New Delhi: Former Union minister M.J. Akbar Monday received support from a one-time colleague in the defamation case he has filed against journalist Priya Ramani, who is among a number of women who have accused him of sexual harassment.
Appearing as a witness for Akbar, columnist Veenu Sandal, who has worked with the journalist-turned-politician in The Asian Age newspaper, maintained that “there was not a thing remotely similar to the allegations” of sexual harassment levelled against him, adding, “I have always held Mr Akbar in high esteem and have always admired him”.
Sandal deposed in Delhi’s Rouse Avenue District Court and was cross-examined by Ramani’s counsel, led by senior advocate Rebecca John. In her statement, Sandal said the allegations came as a “jolt” at first and that she was left “red-faced” by “embarrassing questions” raised by friends and family over her association with Akbar.
She said that after several conversations with Akbar on 14 October 2018 — a day before he filed the case — she “realised what I had originally thought”: that there was no substance to the allegations.
“I was not aware of the date he filed the complaint, but I am aware that he filed it,” she said in response to a question posed by John, who suspected she was primed to be a witness in the case. “It is incorrect to state that I am biased and a tutored witness,” said Sandal.
On other allegations
Sandal was also quizzed about her relationship with Ghazala Wahab, another journalist who has accused Akbar of sexual harassment. Wahab had worked with both Akbar and Sandal in The Asian Age and had named them both in an article in The Wire, published on 12 October 2018, in which she alleged that Akbar made repeated “physical overtures”.
“Veenu (Sandal) came to my desk and told me that Akbar was truly in love with me. And that I should give him time to show me how much he cared,” Wahab had written.
In court Monday, Sandal admitted to having worked with Wahab “professionally” and said that she hadn’t read the contents of the article in TheWire that had named her.
“I didn’t feel the need to confront (Wahab) over her allegations in TheWire because I know there was no truth to them,” Sandal said.
Sandal denied that any colleagues indicated their distress or discomfort in relation to Akbar’s conduct. She did, however, concede that she was “made aware” of similar allegations by other women through conversations with friends and family in 2018 when #MeToo campaign gained traction. “It’s incorrect to suggest that nobody ever narrated or spoke to me about inappropriate behaviour by M.J. Akbar,” she said when pressed by John.
#MeToo and the supernatural
Sandal was also cross-examined with respect to a piece in which she had referred to the #MeToo movement.
The columnist, who writes on the supernatural, admitted to having written the article titled ‘Partnering with ghosts of the other world’ in which she wrote, that among other “contentious issues”, the “#MeToo movement has gained momentum in India, shredding reputations, drawing sympathy and/or indignation and evoking a whole range of emotions”.
“Politically and socially, a somewhat malicious hand seems to be stirring the pot continuously,” the piece goes on. “What if somebody suggested that all this unrest and a growing number of unsavoury exposes are being orchestrated from the other world?”
In court, Sandal maintained that while it was “one of her perspectives” on the #MeToo campaign, she only raised it to introduce the main subject of her article — ghosts.
Another witness in favour of Akbar, printer and publisher of The Sunday Guardian, Sunil Gujral, was present in court but was not able to depose due to lack of time. The next court hearing is scheduled for 17 July.