#MeToo campaign, which has taken the country by storm, has now reached the shores of politics with voices against Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar growing stronger by the day. A post by journalist Priya Ramani accusing MJ Akbar of misconduct has opened a floodgate of sexual harassment allegations against him. Now another scribe has come out and accused MJ Akbar of misconduct.
Founder-editor of NewCrop Shutapa Paul has in a series of tweets recounted the horror she faced in the years 2010-2011 when she was working with India Today Group in their Kolkata bureau. The alleged incident dates back to the time when MJ Akbar took up the reins of India Today. Recalling her first encounter with MJ Akbar, “a well-known, rockstar editor”, Shutapa Paul said, “When #MJAkbar 1st came to Kolkata to meet the team at ITC Sonar, just as we were about to leave, he squeezed my elbow rather painfully and said that I should call him directly if I needed something.”
Though, Akbar’s behaviour was odd, Paul didn’t think much of it then as she thought “he was only being encouraging as a boss”, just to be proved wrong later.
Paul’s account of MJ Akbar highlighted a pattern of behaviour of the former editor wherein he would allegedly insist journalists, mostly female, to come to his hotel room for meetings and having drinks with him.
“MJ Akbar insisted on meeting at ITC Sonar where he would stay. I was asked to come around 8 pm. In the exclusive members’ only lounge, his personal waiter brought him glasses of whiskey and muri (puffed rice). MJ Akbar insisted that I drink too. ‘What kind of journalist are you that doesn’t drink and smoke?’ wrote Shutapa on Twitter.
Shutapa Paul also alleged that while she wanted to talk to him ‘about story ideas’, hoping ‘he would approve them’, MJ Akbar allegedly chose to talk to her about “how journalists working together often ‘grew close’ and things could happen between them. He told me I should accompany him on his foreign visits. I told him about my mother, my recently deceased father & the committed relationship I was in at that time.”
Paul, wrote in her post, that she thought when she told him about his relationship “it would change his line of conversation, however, to her dismay, the next thing Akbar allegedly said was even though she is no ‘Cleopatra’, he liked sitting and looking at her.
Paul then wrote that new few days were great for her and one day while discussing a possible cover story Akbar told her that India Today is moving towards ‘convergence’ and now journalists from across its various verticals (magazine, tv, online) could have their stories carried across platforms. As elated as she felt with the news, Akbar’s next statement stumped her.
“Tor jonno korechi aami’ (I have done this for you), he said in Bengali over the phone,” wrote Shutapa Paul.
The scribe then went on to narrate her most traumatic encounter with Akbar, wherein he allegedly asked her to come to his his Nizamuddin East residence.
As recalled by Paul when she reached Akbar’s residence, His home office was dark and there were old Hindi ghazals playing in the background. #MJAkbar didn’t have much to tell me, again just sat silently & stared. I said I had a flight to catch, a friend waiting outside to drop me to the airport. ‘Bf?’ he asked. No, just a friend.
She also alleged that when she tried to leave his house, he allegedly gave her a ‘hard hug’, at which “she ducked whatever else could have followed and fled”.
Paul then wrote that on his next visit to Kolkata, MJ Akbar asked her to come to his hotel room at 11 pm for a meeting, to which she said no.
Paul wrote after that refusal “from a reporter who was doing impactful stories”, “she was relegated to being a nobody”. The sudden development pushed her to depression, she recalled.
However, as recounted by Shutapa Paul, it was no end to her trouble, as a few days on Akbar asked Paul “to take the principal byline for a story where my contribution was only 10%. It was a controversial story with political repercussions. But since it was not the result of my investigations, I refused”.
After this incident, Paul quit India Today as she realised that she won’t be able to work in India Today after rejecting ‘MJ’s overtures’.
While concluding her post Shutapa Paul wrote that “to think that #MJAkbar is now more powerful than ever makes me shudder. But I draw courage from brave women everywhere and am now getting this monkey off my back.”
At least 5 woman journalists have named MJ Akbar so far. It began with a post by journalist Priya Ramani, who called out MJ Akbar and accused him of inappropriate behaviour. After her post, several other women spoke out and accused MJ Akbar of sexual harassment. With her tweet, Ramani had shared a link to her 2017 article, wherein she accused him of behaving inappropriately. Though, back then Ramani didn’t name him. However, in her tweet, she outed Akbar and also spilled the beans on why she didn’t reveal his name when she wrote the article.
With growing allegations against MJ Akbar, the demand to expel him is growing. The government is yet to take a stand on the issue. Furthermore, MJ Akbar himself also hasn't replied to the allegations. MJ Akbar is currently attending India-West Africa conclave in Abuja Nigeria.
In her article, Ramani wrote than an editor of a leading publication insisted to interview her in his hotel room, where he offered her a drink and at one point even asked her to sit closer to him. Soon after, she called out Akbar on Twitter, several other journalists followed suit and narrated their stories involving MJ Akbar. Most of the women have detailed incidents wherein the former journalist would call them to his plush hotel room for interviews, offer alcohol and ask/say unwarranted questions and behave inappropriately.