article has two distinct parts.”

“I said in my tweet that I began my article…,” said Ramani. 

“I also say that you have not filed/placed on record any document, tweet or article by you in any forum making any alleged distinction, after the tweet and article, clarifying that the Vogue article has two parts,” said Luthra. 

“It is correct that I haven’t mentioned…on any other platform, except for the tweet and testifying in court….” said Ramani. 

Ramani the pointed out to a portion of the article that the prosecution had marked and said that she had written: “your species is just the same.” She said she was talking about a “species” and not about “one particular person.”

Luthra made some more suggestions. “It is wrong to suggest that I (Priya Ramani) have created an artificial distinction for purposes of creating a false defence in this defamation case.” She said that on plain reading of the article and the tweet, “it is clear that it refers to a single person.”

Ramani said this was incorrect. 

At this point, the prosecution fumbled and began shuffling through the papers to decide which question to ask Ramani next. “I think you are unprepared today,” remarked ACMM Samar Vishal with a smile. 

Luthra continued her objection and went on to frame a very long question about how even the witness’ friends and colleagues thought the article and tweet, its entirety, was only about MJ Akbar. 

“This has to be the longest question I have ever read,” remarked John.

“I will show you longer questions,” replied Luthra swiftly. 

“Obviously, my training is lesser than you…,” said John politely.

ACMM Samar Vishal sustained the objection. 

At this point, the day’s proceeding came to an end. Priya Ramani’s cross-examination will resume on October 24. 


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