Priya Ramani Case: Judge Allows Qs to MJ Akbar on All Allegations
Journalist Priya Ramani with her counsel and supporters at Delhi court after the hearing of MJ Akbar’s defamation case.
Journalist Priya Ramani with her counsel and supporters at Delhi court after the hearing of MJ Akbar’s defamation case.(Photo: The Quint)

Priya Ramani Case: Judge Allows Qs to MJ Akbar on All Allegations

Former Union Minister MJ Akbar on Monday, 20 May, denied even meeting journalist Priya Ramani at the Oberoi Hotel for a job interview in 1993 during his cross-examination in a defamation case against Ramani at a Delhi Court.

However, in a significant development, the judge overruled objections by Akbar’s lawyers to allow questions to be put to him about the allegations of sexual harassment raised by other women against him. This will be important in establishing whether or not Ramani actually defamed his reputation, and could impact his credibility as a witness.

The matter has been adjourned to 6 July, when the cross-examination will be resumed at 10 am, and is to be concluded on the day. After that, the court will move on to other witnesses and evidence, and issues of law.

The defamation case against Ramani relates to an article in Vogue in 2017 in which she alleged that a famous mediaperson (unnamed in the article at the time) had behaved inappropriately at her job interview conducted at the hotel, as well as the tweet in October 2018 which clarified that she was referring to Akbar.

Key Takeaways From the Hearing

MJ Akbar denies even meeting Priya Ramani at the Oberoi Hotel as per her claims.

Ramani’s lawyer Rebecca John allowed by the judge to raise questions about allegations of sexual harassment by other women against Akbar, bringing in evidence that could affect Akbar’s credibility and his claims of reputation being damaged by Ramani (some of the other allegations were made online before she identified him).

Objections raised by MJ Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra to the lines of questioning was overruled by the judge, or kept for consideration of relevance at a later stage – Judge Samar Vishal refused to let them restrict the questioning.

MJ Akbar admits to corresponding by email with the father of Majlie de puy Kamp, an American journalist who’d interned under him, and that there was a misunderstanding which was, according to him, amicably settled – though he denies the allegations.

MJ Akbar Denies Allegations

During the cross-examination, characterised by continuous disruptions from Akbar’s lawyers, Ramani’s counsel, senior advocate Rebecca John, read out the testimony recorded during the last hearing on 4 May.

In it, she asked Akbar a number of questions pertaining to him calling Ramani to his Oberoi Hotel room for a job interview in 1993, which is referred to in Ramani’s article.

However, after insisting he had no memory of what happened during the last hearing on 4 May, on Monday Akbar denied ever calling her to the room, and as a result denied everything Ramani alleges happened at the time.

Akbar proceeded to respond to most of the questions put to him with outright denials, hinging on his contention that there was no meeting in the hotel room at all.

As a result, Ramani’s lawyer was forced to put all those questions to him as suggestions, and he answered accordingly. Here are some examples of the resulting courtroom exchange:

  • “Since there was no meeting, it is wrong to suggest that I did not ask Priya Ramani about her writing skills, knowledge of current affairs or her ability to enter the world of journalism.”
  • "It is wrong to suggest that Priya Ramani came to my room and I answered the door," he said, as per Bar and Bench.
  • “It is further incorrect to suggest that the bed in the room was turned down for the night. It is further wrong to suggest that there was a table and two chairs in the hotel.”
  • “It is further wrong to suggest that Ramani and I were seated at the table. It is further wrong to suggest that the conversation between us was more personal than professional.”
  • Akbar also denied singing old Hindi songs after Ramani said that she liked songs. “It is wrong to suggest that I sat on a small two-seater sofa. It is wrong to suggest that I asked Ramani to join me which she refused,” MJ Akbar said.
  • “It is further wrong that I asked her about her family and why she went abroad to study. It is further incorrect to suggest that I asked her if she was married. It is wrong to suggest that she told me that this job was important to her as it was her first job.”
  • “It is further wrong to suggest that she told you that it was her dream to be a journalist. It is further incorrect to suggest that she did not want to be trapped in an arranged marriage.”
  • “It is further wrong to suggest that when Priya Ramani was leaving I told her that my office will get in touch with her in a few days.”
  • “Since there was no meeting, it is wrong to suggest that I did not ask Priya Ramani about her writing skills, knowledge of current affairs or her ability to enter the world of journalism.”
  • “Further, since I did not meet her on that day, I do not know if she felt unnerved by my behaviour.”
  • On being asked if he knew whether Ramani was offered a job, Akbar said, “I am not sure if Priya Ramani was offered a job in New Delhi office of The Asian Age in 1994. It was 25 years ago.”
  • On being asked if he knew Ramani had been a journalist for the last 20 years, Akbar said, “I am not aware of Priya Ramani's career details.”

Here are some other notable moments from the cross-examination:

  • Akbar admitted to knowing about the allegations of sexual harassment made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017.
  • Akbar's counsel objected the moment Rebecca John tried to put the allegedly defamatory article to MJ Akbar titled 'To the Harvey Weinsteins of India.'
  • John was exasperated and pointed out that the article was included as an exhibit by MJ Akbar in his own criminal complaint.
  • Some debate over whether or not contents of the document can be gone into as per sections 91 & 92 of the Evidence Act.
  • The judge said he would note all objections but only rule on relevance of the questions afterwards, as per Supreme Court precedent.
  • Rebecca John asked some basic questions to clarify the allegedly defamatory article and tweet, including the URL (which is in MJ Akbar’s complaint).

Disruptions from Akbar’s Counsels

Akbar's lawyers, primarily senior advocate Geeta Luthra, continuously raised objections during the proceedings, and were accused of trying to answer questions directed to him by Rebecca John. The heated courtroom drama was a continuation of what had happened at the previous hearing, and led to a lot of acrimony among the two sides.

An example of this was when Rebecca John was trying to show that only one part of the article in Vogue refers to the former editor, putting this as a question to him, but Luthra argued that this couldn’t be done as per sections 91 and 92 of the Indian Evidence Act.

The judge had to step in to allow the questioning to continue, and eventually Akbar responded, saying that it was incorrect to say that only part of the article refers to him. He said Ramani's tweet clarified the whole article is about him, and even tried to argue that her comment in her tweet about Akbar not doing anything wasn’t sarcasm, but an actual admission that nothing had happened.

These were Ramani’s tweets about the Vogue article in 2018:

The courtroom continued to be fractious, and a couple of Akbar's lawyers, who were standing right next to him (which is normally not allowed), got into arguments with others around them, requiring the judge had to admonish one of them.

Rebecca tried to ask questions about the other articles on Weinstein, but Luthra raised multiple objections even to that.

"I don't think any other lawyer has ever had to deal with so many interruptions," Rebecca John exclaimed exasperatedly. Finally she got to put the articles, including those by Ronan Farrow and Jodie Cantor, to Akbar.

The Vogue Article Dissected

While Rebecca John tried to show that the rest of Ramani's Vogue article referred to those articles and what they had to say about Weinstein and other male bosses, Akbar replied that the first line uses the phrase "male boss", in the singular, not plural, so ‘it's clear’ that the article is all about him.

However, John responded by saying that she put it to him that it was a generic term and the title of the article makes it clear it is about male bosses in the plural. She also referred to the tweet (included above) Ramani shared along with the Vogue article, in which she said Akbar 'didn’t “do” anything’, and explained that this was said with sarcasm.

To this, Akbar said he has mentioned in his complaint that this counted as an admission. Rebecca put it to him that this phrase was only meant to indicate nothing physically happened in that hotel room.

Akbar again denied meeting Ramani in his hotel room, and argued again that this admission makes the defamation even more serious.

Allegations by Other Women

Rebecca John referred to the tweets by other women making allegations against Akbar of similar misconduct, to which he said that though he is aware of these allegations and tweets against him, he has only replied to Ramani's tweet.

She referred to Ghazala Wahab and Sonali Khullar Shroff's tweets, and Akbar denied the allegations in them. Luthra objected again, saying that this is a defamation case by MJ Akbar against Ramani and such questions cannot be asked. "They can only come within the four corners of defence of criminal defamation,” she said.

John said cross-examination need not be confined to questions asked in Chief Examination, and referred to section 146 of the Evidence Act to point out that she could ask any questions in cross-examination that could shake his credibility as a witness.

Akbar further denied reading tweets about other women making allegations of sexual harassment against him. He said he had only “now been made aware” of the tweet by Sonali Khullar Shroff.

John further asked if he read one of the articles attached as an exhibit to his complain, pointing to a tweet by Harinder Baweja of Hindustan Times, to which Akbar replied that he is aware that she is a journalist with the newspaper.

Ramani's counsel showed Akbar other tweets by Raha, to which he replied that he has "one, not the others". The tweets refer to an incident which is supposed to have happened in 1995, when Akbar was at The Telegraph.

Akbar also said that he "could not remember" that Shuma Raha was the associate editor of The Telegraph at the time.

John also mentioned allegations made by Shutapa Paul in a tweet. She asked if Akbar has read the other tweets in the 33-tweet thread it is part of, he said no.

Akbar confirmed that Paul worked with him at India Today at the time that she claimed.

John also put tweets by sports journalist Kadambari to Akbar, in which she referred to his behaviour. Akbar denied seeing them previously.

Ramani's counsel asked Akbar about the article written by Ghazala Wahab in The Wire, where she wrote about the sexual assault by him. He confirmed that he has read the article, however, said he refuted the allegations when he was on his way to India from Africa.

However, he said that he was not aware about Wahab's subsequent article, where she rubbished his denial.

A Significant Admission?

Akbar also confirmed that Majlie de Puy Kamp – an American journalist who has alleged Akbar sexually harassed her while she was interning under him – had in fact been an intern at the Asian Age in 2006-07 and that he corresponded with her father, via email, after she levelled sexual harassment allegations against him.

This was a significant moment in the hearing as Akbar admitted to an amicable settlement after some sort of misunderstanding, even though he denied there had been any sexual harassment – this was the first time he’d even admitted any possibility of an incident.

However, after prompting by Akbar's lawyers (duly protested by John), he clarified that he didn’t accept that the email John tried to submit in evidence was sent by him. Nonetheless, he eventually stated that “there was some misunderstanding but that it was resolved amicably.”

‘Here For Women’s Right to Dignity’

Priya Ramani's friend and journalist Namita Bhandare told The Quint that she was here not just as the former's friend, but also as a citizen of India who believes in the rights of women to justice and dignity.

Maya Mirchandani told The Quint that when powerful men file defamation cases against less powerful women, it sends a message that women can be scared away.

Speaking to The Quint, activist Harsh Mander commented on the court proceedings, saying:

Akbar During Last Cross-Examination: ‘I Don’t Remember’

During the last court hearing on 4 May, amid a heated courtroom drama, former editor of Asian Age recorded his statement in the case.

Appearing before ACMM Samar Vishal on 4 May, Akbar was cross-examined by Ramani's counsel on the details of Ramani joining the newspaper, as reported by PTI.

The counsel asked various other questions from the journalist-turned-politician, to which he maintained his reply, “I do not remember”.

He also maintained that the allegations made by Ramani were "defamatory" and "malafide".

The cross-examination was deferred to was listed for 20 May after Akbar's counsel continuously disrupted the proceedings and objected to many questions of Ramani's counsel.

Also Read : #MeToo: MJ Akbar Denies Allegations, Says ‘Don’t Remember’ Events

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