“I have never conducted a cross-examination that is so acrimonious,” said Senior Advocate Rebecca John
Former Union Minister MJ Akbar’s cross-examination by Priya Ramani’s counsel Rebecca John came to an end on Saturday, July 6. It was marked with interruptions and interjections raised by Akbar’s counsel—something that has now become a norm in Rouse Avenue District Court House Complex’s courtroom number 203.
With about ten minutes left for the hearing to begin, the scene inside and outside the courtroom was contrasting. John and other counsel members sat patiently at their desk inside the courtroom, waiting for Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal to take his chair. Meanwhile, Ramani and her friend, journalist Namita Bhandare, sat on two chairs in the corridor outside the courtroom.
When the ACMM took his chair at sharp 10 am, everyone was present in the courtroom—except Akbar—who walked in two minutes later, dressed in a full-sleeve blue shirt and green-khaki waistcoat. He was flanked by his usual squadron of bodyguards, all of them dressed in identical and matching grey shirts and pants.
With Akbar being shown the evidence from the last hearing, John began asking Akbar about the “misunderstanding” between Majile De Puy Kamp, his former intern at The Asian Age, and him. Kamp had alleged that Akbar had sexually assaulted her.
“All I can remember is that there was no incident…,” said Akbar. However, his counsel, Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, objected and interrupted here. She said that the matter was not being articulated correctly. But ACMM Samar Vishal reprimanded her. “If the witness says it is not correctly written, I will change it…but I won’t let the counsel interrupt,” he said.
John then put to Akbar that his statement was false, and went on to suggest whether the intern’s father had written an email to Akbar at the time, regarding the incident. “I do not recall the email or replying to the email making an apology,” said Akbar. Upon being further questioned by John, Akbar also denied having knowledge about Kamp being a reputed international journalist who has worked as a freelancer with The New York Times and that she is presently a reporter with CNN Investigates in New York.
Previously, Akbar had admitted that Kamp had interned with him at The Asian Age in 2006-07 and that he had corresponded with her father after she had made the allegations against him. But today, he denied the allegations and claimed that it was simply a “misunderstanding” which was amicably settled later.
Luthra raised an objection about how this point of Kamp’s allegations had already been brought up in court previously. “You can’t do this…,” said Luthra to John, who replied back with: “This ‘you can’t’ must stop. I can do many things.” John also addressed Samar Vishal and the court and said that she had come for the hearing despite being unwell “so can we please not make this a shouting match.”
ACMM Vishal asked Akbar to respond on the matter. “The thing is, I have already addressed this court about the veracity of the issue…,” said Akbar. John argued that Akbar had not denied the incident earlier—he had simply said he could not confirm it. Once again, Luthra interjected, causing John to rest her head in her hands. “This commentary has to stop,” she said. Akbar went on to say that he was “not aware” whether Kamp is a reputed international journalist now and who she is currently employed with.
John, who had her questions lined up in sequential order, put forth the next question to Akbar. “Will you confirm whether Ruth David worked with you as a reporter in The Asian Age from the year 1999-2000?” she asked. Once again, Akbar said he could not recall. John told him that David had written an article on Medium.com about refusing all sexual advances made by Akbar towards her, to which Akbar said that he was not aware, nor had he read any such article. He further said that if any such article was written, then the allegations in it are denied. “It is wrong to suggest that I am deliberately not answering this correctly…,” said Akbar.
John then asked him about a third person. “Are you aware that Prerna Singh Bindra made allegations of sexual harassment against you on Twitter?” The tweets formed a part of a Firstpost article, which was submitted as a document to the court. A copy of Bindra’s tweets was shown to Akbar, who put on his black-framed reading glasses and peered over them patiently. Akbar confirmed that Bindra had worked with him at The Asian Age in Bombay from 2000-2002, and after reading the tweets, he said, he was not aware of them. However, he said that he had read about the same tweets in the Firstpost article that he had submitted to the court.
A debate arose between both the counsels as to whether one of the dates of the tweets was as mentioned by Rebecca John or not. In the midst of it, Geeta Luthra told John: “It is an incorrect question.” That is when John lost her cool. “My questions are correct Miss Luthra, please sit down,” she sternly told her counterpart. “It is impossible to conduct a cross-examination like this.”
John then asked Akbar what was the date of his return from Africa in 2018, after which he filed the defamation complaint against her client. Akbar’s counsel once again interjected, only to be strongly reprimanded by ACMM Samar Vishal. “It is a question of factualness…what is the point of interjecting again and again? Do you want to finish this cross-examination or not?” he said.
The next couple of minutes was spent by Akbar in either denying or being unable to recall the answers to the questions that were put to him by John. “I do not remember the specific date of my return from Africa in October 2018 and when I filed the complaint against Priya Ramani,” said Akbar. The list of things Akbar “couldn’t recall” did not end here.
John suggested that the date of the complaint was October 15 and went on to question him about his October 14 public statement.
In his response, Akbar said, “It is correct that I made a public statement on October 14, refuting the allegations against me. I do not remember the details of the public statement and whether I took the names of several women who made allegations against me.” This statement drew a collective giggle from the gallery—which was thin for this hearing as compared to the past hearings. Akbar also added that he had not filed any complaint of defamation against any other person, the publication (whether Indian or international) or web portal.
With reference to Akbar’s continuous denial and inability to recall past events, John said: “The last three days…I have never conducted a cross-examination that is so acrimonious.”
The collective giggle from the gallery did not go down well with Luthra. “All this laughing and giggling cannot go on—and I’m not talking about the counsel,” said Luthra, while addressing ACMM Samar Vishal. She told the court: “…you cannot intimidate the witness like this. You cannot have such derisive behaviour when the witness is answering.”
ACMM Samar Vishal played peacemaker and came to the rescue once again. “I will look into it,” he told Luthra, and also putting to her not to interject.
Akbar then addressed the ACMM and said that he “reserves his right to take legal action against any other person or above-mentioned entities in future.”
Upon being asked by John, Akbar recalled that he had worked with a journalist called Pallavi Gogoi in 1994 at The Asian Age. He said that he was aware of an article written by Gogoi in The Washington Post, but denied the allegations made by her in the article.
John then asked him about his statement given to ANI upon his return from Africa. “In the statement, you said that in 1994 you and Gogoi entered into a consensual relationship,” she said. Akbar said that his wife had released a statement to ANI with respect to Gogoi’s article in November 2018.
“I am asking your honour for a little leeway…I am going to ask a question on the wife’s statement,” said John. She addressed Akbar: “Is it the correct factual position that (as per the wife’s statement) at The Asian Age party, crowded with young women, your wife watched with ‘mortification and pain’ as you danced close (with women),” she asked. She also asked Akbar whether he was aware that Gogoi was 23 years old at the time. At this point, Geeta Luthra raised an objection—but it was sustained by the Court. Akbar said that he was not sure but it was possible that Gogoi was 23 years old in 1994. “It is correct that I was around 43 years of age at the time and she was subordinate at the workplace,” said Akbar.
At Luhtra’s attempted objection, ACMM Samar Vishal addressed the court and said that the proceedings had been going on peacefully for the past ten minutes and that it should continue being so. This drew a soft—but collective laughter—from everyone in the courtroom.
“Are you aware that Ms Pallavi Gogoi tweeted and reiterated her account in the Washington Post article?” asked John. “I am not aware…,” came the response.
“Are you aware that Ms Pallavi Gogoi is today a reputed journalist who has worked with Dow Jones, Business Week, USA Today, AP, and is presently the head of the Business desk at National Public Radio, USA?” John asked Akbar. “I am not aware…,” came the response.
John further asked Akbar whether his response to Gogoi’s article was based on legal advice given to him. “It is wrong to suggest that my response to the article was based on legal advice to pre-empt any action against me. I have not filed any case of defamation against Ms Pallavi Gogoi,” he said.
Akbar also said that he did not remember the dates on which his witnesses Joyeeta Basu, Veenu Sandal, Tapan Chaki, Sunil Gujral and Rachna Grover contacted him with respect to Priya Ramani’s tweets. But as soon as he began with “I do not specifically remember…”, ACMM Samar Vishal completed his sentence for him, so that it could be put on-record.
Akbar went on to say: “It is correct that we discussed the allegations made by other women journalists against me before filing the complainant. They expressed their shock on these allegations.” He added that his witnesses were not tutored and that they were not examined simply to fulfil the legal requirements. “It is wrong to suggest that the aforesaid witnesses are tutored witnesses and examined just to fulfil the legal requirement.”
Entering the final stages of questioning, John asked Akbar whether he had stated in his pre-summoning evidence that tweets used by Ramani were “offensive” and contained “maligning language…spun a web of lies which became the basis of articles that amounted to aggravated defamation”. Akbar responded by saying it was a matter of record. He also said that it was wrong to suggest that his present complaint was filed in a false manner and without merit. Akbar said he had not been “selective” in filing this complaint against Ramani in order to target her. Responding to a series of quick questions towards the end of the cross-examination, Akbar said that it would be wrong to suggest that the articles and tweets by Ramani were meant to raise awareness regarding the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. He also said that it would be wrong to suggest that Ramani’s disclosures in the tweets and articles pertaining to him were true and made in good faith and in public interest.
He also said that he was not aware whether the #MeToo movement began abroad and whether the movement in India was the manifestation of the international movement. “I am not aware of its sequential character,” replied Akbar, who seemed to be calmer and more confident in addressing the court than on previous hearings.
With this, MJ Akbar’s cross-examination came to an end. Proceedings were adjourned for the day and the matter will now be heard next on July 15.