I AM not sure what is more disgraceful – MJ Akbar’s joining Narendra Modi and betraying all that he championed all his life or all these damning disclosures about his lifelong preying on young women working for him. For someone like me who grew up adoring and idolising him, both situations have been most disconcerting and shocking beyond words.
Given the self-serving nature of Indian politics and many temptations of power, the ideological betrayal by Akbar was perhaps understandable to some extent. Yet it was most distressing. After all, he was not just an ordinary journalist and editor. He had been a pioneer in many ways, creating history when he was still in his 20s with such world-class publications as Sunday magazine and The Telegraph daily, not to mention his training and mentoring of generations of journalists and editors.
Then there were his extraordinary writings and books; few Indians can write the Queen’s language as well as Akbar did – with loving care and great finesse. Truly sublime stuff smoothly flowing like a mountain spring and glowing with the power of his extraordinary intellect. It was an endless pleasure to read anything and everything he wrote. He still remains unparalleled in this respect creating a diction one couldn’t emulate even if one consciously tried.
But more than anything, it was Akbar as a passionate champion of an inclusive and progressive India, Nehru’s biographer and author of seminal books like Riot After Riot, India: The Siege Within, Nehru: The Making of India and The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity. Above all, he was a forceful and eloquent voice against bigotry and tyranny of hate.
We lost all that when he quietly bartered his soul to join Modi’s BJP after decades of writing against communalism and fascism.
Who can forget his blistering critique of Modi in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom: “Modi is an ideologue, with a difference. The difference is hysteria. It is an edgy hysteria, which can mesmerise; and it easily melts into the kind of megalomania that makes a politician believe that he is serving the larger good through a destructive frenzy against a perceived enemy. In Hitler’s case, the enemy was the Jew; in Modi’s case the enemy is the Muslim. Such a politician is not a fool; in fact, he may have a high degree of intellect. But it is intellect unleavened by reason, and un-tempered by humanism.”
His powerful voice, fired up by his moral conviction, humanism and a compelling concern for the wellbeing and future of the country, was at its biting best also during the dark and depressing years after the destruction of Babri Masjid in December 1992.
He was profound, incisive, witty and even funny at times with his dry sense of humour, as he went week after week after Narasimha Rao, the cold, calculating Brahman from the South who accidentally became India’s Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, and the soft Hindutva of ruling Congress.
Reading Akbar in those gloomy years may not have helped solve any problems facing the nation but it helped you keep your sanity and belief in the redeeming idea of India.
He was viewed as the best example of a secular and liberal intellectual. One of those rare public intellectuals whose religious identity did not seem to matter. Which was something considering the insidiously sectarian nature of Indian society.
As Aakar Patel, one of the many journalists trained and groomed by Akbar, puts it: “He was not defined by his faith but by his intellect and his outlook and his reading and writing. He redefined to many of us what Indian identity meant. He broadened it and he made it more liberal, more flexible and more attractive. It felt good to be Indian in this way. One did not have to hate Pakistan or China or other Indians to be able to take pride in one’s identity.”
More important, he was seen as a man of principles and as a role model to generations of journalists in India and beyond.
Many like yours truly joined the profession inspired by Akbar’s brilliant writings and his magnificent career as a journalist and editor of “unputdownable newspapers”. I still remember the breathless, embarrassingly juvenile fan mail I dashed him in my provincial English to him when he was still editing the Telegraph and I was in 8th grade, vowing to work with him one day. That dream remains unrealised although I manage to join journalism and still live by my pen for what it is worth.
No wonder these past few days have been most agonising and disturbing as more and more women came forward to describe in scandalous detail the horrific abuse and trauma they suffered at his hands for years in their formative years.
Whoever knew there had been this dark side to our charismatic prophet of hope? Many of the victims are big names in the media today; many groomed and anointed by Akbar as top editors in numerous centres of the Asian Age and other publications.
Given the predominance of women in The Asian Age newsroom, where I had a brief stint, and elsewhere, one had an inkling of Akbar’s eye for young pretty things. It was perhaps understandable given the fact his first editor and mentor had been the inimitable Khushwant Singh, who took immense pride in Akbar’s meteoric rise and accomplishments as an editor and writer.
But I doubt if even the late Sardar who revelled in his reputation as the ‘dirty old man of Indian journalism’ and had had his share of affairs and female company would have stooped to the level our hero fell, forcing himself, often literally, on young, vulnerable women working with him. For all his cultivated image of a “ladies’ man” and a sexual pest, Khushwant greatly respected women around him. Which was perhaps why he was always surrounded by women who doted on him. More important, he held on to his core beliefs and ideals till the very end.
In the end, what Akbar has unleashed on himself is both profoundly tragic and sobering. In great Greek tragedies, great heroes are usually brought down by a fatal flaw in their character, often their hubris. The higher the status the greater the fall! In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it was the perpetual self-doubt of the Prince of Denmark that undid him.
Akbar sowed the seeds of his fall with his betrayal of values and ideals he represented and championed all his life. First, like the great Faust – or Dr Faustus in English – our hero made a pact with the devil to sell his soul for a price.
If embracing Modi was the ultimate ideological betrayal, what Akbar visited on his numerous victims over the years is the moral betrayal that one would not expect from someone who always spoke like a biblical prophet – with great moral force and uplifting courage of conviction. Again, I am at a loss to decide which is worse.
What is even more bizarre has been his refusal to leave in the face of the raging #MeToo storm and his ridiculous defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani. It’s as if he would like to perpetuate his misery, adding further insult to injury!
The only thing certain about Akbar’s fall from grace is that no tears would be shed for him despite his immense contribution to journalism and public discourse. Not even by the Parivar that he chose to join in the autumn of his life turning his back on his beliefs and convictions!
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor. Email: . Twitter: @AijazZaka