UNION Minister M J Akbar, accused by several women of sexual harassment and assault, tried to dig his heels in — but the #MeToo campaign moved the ground beneath his feet, forcing him to step down Wednesday. Over the past week, several women accused Akbar of inviting them to his hotel room, touching them inappropriately, kissing them forcibly or molesting them when he was their Editor. Akbar, MoS, External Affairs, is the first Minister who has had to resign in this government after a media firestorm, the most high-profile of the men who have been called out, primarily in media, film and entertainment, in the growing #MeToo campaign. Rashtrapati Bhavan issued a statement Wednesday night that Akbar’s resignation had been accepted by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister.Calling the allegations “fabricated,” Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case Monday against journalist Priya Ramani who was the first to mention him by name. That case comes up in the Patiala House Court tomorrow and he referred to it in a statement on Wednesday.
“Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity,” Akbar said, “I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity”. He added he has, therefore tendered his resignation from his ministerial role. He said he was “deeply grateful” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior Minister Sushma Swaraj for “the opportunity they gave me to serve the country.”
On Wednesday, 20 women journalists who had worked with him at The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle — where he was Editor — had asked the court to “consider testimonies of sexual harassment of some of us at the hands of” Akbar and of others “who bore witness to this harassment.”
When asked what had changed since Sunday, Akbar declined to comment saying his statement was self-explanatory. Asked about his resignation, BJP leader Meenakshi Lekhi said: “(Akbar) has resigned and he has to contest his matters as an individual. The impression that people were gathering…(was) that the party has something to do with this (matter of harassment). The party has nothing to do with this. It speaks more about journalism and print media journalism than anything else. When you are in public life and there are a spate of allegations and accusations about you, then obviously the political parties will not take a call on those things. And you become a liability for the party. In these circumstances, he has recused himself, which is a positive development.”
On October 8, Ramani had tweeted an article she wrote a year ago, saying she had begun the piece with her “MJ Akbar story” but hadn’t named him earlier because he didn’t “do” anything. But “lots of women have worse stories about this predator — maybe they’ll share”. In that piece, Ramani had written that Akbar had called her to his hotel room when she was 23 and he was 43 for a job interview which was “more date, less interview.” Akbar, she wrote, asked her to sit on his bed, “gesturing to a tiny space near you,” which she declined to do.
After Ramani, many women shared their “experiences” of being called to Akbar’s hotel rooms, sometimes after working hours. On October 10, Ghazala Wahab, executive editor of Force magazine, who worked with Akbar at The Asian Age wrote a detailed account in The Wire accusing Akbar of molesting her, rubbing his body against hers, and kissing her without her consent several times. Former journalist Tushita Patel wrote on Tuesday in Scroll that once, after Akbar invited her to his hotel room in 1992, he opened the door dressed “only” in his “underwear”. She also accused Akbar of kissing her without her consent at least twice.
Suparna Sharma, while talking to The Indian Express earlier had said that, at least three women confided in her about Akbar’s sexual misconduct. “He pursued almost all women in the same way,” Sharma had said, “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”. She accused him of “mostly preying on young women who lived alone, loved their jobs and were bright and ambitious”.
Even as the tide of allegations against Akbar swelled, the former editor dug in his heels and issued a strong denial on Sunday returning to the country after a week-long official tour.
Dismissing the allegations as “false and fabricated,” Akbar said he would take “appropriate legal action” against his accusers and suggested a political conspiracy timed with the elections. “Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy”, he said.
All this while, the ruling BJP avoided taking a stand on the snowballing issue leaving Akbar to fend for himself. Neither the party nor the government-backed Akbar publicly even as the Congress kept demanding Akbar’s resignation.
A senior minister spoke to The Indian Express last week, underlining that the government had nothing to do with the allegations against him as they pertained to the period before he had joined the party or had become a minister.
But, clearly, there was a growing sense of unease and concern within.
Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani joined voices against sexual harassment on October 11 saying that women were taking a “big risk” by speaking out in the #MeToo movement and so should not be judged. She declined to comment specifically on Akbar saying the “gentleman himself” should respond. But she minced few words when she said that women do not go to work “to be pawed, you do not come to work to be flirted with, you do not come to work to adjust”. Women, she said, go to work to make a living and “live a dream”. (with ENS)