A key witness on Friday supported the journalist Priya Ramani’s allegation that she was sexually harassed by her former editor and now BJP leader MJ Akbar in 1993. Niloufer Venkatraman told the Rouse Avenue court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal how Ramani, who is her friend, had called her after meeting Akbar at Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and narrated her ordeal.
At a previous hearing, Ramani had said she called Venkatraman soon after leaving a job interview with Akbar where he allegedly sexually harassed her.
When the Me Too movement started in India late last year, Ramani, along with several other women, came out in public with her accusations against Akbar. The BJP leader responded by filing a defamation suit against her in October 2018.
Ramani, dressed in a black kurta and beige straight trousers, arrived at the court along with her husband, Samar Halarnkar, and friends and fellow journalists Namita Bhandare, Suparna Sharma, Harinder Bhaweja. They were later joined by the NDTV’s Nidhi Razdhan and Amit Barua of The Hindu. Venkatraman arrived separately.
As Venkatraman was preparing to take the stand, the judge, as is the practice, asked Ramani to leave the courtroom. Razdan went out along with her.
First, it was the turn of Ramani’s lawyer Rebecca John to question the witness. She started by asking, “Tell me something about yourself.”
“I live in Mumbai with my family and I have lived there most of my life,” Venkatraman replied. “I work as an editorial consultant for RoundGlass Sustain, which is a wildlife and conservation website. From November 2011 to March 2017, I was editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveller India magazine. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance editor for various travel guides. From 1999 to 2001, I taught a programme in Sociology at SNDT Women University at Mumbai.”
She was then asked about Ramani’s tweet of October 8 accusing Akbar of sexual harassment. The tweet read: “I began my piece with MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he did not ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have a worse story about this predator.”
The tweet is no longer accessible. During her own questioning on Thursday, Ramani told Akbar’s counsel Geeta Luthra that she had deleted her Twitter account about a month ago.
“When did you delete it?” Luthra asked.
“Around a month ago, I do not remember the exact date,” Ramani replied. “This case has been very hard for me the past one year. I have been in Delhi almost every month and I need to focus on my personal and family life.”
“Are you aware that your Twitter account is evidence in this case or not?”
To this, Ramani’s counsel objected, arguing that her client’s Twitter account “is not evidence in this case and the tweets which are a subject matter of this case are already admitted by her and exhibited in her evidence.” She added, “There are some fundamental rights that still exist.”
Luthra turned to Ramani, “Did you delete your Facebook profile as well?”
No, Ramani replied, explaining that, unlike on Twitter, she had only about 700 friends on Facebook.
Could she reactivate her Twitter account?
“It is not deleted and it can be reactivated,” Ramani replied.
Today, asked about her friend’s tweet, Venkatraman noted that it “called out the sexual harassment she has faced and referred to an article she had written for Vogue magazine”.
“I hadn’t read the article at the time she wrote it. But in her tweet, she provided the link to the article and I clicked on it and read the piece.”
Venkatraman recalled that when the Me Too movement started in India, she began “thinking about Priya and wondering if she would call out Mr Akbar”. “I was well aware of the interview because I was present with her until a few minutes before it began, and that night I talked to her at length about her uncomfortable experience at the interview.”
“I immediately sent her a WhatsApp message saying I had been thinking just two days ago whether she would call out Mr Akbar and expressed my support to her.”
Ramani’s lawyer submitted a copy of the WhatApp messages Ramani and Venkatraman exchanged on October 8.
“The message is still on my phone and I can show it to you,” Venkatraman continued. “Priya responded with heart emoji to my message a few minutes later. I delayed my daughter’s bedtime that night to explain to her what Me Too was about and why Priya had spoken out.”
John then asked Venkatraman how she knew Ramani. They both had enrolled for an evening course at Xavier’s Institute of Communication, Mumbai, in the late 1980s. That’s where they first met and quickly became friends. Venkatraman went on to study anthropology at Temple University in the US and when she was about to complete her master’s degree in 1991, Ramani joined the same university to study journalism.
“She stayed with me for a few weeks till she found suitable accommodation,” Venkatraman recalled. “In August 1992, I went back to the US to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology at the same university. And 1993 we were at the same university in the same city and interacted frequently.”
“In November 1993 we came back to India on the same flight. After we returned, Priya and I stayed in touch over the telephone and met often,” Venkatraman continued. “She was keen to find a job in journalism. I started research work and writing up a grant application for my PhD work. At that time I was working in my mother’s office; she had a free cabin that she gave me. My mother ran a travel agency out of the Arcade Building at Nariman Point.”
Ramani’s counsel tried to submit Venkatraman’s card from her mother’s office into evidence but Akbar’s lawyer objected that it did not have a signature.
“One day, sometime in December 1993,” Venkatraman continued. “Priya called me on the telephone in the office. She told me that a newspaper was going to be launched called Asian Age and Mr Akbar had told her to come for an interview at Oberoi Hotel. Since I was already at Nariman Point, Priya asked me to meet her an hour before the interview. At 6 pm, Priya arrived at my mother’s office. We walked out to the sea-facing promenade opposite the Oberoi, three-four minutes away. As we walked up and down, I did a mock interview of her, asking questions about current affairs that we imagined could be asked in the interview. I walked her to the entrance of the Oberoi Hotel. She went in and I left for home.”
A few hours later, Venkatraman said, “Priya called me on my landline and she sounded upset”. “I asked her why she was upset. She told me the interview had not gone the way we expected,” she added. “To begin with, it wasn’t conducted in the coffee shop or in the lobby. Instead she was called in to Mr Akbar’s room.”
“She went on to describe her extremely uncomfortable experience. She said she felt extremely uncomfortable when he offered her an alcoholic drink while he was having one himself. She described him singing old Hindi songs and that sounded unprofessional. She narrated how he patted the surface of the sofa next to him and asked her to sit closer. These details were so bizarre and inappropriate that I have a picture of it in my mind.”
She continued, “The conversation that night continued for a long time. We discussed whether she should take the job if offered. She asked me what I thought. I said she should take it. In hindsight I can see inexperience and naivete with which I said that. Priya also confided in me that she was not going to tell her parents about the uncomfortable details of the interview as it would upset them. Priya did get the job at Asian Age in Delhi. Two weeks after she went to Delhi, she called me to say she had returned to Mumbai, and she would now work in the Mumbai office.”
At this point, John and Luthra got into an argument. Luthra argued that Venkatraman’s statement was irrelevant. Luthra said it seemed to her that Niloufer was “a ghost present at that interview” of Ramani and Akbar.
On Thursday, Luthra had sought to corner Ramani, suggesting that the journalist had on occasion tweeted and commented positively about Akbar’s work.
“Have you ever retweeted any tweet of Mr Akbar?” she asked.
“I honestly don’t remember,” Ramani replied.
The lawyer showed Ramani copies of two of her retweets of Akbar’s posts from 2010.
“It’s correct that these are copies of my retweets,” Ramani responded.
Luthra then asked Ramani whether she had used such words as “predator” and phrases like “media’s biggest sexual predator” to describe Akbar.
“As I have already explained when I said he did not ‘do’ anything I meant that there was no overt sexual attack,” she replied. “I did use the word ‘predator’ to describe the difference in image, power and influence between Mr Akbar and myself.”
Luthra was scheduled to cross-examine Ramani along with Venkatraman today but she said she would not be able to. After an extended discussion among the lawyers and the judge, the next date of hearing was set for November 6.