Joining the growing chorus against sexual harassment triggered by the #MeToo campaign, Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani said Thursday that women are taking a “big risk” by speaking out and should not be judged. However, on the allegations levelled against Union Minister of State M J Akbar, Irani said it is for the “gentleman himself” to respond.
“Do not judge those who are speaking out right now. They are mothers, daughters and wives. They are taking a big risk and it must be very difficult for them to speak out,” Irani said at a FICCI event in Mumbai. Asked about the allegations against Akbar, she said, “It is for the gentleman in question to issue a statement. It would not be proper for me to comment because I wasn’t present.”
Akbar is the first politician among several prominent individuals, including celebrity marketing consultant Suhel Seth, who stand accused of sexual harassment by women who are part of the #MeToo movement that is sweeping Indian media, films and entertainment. Akbar, who was in Nigeria with a trade delegation and will be travelling to Equatorial Guinea, has been accused by at least seven women of sexual harassment and assault.
“You do not come to work to be pawed, you do not come to work to be flirted with, you do not come to work to adjust. You come to work to make a living and to live a dream. I never faced these challenges because I was very vocal,” Irani said.
Irani also said that early in her political career, her abilities were questioned by senior male colleagues but she was also protected by the higher-ups. “The idea is to stand up, look a bully in the eye and to make him stand down. I will not be coy and sniffle just because I want a job,” she said.
Later, RSS General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, the number two in the organisation, shared a Facebook post by Ankhi Das, Facebook’s Public Policy Director in India. Das’s post said: “You needn’t have a #MeToo moment to support the women journalists who have narrated their victimisation. You needn’t even be a woman. You just need to have a sensibility of what is right and what is wrong.” To this, Hosabale commented: “I liked it. She has articulated what I was feeling.”
Express Editorial | Mr Akbar must go
Sources in the government said that Akbar is expected to return by Sunday and he will be given a chance to defend himself and present his side of the story. “As of now, it depends on what stand he takes after the allegations and the pressure on the government over his resignation. Both the party and the government are watching it closely,” said a union minister who did not wish to be named.
Speaking to The Indian Express, BJP MP and Rajya Sabha Ethics Committee Chairman, Narayan Lal Panchariya, said the committee could not take any “suo motu action or probe the allegations” against Akbar, a Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh. “The Ethics Committee can look into the charges only if someone made a complaint and the Chairman refers it to us. If the Chairman refers any complaint to the Committee, the Committee will look into it.”
Irani and Dattatreya joined other BJP leaders, including Union Ministers Uma Bharti and Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, in speaking about the #MeToo movement. While Bharti Wednesday told The Indian Express that she welcomed the campaign which will bring about a “change in atmosphere at the workplace for women”, Maneka Gandhi said that allegations of sexual harassment against anybody should be taken seriously as women are often scared to speak out. Party MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Poonam Mahajan have also expressed similar sentiments.
The BJP continues to officially remain silent and party spokesperson Sambit Patra said he would not comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, Shiv Sena, the BJP’s ally in the NDA, Thursday demanded Akbar’s resignation and an immediate investigation into allegations against him. “It should be taken seriously. If the BJP believes in transparency, then Akbar should resign. There should be an immediate investigation into all the allegations. There cannot be a fair probe in the allegations if Akbar continues to hold an influential position in the government,” said Manisha Kayande, Shiv Sena legislator and party spokesperson.