Lies have no legs,” M.J. Akbar had thundered soon after his return from an official trip to Africa. It had been a week of disgrace for the minister of state for external affairs, after a sizeable number of senior women journalists hurled a slew of charges at the once venerated editor. Overnight, Akbar’s reputation was reduced to mud, and howls of protest demanding his resignation filled media space. True to character, Akbar flatly refused to oblige. Instead, he turned the tables on his main accuser, Priya Ramani, and announced that he would be filing a defamation case against her. For that purpose, an army of 97 lawyers from his friend’s prestigious law firm were instantly made available to him. Please note: 97!
His obdurate stand and strong denials of any wrongdoing were seen as acts of hostility and defiance by a majority of citizens—even those who did not support India’s freshly minted #MeToo movement.
Well. He blinked first. And, resigned. After all the initial bluster and theatrics. Full disclosure at this point: My husband and I have been casual friends and genuine admirers of Akbar for 40 years. Frankly, in all these years, we have not seen him misbehave with any woman. Yes, he has been high-handed and arrogant, and he does not and will not suffer fools. He has spent evenings at our home, holding court and keeping other guests enthralled by his scholarship and sharp wit. Years ago, we were delighted when his daughter got married. And, I had briefly interacted with his talented son Prayag and his daughter-in-law at the Jaipur Lit Fest last year. I love Akbar’s wife Mallika—a soft spoken, compassionate and wonderful lady.
The very first film review penned by Akbar was published by me in Stardust, when I was the editor. He was then an eager reporter looking for a break in Mumbai, the city he had relocated to after finishing his education in Kolkata. Akbar had written a fine piece on Mere Apne, starring the legendary Meena Kumari. Needless to say, Akbar’s review was brilliant. But not many readers understood it! Years later, we both laughed at that particular journalistic foray of his.
Once he shifted to Delhi, our paths rarely crossed. But whenever they did, the encounters were consistently warm and chatty. Which is why this immense feeling of being let down by someone we believed in. Aggressive, yes. Imperious, yes. Hot-headed, yes. But a sexual predator? Today, as he claims innocence and threatens to sue his accusers, we are finding it difficult to reconcile the two, disparate images. Which one is the real M.J. Akbar? Do us all a favour and please stand up!
When I read the graphic accounts of sexual harassment shared by his accusers, I believed them. The hurt was real. For too many years, media followed the archaic ‘dog does not eat dog’ principle. Everybody either looked the other way or kept mum when blatant wrongdoings were taking place. Thank God that has changed. Priya Ramani threw the first curve ball, and since then, several women journalists have narrated their nasty experiences. As events unfold, we will be bombarded with more revelations and more denials. It is important to maintain perspective and let the law take its own course—be it with Akbar, Vinod Dua, Gautam Adhikari or anybody else. There is a huge distinction to be made, of course. As a former minister, Akbar represented India and Indian citizens, especially during his frequent travels abroad. Should we make absurd concessions for this one man and wait patiently for the trial to begin? Definitely not! By all means exonerate yourself, honourably if you can, Mr ex-minister. But till your name is cleared, the right thing to do is fight the battle fairly. Lies do have legs, Mr Akbar. As you must have discovered.