‘A predator is more powerful than his prey’
Senior journalist Priya Ramani gave evidence at a district court in Delhi in connection with the criminal defamation case filed against her by ex-Union minister MJ Akbar. Excerpts:
Journalist Priya RAMANI first gave her testimony and then faced cross-examination in the MJ Akbar defamation case in the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal. Her narration of her job interview at a Mumbai hotel for an opening in Asian Age went as follows:
“When I reached the lobby, I looked around expecting to see Mr Akbar (in the lobby). I couldn’t spot him so I asked the reception to connect me to Mr Akbar. Mr Akbar came on the line and asked me to come up to his room. I was silent, hesitant. Mr Akbar reiterated that I should come up to his room. This was not what I expected. I thought the interview would be in the coffee shop or in the lobby. But I was 23, I didn’t have the confidence to say ‘No, I’ll wait for you in the lobby.’ I didn’t feel like I could dictate the terms of the interview. I was uncomfortable—but I went up. I rang his room bell. Mr Akbar answered and I entered.”
“The room was his bedroom. It was small, enclosed; the bed was turned down for the night. There was a small two-seater sofa near the bed. There was a big window and I could see that it was a sea-facing room. There were two chairs and a small table adjacent to the window and we sat there. I felt ill at ease to be in such an intimate space for a professional interview. I was acutely aware that I was alone in this room with him.”
“What happened next?” asked Rebecca John, her lawyer.
“He asked me why I had gone to the US to study journalism,” replied Ramani. “I replied that it was my dream to be a journalist, that this job was important to me, especially since it was my first job. He then asked many personal questions. He wanted to know if I was married, I said no. He wanted to know if I have a boyfriend, I replied no. He asked me many questions about my family. I told him they were keen that I have an arranged match. He offered me an alcoholic beverage from the minibar. I refused. He got up and made himself a drink. I think it was vodka. He asked me about my music preferences. When I replied, he started singing old Hindi songs to me.”
“I felt extremely uncomfortable at all these inappropriate personal questions. He did not discuss my writing skills, my knowledge of current affairs, or any other journalism-related question. Then, he moved to the small two-seater sofa next to the bed and gestured to me to come sit in the tiny space next to him. I was already feeling unnerved by his inappropriate behaviour. Now I was concerned for my physical safety. I knew I had to leave the room immediately. I got up and said I had to leave.”
“As I was leaving, Mr Akbar said his office would follow up about the job,” said Ramani, her voice shaking slightly. “I caught a taxi home, and later that night, from my landline, called (my friend) Niloufer at her own landline.”
“This part should not come,” objected Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra. “Who she called etc is not relevant. She can call and speak to anyone…it doesn’t come under our view of evidence…”
“Why?” asked ACMM Samar Vishal. “It is immediately connected to the incident.
Luthra protested further and said that Ramani could say what had happened between her and MJ Akbar, but not what happened between her and others.
However, ACMM Samar Vishal told Luthra to consider her objection overruled. “Please proceed,” he told Ramani.
“I called her (Niloufer) on her landline and told her what had happened,” said Ramani. “She was shocked to hear about Mr Akbar’s behaviour. I told her I couldn’t tell my parents because they would ask me to refuse the job offer if I got it. I would have to give up my dream of being a journalist. We discussed whether I should even accept the job if I got it, with such a man at the helm of this organisation.”
“With our limited experience and the enthusiasm of youth, we reasoned that it was a new newspaper, there would be many employees, and that the Editor would be a busy man who wouldn’t have time for a young journalist. I swore I would not be alone in a room with him (Akbar) ever again.”
Ramani said that the Asian Age offered her a job as a Correspondent at their Delhi office, where she began working in January 1994. “After 10 days of working in the Delhi office, I asked the News Editor for a transfer to Bombay,” she said. “I was not able to find good accommodation (in Delhi) and I thought I could save on rent by living with my parents. The transfer was accepted immediately. I moved to Bombay, and within a fortnight of joining the Asian Age, I was working in the Bombay office.”
“I never met Mr Akbar alone, in the Delhi office or in the Bombay office, again,” she said. “We always interacted at edit meetings, or with the whole office when he visited Bombay.”
“I left in 10 months to join Reuters,” continued Ramani. “I never worked with Mr Akbar ever again.”
“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 Geeta Luthra, counsel for MJ Akbar.
“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.
Luthra asked Ramani 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 gangrape 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.
“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.
Priya Ramani’s cross-examination will resume on October 24.