In the latest hearing on BJP leader MJ Abkar’s defamation suit against Priya Ramani, the journalist Ghazala Wahab today gave her testimony in the Rouse Avenue court of Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, in Delhi.
When the Me Too movement broke out in India late last year, Ramani, a journalist, publicly accused Akbar of sexually harassing her during a job interview. The former editor responded by filing a defamation suit against her in October 2018.
Wahab, dressed in a light pink saree and turquoise shawl, arrived at the court at 1.30 pm, accompanied by the journalist Namita Bhandare. Ramani arrived just a few minutes later, dressed in a black kurta and olive green pants.
By 2.05 pm, when the hearing started, Pahuja’s courtroom was packed with journalists, lawyers and friends of Ramani who had come to show their support. They included the journalist and political analyst Javed Ansari and the Delhi resident editor of The Hindu Amit Baruah.
After Wahab took her oath, Ramani’s counsel Rebecca John started the questioning.
“Can you tell us something about yourself?”
“I have been a journalist for 25 years. I grew up in Agra,” Wahab replied.
To this, Akbar’s counsel Geeta Luthra objected, arguing that where Wahab grew up was irrelevant to the matter. The judge overruled Luthra: “Whatever she wants to say she can say.”
Wahab continued, giving a summary of her educational qualifications and career. “I joined Asian Age newspaper as a trainee sub editor in 1994,” she said, referring to the daily that was then edited by Akbar. “I have also written articles for the Times of India, Indian Express, Pioneer and The Wire.”
“Tell us something about Asian Age, 1994,” John asked.
Again, Luthra objected arguing that the question was not relevant.
John countered, “I can ask whatever I can ask to prove my defence. I cannot go on like this.”
This led to an almost hour-long argument, with the two lawyers contesting points of law. As John started reading excerpts from a previous testimony in the matter, Luthra commented, “Did she make the script at home?”
John said the Me Too movement had provided a platform to several women to call out men who had harassed them. There have been many women who had called out Akbar, she added.
Luthra retorted angrily, “My learned friend thinks she is speaking to journalists.”
This led to another argument, compelling the judge to intervene. “Let Wahab speak whatever is required,” he said, adding that Luthra could “mark her objections after that”.
So, Wahab continued, “When I joined Asian Age, I reported to Kaushik Mittal. I was then transferred to the features section where I reported to Poonam Saxena, the features editor. I also reported to Neeraj Baghel. The Asian Age office was on the second floor of the Surya Kiran Building on Kasturba Gandhi Marg. In mid-1996, the office shifted to Vandana Building on Tolstoy Marg. In March 1997, we returned to the renovated Surya Kiran Building office. In the renovated office, MJ Akbar’s cabin and the features section were located on the second floor, the rest of the office, along with editor Sekhar Bhatia’s office, was on the fourth floor. It was a spacious office, Mr Akbar’s.”
“This was the time I was promoted to the position of features sub editor and, for the first time, I was reporting directly to Mr Akbar. My desk was placed right outside his office in such a manner that if the door to his room was left slightly open he could watch me working at my desk. Many times, when I was working at my desk and I looked up from my screen, I found Mr Akbar watching me. Whenever he had a visitor in his room, he would keep the door shut. When he was alone, he often left the door slightly open.
Then he started sending me personal messages on the Asian Age intranet service. The messages pertained to my clothes and appearance.”
John asked Wahab to explain what the Asian Age intranet was.
“The intranet message was a private messaging service, messages sent on this remained private between two people. They were not stored anywhere on the server but deleted automatically.”
As she spoke, the courtroom listened in rapt attention.
“One afternoon, sometime in August-September, 1997, Mr Akbar called me to his room,” Wahab recalled. “When I went inside he asked me to shut the door. Then he asked me to look up a word in the dictionary which was placed on a low three-legged stool across from his desk. The dictionary was placed so low that one had to either bend down or squat. As I squatted to look in the dictionary, Mr Akbar came from behind me and held me by my waist. I was shocked and stumbled.”
Wahab seemed to grow heavy with emotion but continued. “Mr Akbar held me by my breast and hips. I tried to push his hands away but they were firmly planted on my waist. I was frozen with fear and shock. Not only was the door shut, his back was also blocking it. Then he started to rub his hand on the side of my breasts. I continued to push against him. Finally, he released me and I ran out of his office to the washroom to cry. The enormity of this violation overwhelmed me completely. The next day, Mr Akbar sent me a message on the intranet.”
Luthra again intervened at this point, saying she wanted her objection put after every para of Wahab’s testimony. To this judge said, “How can you object to something you haven’t heard?”
Wahab continued her testimony, recalling that the message summoned her to Akbar’s cabin. “I entered and Mr Akbar was standing close to the door. Before I could react he closed the door, trapping me between his body and the door. He held me by my shoulder and bent to kiss me. With my mouth clamped shut, I turned my face to the other side. I was speechless with fear but he continued to push against me. Finally he released me and I ran outside the office to the parking. Finding a lone spot I sat on the pavement and cried.”
Looking down at her hand, she continued, “My colleague Sanjari Chatterjee, who had seen me run out his office crying, followed me to the parking. She came and sat next to me and asked me gently what had happened. I told her and she suggested I speak with Seema Mustafa, who was the bureau chief then.”
“Sanjari said Seema might help. So we returned to the office, and I went to Seema’s cubicle. I narrated the incident of Mr Akbar’s misconduct to Seema. I told her Mr Akbar had been behaving badly for sometime and today he had forcibly kissed me. I was hoping Seema would speak to Mr Akbar and confront him about his behaviour but she was not surprised. There was little she could do about it. She said it was entirely my call, and I decided what I wanted to do.”
Wahab explained that she was just 26 year old at the time, alone, confused, and, most importantly, terrified. The Asian Age had no sexual harassment policy or committee that could hear complainants from women. So, she said, “I was on my own. Not only was Mr Akbar editor-in-chief of the Asian Age, he was also a Member of Parliament and former spokesperson of the Indian National Congress.”
Given all this, Wahab said, she believed going public with her complainant wasn’t even an option for her. “The workplace in 1997 was very different from the workplace now,” she added. “Women journalists were not encouraged to complainant about their male colleagues and bosses.”
That she was the first woman from her family who had left home to work was another factor that kept her from complaining against Akbar, Wahab said. She feared she would no longer be able to work if she did.
After speaking to Mustafa, Wahab said she decided to send a message to Akbar telling him how she held him in high regard as an author but his unwelcome sexual advances were unacceptable. She also asked him “not to repeat this behaviour”.
“Mr Akbar immediately sent a message back asking me to come inside,” Wahab recalled. “I went inside thinking he would apologise but instead he lectured me on how I was humiliating his genuine emotion towards me. That evening on my way back home I decided to look for another job. I applied to India Today, Outlook and the Telegraph. But it was difficult to find jobs easily. My financial condition didn’t allow me to quit without having another job in hand, so I continued working.”
In spite of her warning, Akbar’s behaviour did not change, Wahab claimed. “But I learned from my experiences,” she said, adding that she would stand in the doorway rather than go inside Akbar’s room when called and employ other tactics to keep him at bay. Still, she said, “sometimes he would walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips. Every time I would push him away and escape from his room.”
Seeing the harassment continue, Wahab recalled, Chatterjee devised a plan: every time Akbar called Wahab to his office, Chatterjee would follow her in on one pretext or the other. Akbar’s secretary, Rachna Grover, too came to know about the harassment and privately offered support.
In December 1997, Akbar told Wahab he wanted her to move to Ahmedabad as the features editor. She would get an apartment there, Wahab recalled Akbar saying, and whenever he was in the city he would stay with her.
“That was the tipping point,” Wahab said. “I resolved I would not go to Ahmedabad come what may. I would quit Asian Age even though I would pretend to leave for Ahmedabad. Over the next two weeks I started clearing my desk, taking my books.”
“In the first week of January, I left work with an envelope, my resignation letter in it. I gave it to Rachna Grover, requesting her to give it to Mr Akbar the next day. The next day instead of taking the flight I stayed home.”
Akbar was furious when he discovered Wahab had quit, and called her on her personal number, Wahab recalled. She was scared knowing that he could reach her Delhi address. So, the next day, she took the Taj Express train to Agra.
As Wahab narrated her story, Luthra kept shaking her head in disagreement. At this point, she remarked, “Train aur bogie number bhi bata do.” Why don’t you tell us the train and coach number as well?
At home in Agra, Wahab said, she didn’t tell her family about what had happened. She started looking for a job and was hired by the Telegraph as a correspondent in Delhi the same month.
“Did you ever write about it, tweeted about it?” John asked, referring to her alleged harassment.
Wahab replied that she did not speak publicly about her harassment until last year. “Things changed in 2018. The Me Too movement gained popularity in India and women from across professions were talking about sexual harassment they faced at their workplaces,” she said. “Women in the media too started talking about their experiences, they were naming their colleagues or bosses who had harassed them. But nobody spoke about Akbar. Over the years, a few women had shared their experiences of sexual harassment by Mr Akbar to me.”
Luthra objected saying Wahab could not speak on someone else’s behalf.
Wahab continued, “I mustered the courage and tweeted from my twitter handle.” The tweet read, “I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar.”
After Wahab’s tweet, several journalists, including Ramani, came forward with their complaints against Akbar.
Wahab, however, clarified, “I was not fine to prosecute or seek legal remedy against him nor am I looking for legal remedy.”
“What did you do after that?” John asked.
I wrote this article titled “MJ Akbar, Minister and Former Editor, Sexually Harassed and Molested Me.” It appeared on The Wire on October 10, 2018. “Rachna Grover also posted a message on a WhatsApp group saying, ‘I’m aware of Ghazal incident.’”
John submitted a copy of the screenshots of messages exchanged between Wahab, Rachana and other women who, the lawyer said, “acknowledged the incident”.
Luthra again objected, “It is inadmissible to say that on Rachna’s behalf because then she has to prove that this is Rachna’s number. From that message it cannot be clarified whether it was Ranchna herself was or not.”
“Don’t interrupt when a person is speaking,” John shot back.
Having watched Luthra constantly interrupt the proceedings, the courtroom burst out laughing.
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.