M J Akbar: The Fall and Fall of the Rising Star of Indian Journalism


MJ Akbar

The man who by 25 became the youngest editor of the most popular weekly of the country, ‘Sunday’ is struggling to keep his reputation alive. Perhaps he is yet to realise from where the demotion has started.

Soroor Ahmed

WHEN I was asked by this weekly to write something on noted editor and author, M J Akbar, as he was recently in the news not for a very good reason, I was thrown back to April 12, 1987, the day I met him for the first and only time in life at a private party in New Delhi. As what he then said is very significant in analysing his own personality I deem it fit to quote it.

Those were the hey-days of Akbar, then the founding editor of The Telegraph and Sunday magazine.  He was then very close to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and would regularly fly from Kolkata to Delhi. I was then still in mid-20s and had just started my journalistic career in Rajendra Sareen’s POT News, a New Delhi based agency specialising on Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It was on April 12, 1987 that one of my colleagues, Shaheen Nazar, who was much more social than me, took me to a small dinner-party hosted by Urdu journalist, Shahid Siddiqui, in East Nizamuddin. The latter was Professor of Political Science in Zakir Husain College and use to edit Urdu weekly, Nai Dunya.

In that dinner, the chief guest was obviously M J Akbar. Besides, there were hardly half a dozen Muslim journalists and public opinion-makers. During the ‘gup-shap’ (free-wheeling discussion) a young journalist suddenly asked: “Akbar Sahab, there is a news in the air that you are keen to join politics.”

If I still remember Akbar’s reply correctly it was: “I do not want to be demoted.” His message was loud and clear: as the editor of a premier newspaper and a leading magazine of the country, and direct access to the Prime Minister he was much superior to any MP or even minister.

Those were the early days of the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement and Rajiv Gandhi was still the darling of many Muslim leaders after the enactment of Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in May 1986. This was the outcome of a long movement by Muslims on the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case. Diplomat-turned-politician, Syed Shahabuddin, was among the champions of the Muslim cause. He and Akbar would often debate in newspapers and magazines—as there was no option for TV then–on issues like Shah Bano case and Babri Masjid. Usually, they would hold different views.

The day mentioned above (12 April, 1987) also coincided with another significant development—that is the resignation of the then defence minister V P Singh from the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet on what later came to be known as Bofors kickback case. This was the first resignation after the quitting of Arif Mohammad Khan, the present governor of Kerala, after Rajiv Gandhi decided to support Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill.

Till V P Singh’s resignation nobody ever predicted that Rajiv Gandhi, who won more than 400 seats in December 1984 election would be voted out of power by the end of 1989.

Anyway, Akbar’s proximity to Rajiv grew so strong that he got a ticket to contest election from Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat in 1989. As a Congress candidate he defeated Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi as the Independent candidate pushing Syed Shahabuddin of the Janata Dal to the third place.  Though Akbar won the election the Congress lost and the Janata Dal government under V P Singh came to power.

Akbar continued to contribute his column to The Telegraph though he would remain busy in the campaign.  Those were the days of writing with hand or type-writer. In most of his writings he was obviously very critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party.  As he was campaigning in his constituency, Bhagalpur in Bihar, not too far away from Kishanganj, was burning.

In fact, Akbar shot into fame after April 1979 reporting of Jamshedpur riots in ‘Sunday’ magazine of Anand Bazar Patrika group. At the age of 25 Akbar was the founding editor of Sunday in 1976. That was at the peak of Emergency and the magazine took a stand against the Indira Gandhi government. The same publication launched ‘The Telegraph’ in 1982.

Akbar’s ‘Sunday’ and later ‘The Telegraph’ earned good reputation for reporting the infamous Moradabad Eid day communal riots in 1980, to be followed by several others in Uttar Pradesh in mid-1980s–including the one in Meerut where many Muslim youths were massacred by Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). The pogrom carried out against Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also prominently reported.

Akbar wrote ‘India: The Siege Within’ in 1985 and ‘Riot After Riot’ in 1988.

Anyway, Akbar preferred ‘demotion’ and became a politician. However, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, at the height of the parliamentary election campaign then, Akbar started gradually distancing himself from the Congress. In fact, he lost the 1991 election. The irony this time was that Syed Shahabuddin as the Janata Dal candidate defeated the BJP nominee V Kejriwal, pushing M J Akbar to the third place.

In February 1994, he launched the Asian Age and was back as a full-fledged journalist. In between came the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The BJP’s graph has been on the upswing since 1989.

With Sonia Gandhi not in politics and Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister of the country, Akbar, it seems, lost interest in Congress. He came up with another book The Shade of Sword in 1994.

But it was in mid-1990s that Akbar started developing soft corner for the same BJP, the party which he always used to criticise. The readers of his columns as well as his newspaper started getting this idea by the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha polls.

How and why this had happened, only he can explain.

May be, he had some valid personal reason to do so.  By the turn of the century Akbar was a different man. He was no more anti-establishment crusader.  As I had worked between February 1, 2000 and September 30, 2002 as the Special Correspondent of The Asian Age in Bihar, I have personal experience of how changed a person Akbar had become. That was the high time of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government yet he had lost much of the cutting-edge quality. Though I had worked for 32 months in The Asian Age, I had never met him in that period as my appointment was made on telephone. We rarely talked over telephone on any story. Though I got a very good coverage in that newspaper, on September 30, 2002 I suddenly got a message that my contract has been terminated. No reason was cited for the same. Later I learnt from someone who had worked in that paper that Akbar didn’t like one of my stories—perhaps on the rail accident involving Rajdhani Express. Officially I am yet to know the reason for my dismissal.

His tilt towards the saffron party continued even after it was voted out of power in 2004.

Akbar continued to be the editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle till March 2008 till he was removed. He subsequently became the Rajya Sabha MP of the BJP, though it is also true that all through these years he kept writing and presented programmes on television channels.

After the 2009 rout of the BJP at the national level the hold of the party’s patriarch, L K Advani, further got weakened. The fact is that Advani started losing his grip over the party after his June 2005 statement praising the founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah while on a visit to that country.

After the advent of Narendra Modi in 2013, when almost all the old guards were sidelined it was thought that Akbar would dissociate himself from the party. How can a man who had written a book on the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru: The Making of India, 1988), and who had always been so critical of the communal politics associate himself with the man who is so critical of the first Prime Minister. Not only that on July 5, 2016 he became one of the ministers of state for external affairs.

The big question is:  Does this post behove the stature of Akbar. A journalist friend of mine once joked: “Seniority-wise Akbar Sahab is even junior to Giriraj Singh, who became minister of state many months before him.” On October 17, 2018 Akbar had to resign following a barrage of allegations levelled by many of his former colleagues.

Whether Akbar remembers what he had said on April 12, 1987 or not the truth is that very often even a highly talented person fails to judge his or her own potential. But then the fact is that Akbar is not the first person to prefer power over scholarship.  

The man who 50 years ago in 1971 at the age of only 20 became a trainee journalist in The Times of India, Mumbai, and by 25 became the youngest editor of the most popular weekly of the country, ‘Sunday’ is struggling to keep his reputation alive. Perhaps he is yet to realise from where the demotion has started.

When you laugh everybody laugh, when you cry you cry alone.


The article first appeared in Radiance Viewsweekly.

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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