Free Press Journal

Interns literally worshipped MJ Akbar as intellectual giant


The dark underbelly of Indian journalism has finally been exposed. What was already known by nearly everyone in the profession and was discussed in hushed tones in media circles is now wide open. In a country like India where patriarchy rules, predatory males are in every nook and corner. Whether urban and sophisticated or crude and illiterate. There is no urban rural divide in this. Centuries of male dominance produces this kind of power play in a society where cultural change takes decades to filter through and make a difference.

As always, the movement has swept India only after its impact shook Hollywood and led to Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful producers in the US to step down. Other names including  actors talk show hosts and lawmakers have been forced to resign. MeToo hit India, a full year after Harvey Weinstein was called out last October.

The last few days have been full of women recounting their experiences. The name that is getting maximum focus is BJP’s junior minister, MJ Akbar. Gautam Adhikari, the former Times of India and DNA editor, now living in the US is also been talked about. There are many more, of course. The vernacular press is full of predators. But so far not a finger has been pointed at them. Why are Hindi journalists not speaking out? This is a question many in the fraternity are asking. These powerful bosses sitting in TV studios and bringing out major vernacular newspapers have not been named and shamed.

I worked with both MJ and Gautam. MJ was my first boss and Gautam was the editor both in TOI and DNA. Neither ever crossed the line or behaved inappropriately at any time during my long association with them. The Telegraph was my first job, and as I was posted in Guwahati in Assam, my interaction with the editor was minimal. Except that, like every other journalist, I was in awe of the his amazing talent, his wonderful writing skills. Also there were stories from head office of his terrible temper and how journalists, including senior colleagues both men and women, could be shouted at and humiliated when the editor was in a temper. These were mostly about shoddy work. Also there was office gossip about the editors favourites, mostly young people working at the desk. MJ was perhaps the one Indian editor who gave paramount importance to the desk. The best and brightest were hand picked by him for a desk job.

It was only much later that I worked closely with him when he launched Asian Age in Delhi. We (Sajeda Momin and Shekhar Bhatia, who worked with him in The Telegraph, and me) were the old hands, in a paper crammed with youngsters. MJ had calmed down considerably by now. He would not fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. His focus again was mainly the desk. And this was filled with freshers. I was the only senior reporter and was mostly out of the office as I had to cover several beats. But when you work at a place, colleagues fill you up with whatever is happening.

Yes there were stories about MJ’s favourites. Young women he promoted. Though I must admit, nearly all of them had potential. This group of youngsters were the editor’s favourites.

Asian Age was fun. There was plenty to do when a paper is launched. But work was interspersed by parties, held at homes of colleagues. Loud Hindi music and non-stop dancing by MJ and his favourites continued late into the night. We oldies did not stay till the end, possibly when the action started. But yes, there were stories about MJ’s favourites.

But in those early years in Asian Age, what ever happened between MJ and the girls appeared consensual. Knowing his reputation, Sajeda and me tried to warn a particularly vulnerable wide eyed kid to beware of him. We were told to mind our own business and given a mouthful for daring to pry into her private life. We stopped feeling sorry for her, knowing she knew the score and exactly why she was doing this. She got her reward, which was a London posting some time.

But very often it may not have been about going up the professional ladder for many of the these fresh faced girls. He was the most powerful editor in the country, someone who had written books, was well read, lectured them on history. They learnt their writing, their politics, foreign affairs and how the bureaucracy works for him. He told them what books to read. In their eyes, he was an intellectual giant. To top it all, this man was paying them the kind of attention they could never dream of. Little wonder that they literally worshipped him and were on a high. I left Asian Age soon after and returned to TOI.

While I was critical of the culture MJ encouraged in the paper, I somehow believed that an arrogant man like him would not pursue someone who rebuffed him. This was until I read what Gazala Wahab had to say. I know Gazala. She joined the organisation when I was still there. Gazala was very different from the rest of MJ’s coterie. She was quiet. She was serious and was not part of the loud talking gang of girls common in the paper. I never realised that MJ had his eyes on her. That came later after I left. She was from a small town and mostly kept her own counsel. What happened to her was horrific. I know the kind of courage it must have taken for her to come out and speak of her experience. She is not the type who will make up a single word. I felt shattered reading of her trial. I was seething. Imagine going through her experience. No editor ever again should be in a position to do what MJ did to her.

Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.

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