New Delhi: Veteran journalist M.J. Akbar could answer only half the questions asked of him by fellow scribe Priya Ramani’s lawyer amid heated exchanges between the legal teams in the defamation case filed by him against Ramani. Ramani has accused him of sexual harassment.
The Delhi court where Akbar was cross-examined Saturday consequently posted the case for 20 May as his lawyer sought leave to attend an appointment and the hearing had to be prematurely ended.
Additional chief metropolitan magistrate Samar Vishal asked the two sides to come prepared to spend a full day in court for the next hearing.
‘Assault on reputation’
The Saturday hearing in court number 203 at the Rouse Avenue district court complex, Delhi, lasted two hours, and was punctuated by theatrical moments.
When Akbar referred to Ramani’s sexual harassment allegations against him as an “assault on my reputation”, her eyes widened. Standing five feet away from the witness box, she shook her head, and lowered her gaze.
Akbar, journalist-cum-politician, is among the biggest names to emerge from India’s tryst with the #MeToo movement, in which scores of women went public with experiences of sexual harassment. Ramani had first written about her allegations against Akbar in a 2017 article for Vogue magazine, without naming him. In 2018, as social media became the platform of choice for the movement, she named him in a tweet.
Akbar, who was India’s junior minister of external affairs at the time, filed a defamation case against Ramani in October last year, saying he “was harmed by the offensive words used by Priya Ramani, which were false, and which caused irreparable damage to my stellar reputation, built over many years”. He subsequently stepped down as more women came out with stories against him.
Saturday was the first time the two had come face to face since then, as Akbar was cross-examined by Ramani’s counsel Rebecca John.
What ensued was nothing short of a heated courtroom drama.
Akbar first recorded his statement, giving a testimony that was a near-verbatim repetition of his first statement, made in Patiala House Courts on 31 October 2018.
In his deposition, Akbar again highlighted a “curious anomaly” to bolster his claim that the allegations were “unwarranted, defamatory and malafide.
“The original article in Vogue,” Akbar told the judge, “did not contain my name.”
“I can infer that this was because the inclusion of my name would have been defamatory,” he said.
In order to establish his “good reputation”, Akbar once again outlined the journey of his professional and political career.
He recalled his education in Kolkata, and listed his editorial stints with The Telegraph, The Asian Age, India Today and the Sunday Guardian.
All the books he has written — from India: The Seige Within, Nehru: The making of India, Kashmir, and Blood Brothers — were handed over to the court as exhibits.
Approximately, an hour later, after a fairly straightforward deposition, the defence counsel rose to cross-examine Akbar.
Senior advocate Geeta Luthra who is Akbar’s lawyer, remained standing when John started her cross-examination.
“You have told this court about your various engagements with newspapers, The Telegraph, Asian Age etc. and finally joining the BJP,” John said to Akbar. “However, you have failed to mention the fact that you joined the Congress party in 1989, is that correct?”
Luthra, supported by Sandeep Kapur, partner at the legal firm Karanjawala and Co, objected top this, insisting that “it must be in a question-answer format”.
“It is my right to ask questions the way that I want, this is disruption of proceedings,” John said attempting to speak over Luthra, who would not stop saying “This is not done”.
“Play to the gallery, sure,” Luthra said.
John retorted, “Who is playing to the gallery other than you?”
Luthra pleaded with the judge “that some questions will be wholly irrelevant and we need to point that out because otherwise this can go on till the cows come home”.
“I’m asking your honour to protect me and my client because I’m not in a position to cross-examine in this atmosphere,” John said.
In the first 10 minutes of the cross examination, Akbar had not been able to answer even the first question put to him by John. When he finally spoke, Akbar admitted he had been a Congress MP from Kishanganj in Bihar between 1989 and 1992, as well as a spokesperson of the party.
John used this example to suggest that Akbar made “ideological u-turns several times” during his career as a politician which “reveals his political opportunism”. Akbar denied these suggestions.
‘Don’t muzzle me’
John went on to reference a purported contempt order made by the Delhi High Court against Akbar for “falsely reporting on court proceedings”. He said he did not remember any such order.
When Luthra repeatedly raised her voice at the “relevance of such a question” and the semantics of framing, John said, “Don’t muzzle me, and if you muzzle me, it will get personal. This is a deeply personal struggle.”
Akbar replied to several questions with “I do not remember”: “I do not remember” meeting Ramani in the Bombay office of The Asian Age in December of 2003 when she was in search of a job. “I do not remember” asking Ramani to meet him at Oberoi Hotel in Nariman Point at 7 pm the same day.
“I cannot say whether Ms Ramani reached Oberoi Hotel at 7 pm. I cannot say whether her friend Niloufer Venkatraman dropped her off or if she left after dropping her,” Akbar claimed.
Luthra continued to interrupt John’s questioning which prompted the judge to tell her, “It’s a serious case, let her defend herself.”