Why has M.J.Akbar sued only one but not the many other women journalists who accuse him of sexual harassment?
Column in Business Standard, October 20, 2018
“Memory,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the diary we all carry about with us.” In the many painful accounts that women have exhumed from their working lives at the hands of men, the roiling of long-buried humiliations are now known as a “trigger”. News portals at the frontline of the #MeToo campaign carry warnings that the disturbing content may “trigger” other memories. In a radical redefinition of sexual harassment our daily lexicon, too, has radically changed. A male aggressor is no longer a “groper”, “lecher”, “pouncer” or “old roue” but a “predator”. Victims are “survivors”.
With the resignation of former editor and BJP minister M J Akbar, Phase One of #MeToo has ended in decisive victory for the growing lineup of women journalists who called him out. Whether he voluntarily stepped down or was asked to is immaterial; as the first political casualty and most high-profile of public figures outed, his resignation is a major step forward for the movement.
But he is by no means contrite or apologetic. Phase Two of #MeToo has moved quickly from the newsroom to the courtroom following Mr Akbar’s criminal complaint against Priya Ramani, whose tweet opened the floodgates. Having churned the world of academics, entertainment and the media, it is now causing ripples in the legal fraternity — not only as a test case but because of its unusual inversion.
In a curious role reversal, Mr Akbar, the accused, is now the complainant, and the accuser, Ms Ramani, is the new accused. Mr Akbar’s defamation employs a long string of adverbs (“wilfully, deliberately, intentionally, maliciously”, etc.) to denounce her — and how socially damaging and hurtful to his personal image and career built with toil. Ms Ramani will be in the dock to defend herself.
Comparisons are odious but, were a parallel to be drawn, it would be the long-drawn out, and ultimately tragic, case of Oscar Wilde vs the Marquess of Queensbury, a watershed mark in legal and literary history.
It all began a bit like Ms Ramani’s terse tweet of October 8. On February 18, 1895, Queensbury (whose son was Wilde’s lover) left his calling card at Wilde’s London club. It simply read, “Oscar Wilde is a sodomite.” Wilde sued for defamation; in the sensational battle that ensued, Queensbury’s lawyers produced a series of men, some quite young, with whom Wilde had had homosexual liaisons. Homosexuality then being a crime, they succeeded in portraying him as a depraved old man luring young men into acts “of gross indecency”. Public opinion swerved so sharply that Wilde, the most celebrated and admired writer of his time, pleadingly had to remind the court that “I am the prosecutor”.
To the question why Mr Akbar’s action is only against Ms Ramani, whose allegation is mild compared to the far more damning testimonies of the others (and they number as many as 20), the answer is that if he sued all, he would be subjected to cross-examination 20 times, with fresh arguments and evidence. Ms Ramani of course can summon all the others in her “defence of the truth”.
Perhaps the most harrowing account is by Ghazala Wahab of her days at The Asian Age, an ugly cat-and-mouse game of molesting and emotional blackmail inside the editor’s cabin. Mr Akbar’s defence is that it was a “tiny cubicle patched together by plywood and glass”. No, says Ms Wahab, by 1997 he had moved into a large, book-lined virtually soundproof chamber when her troubles began.
Among Oscar Wilde’s most-quoted epigrams is “I can resist everything except temptation”. Mr Akbar’s victims, like Wilde’s, were often young and vulnerable and from small towns. Like the literary leviathan’s, his undeniable brilliance, power and professional reputation were magnetic.
When the shades fell from their eyes, some of the women left or gave him a wide berth. Despite his notoriety, older women colleagues were either unsuspecting or helpless. “I never realized MJ had his eyes on her [Ghazala]…What happened to her was horrific…She is not the type to make up a single word…I somehow believed that an arrogant man like him would not pursue someone who rebuffed him,” says senior journalist Seema Guha, who also worked at the paper. Many like her will rise to take a stand on whose truth prevails.
No one is betting on how long, or how far, the legal fight will go. But if an injunction last year by Baba Ramdev to ban his biography by journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain is any indication, it could move swiftly. The case has already reached the Supreme Court.
Given the huge stirring of public interest in M J Akbar vs Priya Ramani and support for #MeToo, it should be speedy. “Mr Akbar has underestimated the level of pent-up anger and commitment among these women. It is not a sudden meltdown,” says a young lawyer.
Wilde, whose birthday it was some days ago, died broken and penniless at the age of 46. He had the last word, though. “The truth,” he said, “is rarely pure and never simple.”