Dismissing the allegations of inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment, and molestation against him as “false and fabricated”, Union Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar Sunday said he would take “appropriate legal action” against his accusers.
Over the past week, as the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has spread like wildfire on Indian social media, more than 10 senior women journalists — many of them Akbar’s former colleagues — have come out with specific allegations against him.
Akbar, who returned to the country Sunday after an official tour lasting several days, said in a statement that the “allegations of misconduct made against me are false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice”, and asked: “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge.”
The minister said he had not responded to the accusations earlier because he was not in the country. “Whatever be the case, now that I have returned, my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action,” he said.
The accusations of sexual harassment against Akbar are from the time he was an editor. The reason “why no one went to the authorities for so long” regarding the allegations was “because I had done nothing”, Akbar said. “Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections”, he said, and claimed that the “false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill”.
The women have accused Akbar of inviting them to his hotel room, sometimes post work, and of improper conduct in office. Ghazala Wahab, Executive Editor of Force magazine, who had worked with Akbar at the Asian Age, has accused Akbar to molesting her, rubbing his body against hers, and kissing her without her consent several times.
The flood of allegations began with Priya Ramani, who said on Twitter on October 8 that an article she had written last year about an editor inviting her to his hotel room for a job interview and asking her to sit on the bed with him, was Akbar. Ramani, formerly of India Today, The Indian Express, and Mint, went on to join Akbar’s team at the Asian Age. Several other women journalists who had worked with Akbar followed with similar accounts, and some of them spoke to The Indian Express about their experiences.
Akbar countered many of these specific allegations in his statement Sunday. He said that Ramani “began this campaign a year ago with a magazine article” but had not named him earlier “as she knew it was an incorrect story”. He recalled that when Ramani was recently asked “why she had not named me”, she had tweeted: “Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything.”
So, if he hadn’t done anything, “where and what is the story?” Akbar asked. He said it was “admitted at the very inception” that “there is no story”. However, “a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened”, and some of these allegations were mere “unsubstantiated hearsay”. He added that others confirm “on the record” that he “didn’t do anything”.
Using accounts of the some of the women who had accused him of inappropriate conduct, Akbar quoted Shutapa Paul and Shuma Raha who had said that he didn’t touch them or “do anything”. Both women had narrated experiences similar to Ramani’s of being invited to his hotel room.
Wahab, who worked at the Asian Age from 1994 to 1997, had stated in a detailed piece for The Wire that on one instance in 1997, “while I was half-squatting over (a large) dictionary, he sneaked up behind me and held me by my waist… He ran his hands from my breast to my hips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist, his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts.” All this while, she wrote, “the wily smile never left his face”.
She wrote that every time Akbar called her into his cabin she “died a thousand times”, and would enter her room keeping the door slightly open and her hand on the knob. But Akbar would sometimes “walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips; and every time I would push him away and escape from his room”.
Responding to these allegations, Akbar said in his Sunday statement that her accusations were made repeatedly “in an effort to damage my reputation” and called them “false, motivated and baseless”. He said that Wahab claimed that she had been molested in office, 21 years ago, which is “16 years before I entered public life, and when I was in media”. At the time concerned, he said, he had a “very tiny cubicle, patched together by plywood and glass” and “others had tables and chairs two feet away”. “It is utterly bizarre,” Akbar said “to believe that anything could have happened in that tiny space, and, moreover, that no one else in the vicinity would come to know, in the midst of a working day”.
Wahab had written that Veenu Sandal, the Asian Age’s tarot card reader, had come to her table to tell Wahab that Akbar was “truly in love” with her. When The Indian Express had contacted Sandal for a comment for its report that appeared on October 11, Sandal had dismissed Wahab’s story as “nonsense”, wanted to know what “proof” she had, and insisted there had to be a “motive” for Wahab to bring up the incidents after so long.
Akbar mentioned Sandal’s reaction in his statement Sunday. He also underlined that both Ramani and Wahab had “kept working with me even after these alleged incidents; this clearly establishes that they had no apprehension and discomfort”. The reason they had remained silent for decades, he added, is “apparent” — that “I never did anything”.
Akbar did not address the allegations made by Suparna Sharma, Prerna Singh Bindra and Kanika Gahlaut, among others. Bindra had posted on Twitter, while Sharma and Gahlaut had said while talking to The Indian Express that they too had been asked by Akbar to come to his hotel rooms in separate instances.
Sharma had said that at least three women had confided in her about Akbar’s sexual misconduct. She said that: “He pursued almost all women in the same way — meetings in hotels, dangling plum assignments at them, sending them out of town, and then arranging to meet them in a hotel, or insisting that they take a car ride with him. He mostly preyed on young women who lived alone, loved their jobs and were bright and ambitious.”
“Lies”, Akbar said on Sunday, “do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy”, and said that “this is deeply distressing”.
Meanwhile, sources in the BJP said Sunday that despite some “uneasiness” and “embarrassment” felt by a section of its senior leaders over the charges of sexual harassment against Akbar, the party leadership had chosen to “play it safe” and not seek the minister’s resignation because such action on the basis merely of accusations made on social media without evidence and a criminal complaint would have made the government appear vulnerable and set a bad precedent.
“The main issue is that the government did not want to give in to pressure from those who made allegations, but cannot present evidence. If one minister steps down in these circumstances, there is no certainty that there will not be similar allegations against others. The government does not want to set a precedent,” a party leader told The Indian Express.
“Anyone can make such allegations against anyone, especially against those who are in public life. If we make ministers or leaders resign on the basis of such allegations, that too without allowing them legal course, there will be no end to this. None of those who levelled allegations (against Akbar) have taken the matter further,” he said.
BJP leaders had maintained that Akbar would get the chance to present his version after he returned to India from abroad Sunday. Party sources said he has given his side of the story both to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
Express Editorial | Mr Akbar must go
A senior minister underlined that the government had nothing to do with the allegations against Akbar, which pertained to the time before he became a BJP leader and minister. BJP sources, however, said several leaders of the party were concerned that the complete absence of regret or remorse in Akbar’s statement Sunday could fuel further protests and hurt the government’s image among women voters and “the opinion makers”.
“Ideally, he should have quit,” said a source in the government. “But if the women who have made the allegations could choose the legal path, the law will take its course.”
The Congress continued its attack on the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the continuance of Akbar in the Council of Ministers. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma said the “country has been waiting for days to hear from Prime Minister Modi” on the issue.
“It is for the Prime Minister to speak on this issue. Let the country judge the Prime Minister by his actions. So far, his silence has been conspicuous. A Prime Minister who swears by ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, a Prime Minister who talks of women’s dignity, a Prime Minister who had given a commitment to the country for the protection of our sisters and daughters… this Prime Minister has chosen to be silent,” Sharma said.