Priya Ramani takes the stand in the MJ Akbar case, testifies as first witness
Priya Ramani’s statements as she takes the stand in the MJ Akbar defamation case and testifies as the first witness. All details belong along with a succinct timeline of the case.
I have been a journalist for 25 years…graduated in 1991. In August that year I went to the US for an MA in journalism at Temple University. I worked in many news organisations as a journalist. My first job was at Asian Age from Jan-Oct 1994. I live in Bangalore with my 9-year-old daughter, my husband and down the road from my aging in-laws.
I came back from the US in November 1993 and began looking for a job in journalism. I heard that MJ Akbar, a famous editor, whom I had grown up reading and who was one of my professional heroes was starting an international daily newspaper. I went to the office in Mumbai to hand in my resume and check if they had any vacancies. It was about a month after I returned.
MJ Akbar happened to be visiting that day from Delhi and I met him. He asked me to come to The Oberoi Hotel for an interview at 7 pm on the same day. I said okay and left.
I caught a bus back to my home in South Bombay. It was very close to my The Oberoi Hotel. I called my friend, Niloufer Vekatraman.
Niloufer and I had met in 1988 at an evening course in St Xavier’s, Mumbai. We became friends and had stayed friends since, Ramani.
In fact, when I went to Temple University, I stayed with her before I found an accommodation. We met there often and we even came back to Bombay together on Nov 13, 1993.
Ramani shows a copy of her passport to show her arrival in India.
I took a bus to Nariman Point and reached Niloufer’s mother’s office. We walked out to the Marine drive sea face and discussed possible interview questions and my salary expectations. She even quizzed me on current affairs
At 7 pm she dropped me at The Oberoi. When I reached the lobby I looked around expecting to see Me Akbar in the lobby.
I couldn’t spot him so I asked the reception to connect me to Mr Akbar. He 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 is 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 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 sea-facing room.
I was acutely aware that I was alone in this room with him. He asked me why I had gone to the US to study journalism. 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 asked me many questions about my family. I told him that they were keen that I had an arranged match. He asked me about my music preferences. When I replied, he stared singing old hindi songs to me.
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 felt extremely uncomfortable at all these inappropriate personal questions. We did not discuss my writing skills, my knowledge of current affairs or any other journalism related question.
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 follow up about the job. I caught a taxi home and later that night from my landline I called Niloufer at her home landline and told her what had happened.
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 and I would have to give up my dream of being a journalist.
Ramani then clarifies her stand on the Vogue Article she wrote.
I wrote an article for Vogue Magazine. Vogue’s Feature’s Editor called me and asked me if I could write an article about the behavior of male bosses in the context of the American #MeToo movement and the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
The article ranged from calling women to hotel room and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and rape. While researching the article I couldn’t help but remember my personal story of my first male boss.
So I began the article with my MJ Akbar story. I never named him. The first four paragraphs of the article were a brief account of what happened at The Oberoi Hotel in 1993. The rest of the article was about the behavior of a certain type of male boss in general and the specific allegation against Harvey Weinstein.
Her counsel, Rebecca John insists that the four articles that Ramani speaks about be exhibited in the court. Akbar’s counsel, Geeta Luthra, objects to it but Judge Samar Vishal allows Ramani to exhibit the articles for identification.
Ramani progresses to defend her tweets in which she named Akbar as her harasser on October 8, 2018.
Almost exactly a year after my Vogue article, the MeToo movement began gaining momentum on Twitter after Tanushree Dutta accused a colleague of sexual harassment at workplace. After this, many women from the fields of film, entertainment, stand-up comedy began naming people who had sexually harassed them at work place.
Seeing all these women, I felt compelled to speak up about my experience with Mr MJ Akbar in 1993 and so I removed the anonymity that I had given Mr Akbar in my Vogue article and named him as the editor who had sexually harassed me.
I tweeted that I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. I have already explained that the first four paragraphs of the Vogue article were about the 1993 incident. I said I never named him because he didn’t “do” anything. I used the inverted commas to denote sarcasm.
She tells the court Sexual harassment can take any form.
It can be physical or verbal. By saying that he didn’t “do” anything, I was honestly disclosing that there was no overt act but that didn’t excuse Mr Akbar’s sexually coloured behavior.
I used the word ‘predator’ to emphasize and highlight the difference in age, influence and power between Mr Akbar and myself. I was a young journalist, he was a famous editor, 20 years older than me who called me to his bedroom in a hotel for a job interview.
Ramani’s witnesses to testify on September 9.
CASE SO FAR
On August 23, Ramani took the stand for the first time and said, “MJ Akbar has filed a false case against me. He has deliberately targetted me to divert attention away from serious complaints against him. Through his testimony, Akbar feigned ignorance about my story and my truth.”
On July 17, Akbar’s witnesses publisher for The Asian Age, Tapan Chaki and printer publisher of Sunday Guardian, Sunil Gujral deposed in the court. While Chaki said, “I was extremely shocked and shattered on reading the tweets by Priya Ramani,” Gujral deposed, “I have seen and read the tweets and the publication by Ms Priya Ramani. It was embarrassing for me and it tarnished the image of Mr Akbar.”
In 2017, Ramani wrote an article in Vogue alleging inappropriate advances made by Akbar when she first met him in his hotel room because he had called her there to conduct a job interview. However, she did not name him in the article then.
Last year in October when MeToo movement swept the country, particularly within the media industry, Ramani named Akbar on Twitter in a series of tweets. To retaliate against Ramani, Akbar filed a defamation case saying his name and reputation were tarnished on social media.
MJ Akbar stepped down from his position as a union minister due to a number of sexual harassment allegations against him from numerous women who had worked with him over the years including a rape allegation by NPR business editor Pallavi Gogoi.
Courtroom updates thanks to Bar and Bench