SEEMA MUSTAFA | 16 OCTOBER, 2018
The case of Minister MJ Akbar
The criminal defamation case by powerful Minister MJ Akbar against an ordinary citizen, for doing little more than sharing a horrific experience, is not just condemnable but needs to be acted against by all right thinking persons in this country.
It represents precisely the abuse of power I wrote of, in an earlier article on the #MeToo movement which was unfortunately drowned in a hysterical response. Probably, as I now realise, as it was a little ahead of its time, and the criticism of some aspects of the movement was confused – deliberately or otherwise – to misread and camouflage what I had said in precise words about the work culture at the Asian Age.
It needs to be reiterated in bold letters that sexual harassment is harassment (or in cases rape), confirmed when one, a girl says No and the man refuses to recognise it, even in the domestic bed; and two, at the workplace when a senior uses his position to extract sexual favours from his target, which might appear consensual but are not. For the woman is the victim, whether she knows it or not, and in the grip of an influence she might think is working in her favour, but is actually exploiting her in an essentially cynical and manipulative patriarchal system.
For Union Minister MJ Akbar to use his position and the support of a strong government to hit out at a woman for calling him out is perhaps the worst reaction the man could have resorted to. Instead of stepping down and apologising to all the women, and offering himself to an enquiry, he has hid behind the office of power and not just that, used it to hit out at a citizen who has nothing but her own resources to defend herself with.
Instead of fighting what were personal allegations of harassment as a citizen, he has decided to fight back as a Minister resting on fat cushions of power. This is simply unforgivable. I would like to say pathetic, except that having been often at the receiving end of the state stick myself, I know how nasty these men in power can be when it comes to harassing and silencing citizens.
It was during my stint at the Asian Age that I realised the importance of nurturing and preserving the workplace. It took me a while to see what was happening, and then as there were no formal complaints, I found a way out by protecting the news-gathering space from any kind of intrusion. I was in charge of news-gathering by the way, with the desk reporting directly to MJ Akbar and two of his favourites in charge. They were not senior to me perhaps in the profession – one at least definitely was not – but they were paid better, and one of them had a higher designation. Even so, neither of them – both men – was not guilty of harassing the girls. As far as I know in the absence of perception and rumours, not. But that they knew what was happening in the office is a given, as the girls so harassed were from the desk.
The No is No rule most are conversant with. So let me explain the work place ethos and why a relationship between a senior and a junior employee constitutes sexual harassment.
I worked as I pointed out in an essentially man’s world. And when I joined the Link and the Pioneer I was the only woman in that huge office, although Aruna Asaf Ali (that amazing woman) was very much involved in the day to day affairs along with the indomitable editor Edatata Narayanan. For me Patriot was a dream come true, and John Dayal was the chief reporter. I had two very good male friends there and we would take long walks down New Delhi’s Fleet Street (Bahadurshah Zafar marg, so called because it housed most of the newspaper offices) arguing at length about political and other issues. I remember one poor editor of Link who was not used to women in the newsroom called the three of us in separately to say we should not be hanging out together. I went and complained to Arunaji who laughed, but ensured that I was never subjected to any such censure again.
To cut a long story short, as a reporter covering conflict across India through the 1980’s I travelled with colleagues, shared rooms with male colleagues, worked under a host of editors and revelled in news rooms that then took pride in professionalism and equality. This despite the fact that we women were in a big minority. Not a single editor every dallied with a reporter at the time, and used his big power (there were no corporate houses tampering with the editor at that time) to subdue women in the workplace. There were the colourful editors but their dalliances were outside the workplace. And this is what one thought was the case with MJ Akbar when we started working with him. He did not interfere as I have written with the Delhi Bureau of The Telegraph leaving it to that delightful and loveable senior Kewal Verma to handle. There were whispers then of Akbar’s girlfriends outside the workplace in Delhi and closer to his age, but just gossip that as journalists we indulged in.
News that he had started crossing all lines in the workplace as the editor came in towards the end of my stay in The Telegraph. I resigned as he had started interfering with my reportage that to my mind has always been a cardinal sin that owners and editors like to indulge in. And as a journalist I have always fought. As written earlier I never saw or heard of Akbar for ten years until I started sending a column for use in the Asian Age, and then after some months was asked to write the edits, and then after a while take over as the Chief of Bureau. I went on to become the Resident Editor.
The use of position and power to entice a young girl, with or without harassment, is harassement in itself. To my mind cowards use this route, as it is not just safer in their view but also easier in that the employee is more vulnerable because of their power, and the position they hold. Besides some misguided girls, unable to differentiate between rights and exploitation, might actually view the harassment as kosher particularly when it came with attention and perks like rapid promotions and better pay. This is not to say that they are not victims, they are as much as the women who walked out of an interview or of a job after being so targeted. More so, perhaps.
The work culture of the Asian Age became toxic. There were always stories, always girls coming in, and girls leaving. Always whispers to a point when a woman spent even a few minutes extra in his cabin, the employees around started whispering. More so as no one complained. Those who could not take it left. Those who did, tried to convince themselves that the attention from the powerful editor was worth it. But left sooner than later. Actually those who stayed were the ones with whom he had only a professional relationship---at the headquarters and in the city Bureaus. But no one else survived the course. I have written of this and more in my earlier article in The Citizen. Suffice it to say while we did not have information of any specific instance, the work culture was toxic, and we all felt it. Every single one, even the reporters and the Bureau hands even though we had managed to insulate ourselves. In that there was no direct intervention or targeting of reporters.
Most of the accounts have one thing in common, apart from the offensive harassment. That they all met Akbar with knowledge of his reputation, and were so excited about actually meeting a journalist they admired. And instead of accepting this, he clearly used this reputation and his position to entice the young women, or subdue them, or try to. All an abuse of his position and power.
Incidentally, I felt the impact of another abusive newsroom in the News X where I worked much later as the National Affairs Editor. This was not sexual but actually threatening and physically abusive. Again not directed at me at all, never, but something that eventually made be quit.
It is angering that Akbar is now fighting a young woman with a criminal defamation suit. Criminal defamation that every journalist has been fighting against as misuse of the law. And to use the bludgeon to swat a butterfly just shows the desperation of the attacker. And makes it imperative that he be acted against. I do not expect the BJP to do so, but I do think all others in and outside the movement can unite to ensure that the case is dismissed by the courts, and no such cases filed against the other women in the list of complainants. Even now Akbar can do the right thing for once, by resigning and then fighting defamation if he still feels after honest introspection that he has been wronged. He just might find himself convinced otherwise.