It’s a case that is being described as “India’s Women vs MJ Akbar”. Beginning with veteran journalist Priya Ramani, 16 women have gone public this month with sexual harassment allegations against former Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar. After Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani, 17 more women who worked in a newspaper he had founded put out a statement accusing the journalist-turned-politician of encouraging a culture of misogyny and harassment. In the outpouring, one set of voices has been largely missing: where are the men?
The stories of Akbar’s predatory behaviour that have now emerged span three decades. They start with The Telegraph, a newspaper he founded in 1982, grow more frequent during his years at The Asian Age, another paper he established, and spill all the way into his last journalistic job at the India Today, which ended in 2014. Over the course of his decades in journalism, Akbar worked with numerous men and women. If everyone knew about his behaviour, how come no one brought it up earlier? And why, even now, does it seem like it is largely the women who are speaking up about what Akbar did?
“Akbar was like a terror,” said Prashun Bhaumik, a journalist who worked at the Telegraph soon after it was founded. “Everyone other than him was a minion... I’ve seen editors run. When he used to enter from one door, these guys would get up and run out of the other... Nobody stood up.”
Bhaumik is one of the few men who finally chose to speak up in support of the women after Akbar sued Ramani. Kamlesh Singh, Rasheed Kidwai and Akshaya Mukul, three other male journalists who worked under Akbar, also took to Twitter to express solidarity with the women who publicly recounted their experiences. “I too worked in the Asian Age features team, 1994-’95,” Mukul wrote. “I know what many women colleagues had to go through. I trust each and every word... [of those] who might recount their harrowing experience #MeToo.”
In interviews with some of these men who worked in the newsrooms where Akbar now stands accused of harassing women, a picture emerges of an office structure where the editor-turned-journalist perfected a system that would allow him to operate with impunity, at least until #MeToo broke the silence.
Read this piece to get a sense of the women’s accounts about Akbar’s behaviour. Akbar has denied all allegations against him, but had to step down from the Council of Ministers after filing a criminal case against Ramani. Scroll.in sent queries to Akbar on Sunday, and will update this article if he responds.
‘It was like surveillance’
Akbar began his journalistic career as a trainee at the Times of India, and was soon made editor of Onlooker, a fortnightly magazine. In 1976, at age 25, he was made editor of Sunday, a new weekly established by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, in Calcutta. In 1982, he was put in charge of the Telegraph, a daily newspaper from the same group that aimed to take on the reigning Statesman. Akbar was quickly earning a reputation for being a brilliant journalist who worked constantly – and expected the same from those around. But not all of his conduct would today count as professional.
“Reporters who worked there at the time told me of how, seated in the middle of the newsroom with a bottle of Old Monk by his side, Akbar would work until 3 am, looking through everything from the copy to the design of the morning’s edition as the level of the rum dropped,” wrote Hartosh Singh Bal in a profile of Akbar in the Caravan.
It was at the Telegraph where the first of the allegations against Akbar emerged. Tushita Patel writes of how arriving as a trainee, Akbar once greeted her at his hotel room dressed in just his underwear. He later ushered her into an empty conference room to talk about the stories on the pages, and then grabbed and kissed her.
“It was known that he had an eye for the interns and for the good-looking women and it was visible,” said Bhaumik, the journalist who had joined as a trainee at the Telegraph in 1982. “We were all very young, in our 20s. He gave a huge opportunity to young girls and boys who mostly had no inkling what was happening. But he had that penchant for coming to the desk and picking up the girls’ copies and standing over her head, and giving her the fright of her life.”
Accounts of men who worked with Akbar as well as the 16 women show that hiring young people and ensuring the newsroom, men or women, were perennially afraid of what the editor would say meant two things: he held tremendous power over the women he allegedly preyed on, and there were no second-rung newsroom leaders who could challenge his authority.
This played out in deeply unsettling ways. Bhaumik said that he was transferred to Darjeeling, at the time of the Gorkhaland protests when many journalists were vying for that role. Though it gave his career a boost, he soon realised it had been done because Akbar had allegedly his eyes set on a fellow journalist he was then dating.
“She would come up to Darjeeling, and he sent women from the office to look for her,” Bhaumik said. “Can you believe it? Because she was missing from Calcutta, he sent a girl from the sports department to track her down. And then, at other times, I would quietly go to Calcutta for a day and then went back, and later he would catch me and say, ‘Oh, I heard you were in Calcutta on such and such day.’ It was like surveillance. He was bizarre.”
Far from helping the women avoid Akbar’s behaviour or just turning a blind eye, Bhaumik said there were many in the office who would play to his desires. “He used to have these annual parties, and I blame a lot of the men also,” he said. “There were chief subs who would drag all the girls that they knew he was fond of and throw them into his arms and say, boss, boss, boss, almost behaving like pimps... It was shocking.”
‘His victims were very young’
The same formula – a towering editor and a news desk staffed primarily with young women that he allegedly preyed on – seems to have played out even more egregiously at the Asian Age. Akbar not only founded and edited the newspaper in 1994 after a stint as a Member of Parliament in the Congress party, he also helped run its business. As many as 10 of the 16 accounts of women being allegedly harassed that have emerged date back to their time at the Asian Age, which Akbar ran from 1994 to 2008.
“Once, in the autumn of 1997, while I was half-squatting over the dictionary, he sneaked up behind me and held me by my waist,” wrote Ghazala Wahab in her account of Akbar’s alleged behaviour, adding that she had heard of his reputation but it only hit home when his eyes turned on her.
A male journalist who worked at the newspaper, and asked for anonymity, said that the tremendous disparity between the young women Akbar employed and the editor made it difficult for anyone to speak out.
“Most of the employees were interns, in their first or maybe their second job and all, whether men, women, were awestruck,” he said. “They had grown up reading him. There was this sense of being very lucky to work with this man, this legendary editor. Then we started hearing these stories about something or the other, most of them who were victims were very young. Straight out of university, how do you react when a legendary editor calls you into the room, and this is a real instance, calls her and says I have seen something in her?”
Rasheed Kidwai, another journalist who worked with Akbar at the Asian Age, remembers being struck by how much of the team at the newspaper were young women, no older than 22 or 23. “It made for a very inexperienced newsroom,” he said. “And this was explained away to us saying women are better workers. And that they are better than men at editing. Those are explanations that we took at face value.”
Then, the same approach as was visible at Telegraph would play out. Akbar would first make sure everyone in the newsroom was always scared of him. “It was dread,” said the male journalist. “It was a big, big problem getting to his room. We would take turns to get pages cleared. We were scared because his shouting was really unmatched, really rude, angry, short-tempered, and he’d fly off the handle for bizarre things.”
‘He behaves like a jilted lover’
Then he would try and find a way to isolate the women. Kidwai said that many of the incidents themselves would take place outside the office. “Most of these cases happened in multiple cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta – and several incidents happened outside the office, as in a hotel, etc,” he said. “Those were times when male colleagues were not present.”
The male journalist who worked at the Asian Age said at the time, Akbar was also doing a TV show for Doordarshan, in which he would interview senior politicians around the country.
“He would send some girl a day or two in advance for interviews and research,” the journalist said. “And then land up there two days later. Invariably, the story was the same. In the evening he would call them to his room. After that he behaves like a 17-year-old jilted lover who can’t take no for an answer. He would make life hell for those people who said no.”
As was the case at his previous newspaper, the parties Akbar held were prime grounds for everyone to see what was going on. “The parties used to be where you invariably see the sheer sense of entitlement with which he will go after these girls,” the male journalist said.
He added: “How do you react to your boss, when he’s pawing? You’re not even prepared, don’t even have your defences in place...For many of the women, now when I go back, talk to friends, you realise if they were behaving in a certain way, there was a reason: why someone would not come to parties, why they would be absent on certain days. They were trying to build their own mechanism. They couldn’t have quit their jobs. They were completely unprepared for a legendary editor to behave like this.”
‘Women cannot be with this man’
Things were different at India Today, where Akbar joined as editorial director in 2010. Unlike the previous two organisations where he was the founding editor and built the teams entirely himself, Akbar came into India Today as the head of an organisation that already had a well-known track record and a powerful owner in the form of Aroon Purie. Two of the accounts that have so far emerged about Akbar were to do with his time at the India Today group.
“At India Today, Akbar did not have the sort of dominance you describe in Asian Age,” said a male journalist who worked under Akbar at the group. “Here, Aroon Purie was the editor-proprietor. He called the shots. There was no chance anyone – even Akbar – could run an independent fiefdom. What we knew about him when he came to India Today is that he had a glad eye. But he never really did anything. There were suspicions. There was [one incident with a woman]... She did not file a complaint. But left abruptly without quite telling anyone why. We would see the way he looked at women. And now, we are all reconsidering what that time was like.”
The journalist said that Akbar did transform the work culture of the magazine, turning it from a laidback organisation into one that was much more aggressive. But it is also likely that some women journalists, knowing his reputation, were wary of joining.
“There were no complaints,” this journalist said. “But there is what we heard from the outside. A friend of mine, when I asked why she did not want to join India Today, said: ‘I cannot work with this man. Women cannot be with this man.’”
A question that has been asked repeatedly since the emergence of the #MeToo accounts has been why, despite everyone seeming to know about Akbar’s behaviour, he was not called out, particularly by the senior male journalists who worked around him. Attempts to reach some of those men were unsuccessful.
But those who did speak brought up the nature of the newsrooms that Akbar built, especially at the Telegraph and Asian Age. Power within those newsrooms was so skewed, they said, so utterly dependent on Akbar that there was no question of bringing up his behaviour with anyone else.
“He was a legend,” Bhaumik said. “The whole ABP house, he had a free run because he was Akbar. Everybody knew. Everybody talked. Departmental heads would keep track of women for him. I’m sure the Sarkars [the family that owned the newspaper] knew jolly well. They’re all complicit.”
Scroll.in contacted the proprietors of the companies that Akbar worked at for responses, including Aveek Sarkar of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group. India Today replied to say there had been no complaints against Akbar while he was at the company, and added that the group follows a strict no-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. The piece will be updated if the other media houses reply.
Kidwai pointed out that that there was no clear way to complain, unlike today where there are more settled rules for how to bring up sexual harassment. “I could have written an anonymous letter to the Editor’s Guild or the Press Council,” he said. “But within the organisation, there weren’t many options. The HR department sat in distant places like Tilak Marg. We did not have access to the company’s directors. The only person we had access to was MJ Akbar.”
Besides, the editor did not respond well to criticism from anyone. “He was the be-all and end-all of the organisation,” said the journalist from the Asian Age. “For owners, this was just loose change. It gave them immense credibility to have MJ Akbar as editor, and because everyone else was young, they had low overheads.”
Having been made editor and given the opportunity to run organisations as he wished from his 20s, Akbar was simply not used to being told no.
“Nobody ever told him, boss, lay off,” the journalist said. “Even if someone told him – I once saw a woman telling him to take his hand off her shoulder, his reaction, you could see a classic example of the masculine sense of entitlement over women: ‘You belong to me, how can you say no,’” the journalist said. “Even now, after these stories, after this court case, he must be thinking the same. He’s so used to getting his way, he’s so entitled. It’s going to get very messy.”