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MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani

Akbar’s first witness said she was ‘deeply distressed’ when she first learnt about Priya Ramani’s #metoo allegations

When the cross-examination of MJ Akbar’s first witness, Ms Veenu Sandal, took place, neither Akbar nor Ramani were present.

“I have been working for over 25 years as a journalist,” said Sandal, beginning her deposition in the witness box. “I started writing for The Asian Age  sometime around 1994-95. I wrote two columns for The Asian Age. One of them was on astrology and tarot cards. I wrote these columns till 2009.”

“I was going regularly to The Asian Age office to have my pages made and because I have knowledge of astrology and tarot cards, many of my colleagues often brought professional, personal, and career-related issues before me to seek guidance based on astrology and tarot cards.” She added: “From time to time, Mr Akbar offered suggestions on how to improve these columns for readers.”

“Not once did anybody ever mention or even say, or even hint at any inappropriate behaviour from Mr Akbar,” Sandal said.

“I have always held Mr Akbar in high esteem and I have always admired him at several levels. This included him being an author, acclaimed globally for his scholarly work, as an editor who transformed the face of Indian journalism, and as a journalist, whose analysis was extremely incisive, particularly in political matters. At the personal level too, I had great respect for him because he had many qualities. Simply by observing him both, within the office and outside, I learned a lot.”

Sandal said that on October 8, 2018, she had heard about the tweets published by Ramani, as well as the article she had written. She then checked online and read both (tweets and the article). Sandal added that she had also read the tweets dated October 10 and October 13, 2018.

“I was shocked and it came as a huge jolt to me upon reading these, especially since Miss Priya Ramani had called Mr Akbar a predator and some other revelations that she had made in her article. I was deeply distressed to think that someone I had placed on a pedestal could do what Miss Priya Ramani had alleged,” Sandal said.

“When I spoke with him, he told me there was no truth in the allegations. After due deliberation, I thought and realised what I had originally thought…that indeed I had never, on any occasion, where there was a wide cross-section of people also who could have said or hinted something inappropriate about him, there was not a thing which was even remotely similar or connected to the allegations of miss Priya Ramani.”

Senior Advocate Rebecca John, who is the counsel for Miss Priya Ramani, then took the floor and began her cross-examination of Sandal. But before she could begin, Akbar’s counsel went over Sandal’s statement that was being typed and made “corrections”, most of which was grammatical in nature. “Wren and Martin has been put in the coffin,” joked Luthra.

Upon being asked by John whether she had ever met Ms Priya Ramani, Sandal replied in the negative.

“I had not read anything prior to Ms Ramani’s tweet about any allegation against Mr Akbar by any other woman. Subsequently, I heard that there were other tweets by other women but I did not read them.” She added: “It is incorrect to suggest that I have given a false answer or that I have read other tweets and articles of other women pertaining to allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr Akbar.”

John then asked Sandal: “You said you had worked at The Asian Age for a considerably long period of time…did you interact with journalists like Prerna Singh Bindra, Ghazala Wahab, Shuma Raha, Harinder Baweja and Kadambari Wade?”

Sandal replied: “During my tenure at The Asian Age, I interacted professionally only with one, Miss Ghazala Wahab.”

“Did you deem it necessary to talk to her or confront her (Wahab) about these allegations?” asked John. “I did not deem it necessary to confront her (Wahab) or talk to her about the said allegations because I knew there was no truth in those allegations.”

“When did you speak to Mr Akbar about the allegations made by Ms Ramani—which is the subject matter of this case?” asked John.

“I spoke to Mr Akbar on his return from Africa i.e. October 14, 2018.”

John asked whether Sandal could provide the court with a tentative timeline, to which the latter said: “I spoke to him several times that day on the phone.” She added: “It was definitely post-lunch because I don’t wake up before that (laughs).”

John asked: “Are you aware Akbar filed this complaint the very next day?”

“I am not aware of the date when Mr Akbar filed the complaint but I am aware that he had filed one, which is why we are here (laughs weakly),” replied Sandal. She added: “It would be incorrect to suggest that I had several conversations with Mr Akbar throughout the day.”

Sandal said that it would be incorrect to state that she had deliberately given evidence that not once did any colleague of hers, said, or hinted at, any inappropriate behaviour by Mr Akbar, or that she had selectively and deliberately given evidence against Ms Priya Ramani although she was aware of other allegations.

Sandal also added that it would be incorrect to suggest that friends, family, and others she met publicly, did not ask questions about Ms Priya Ramani’s tweets and that she (Sandal) had introduced these facts to solely fulfil the legal requirements of the case. She also said that it would be incorrect to state that she (Sandal) had deposed in favour of MJ Akbar because she professionally benefitted from her association with him.

Decorum broke in the court over some grammatical errors…

Tapan Chaki and Sunil Gujral, who have known Akbar for a collective 70 years, took turns in the witness box

Tapan Chaki, a balding man wearing a white full-sleeved shirt and grey trousers, was the first to take the stand. “I am a corporate communications consultant based in Kolkata,” said Chaki, beginning his statement. “I have known Mr Akbar for over 30 years. I have always been interested in journalism and used to contribute to The Statesman and Junior Statesman. When Mr Akbar became the editor of Onlooker, I used to contribute articles.

Rebecca John asked Chaki of the duration of his tenure at The Asian Age.

“To the best of my recollection, I remained the publisher of The Asian Age from 1982, for a period of about seven years,” replied Chaki.

John said that the two statements—the one made by Chaki previously and the one made by him today—were contradictory. She specifically pointed out to the parts of today’s statement where Chaki had described Akbar as “extremely demanding when it came to copy” and as “getting along with his colleagues”.

“I put it to you that haven’t stated this previously,” said John.

Chaki stuttered and fumbled and eventually stated that he had implied the same thing, but not used the same words. The court recorded that Chaki has contradicted his earlier statements and that he (Chaki) had not used the same words.

“It is incorrect to suggest that I had heard of several instances of sexual misconduct while I was working with Mr Akbar at The Asian Age but I am concealing the same today,” said Chaki. “It is incorrect to suggest that I have given evidence in this case to fulfil a legal requirement … It is incorrect to suggest that I have deposed in the present case because I have a close professional relationship with Mr Akbar … It is incorrect to suggest that I am deliberately feigning ignorance about reading the tweets and articles of multiple other women … It is incorrect to suggest that I am a false and tutored witness.”

With this, Tapan Chaki’s cross-examination came to an end.

No sooner did the second witness, Sunil Gujral, who was waiting in the hallway outside till this time, enter the courtroom was ushered out from the door itself by Geeta Luthra and another senior counsel member representing Akbar.

“There is tutoring going on right outside this court,” alleged John, addressing ACMM Samar Vishal.

Gujral, a fair, wrinkle-faced businessman with white hair, entered the witness box and took his oath. Gujral said he found Akbar to be “a perfect gentleman holding a good reputation in society and in the forum of journalism and as an author”. Rebecca John took over the floor for her cross-examination of Gujral.

“Mr Gujral, while you were in Calcutta, you knew Mr Akbar in his personal, is this correct?” she asked him.

“In Calcutta, I knew Mr Akbar in my personal capacity,” Gujral. “My professional relationship with him started only in 2010.”

John asked Gujral whether Akbar or his family had a property in Maharani Bagh in Delhi—which is close to his (Gujral’s) house. “It is correct,” responded Gujral.

“Mr Gujral, did you extend a personal loan of ₹Rs 5 lakh to Mr Akbar in 2016?” asked John.

“I do not remember whether I extended a personal loan to Mr Akbar in 2016.”

“I put it to you that in the affidavit filed by Mr Akbar with the Election Commission, prior to his election in the Rajya Sabha, he had declared that you had given him a loan of ₹Rs 5 lakh,” said John.

At this point, the counsel for MJ Akbar vehemently began objecting. Senior advocate Geeta Luthra said that the contents of a document cannot be put to a witness if the document pertained to another person and if the document has not been executed by the witness himself.

“It is legally sustainable and it will be asked,” said John.

However, ACMM Samar Vishal overruled Luthra’s objection and said that the objection would be decided at the time of the judgement.

An argument broke out between the two opposing counsels (John and Luthra) when John allegedly said “this is the kind of witness you bring…” Luthra told John: “Just because you are in a privileged position doesn’t mean you…”Luthra once again objected and said that she would take her witness out if such remarks were passed.

John responded: “This is the kind of aggression they show against me … it is very unbecoming.”

During Gujral’s cross-examination, he said: “In my interaction with my friends, acquaintances, and business associates, the allegations other than those made by Ms Ramani were not brought to my notice … It is incorrect to suggest that I am aware of several instances/allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr Akbar, made by other women journalists, but I have deliberately concealed the same.”

At this point, a couple of the junior counsel members representing MJ Akbar began interrupting Rebecca John.

Addressing ACMM Samar Vishal, John said: “Sir, can I also ask Miss Geeta Luthra to take the lead here? Are any of my juniors … I completely respect the two senior counsels here but we have a rush of people … as if everything I am saying is stupid. So many of them (younger counsels) are correcting me.”

“It’s not my first trial,” said John, looking down at her papers. In an undertone, she added: “Maybe yours.”

Gujral continued: “It is incorrect to suggest that I have come to depose in favour of Mr Akbar because of my long-standing personal and financial relation with him. It is incorrect to suggest that I am a false and tutored witness to fulfil a legal requirement.” With this, Gujral’s cross-examination came to an end.

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