There is “concern” and “unease” in a section of the government over the snowballing accusations of sexual harassment against Union Minister M J Akbar by as many as seven women journalists until Wednesday evening. And the fact that one has now alleged, on record, sexual assault and molestation.
“There is an uneasiness among senior leaders over the charges against the minister,” said a source in the government. He added that although there was no discussion on the subject in the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, “senior ministers informally talked about it and expressed their concern.”
More so, the source said, when the government’s big push is around women’s economic and social empowerment via its flagship schemes Ujjwala, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Mudra, the triple talaq ordinance and the most recent hike in salaries of mainly women healthcare workers across the country. “The government’s commitment to gender equality is profound,” the source said, “and that’s why these accusations are embarrassing.”
The Government is believed to be weighing its options on his continuance in the Union Council of ministers. Sources said a final call would be taken on his return from his overseas visit later this week.
Express Editorial | Mr Akbar must go
While there has been no reaction from Akbar, on a visit to Nigeria with a trade delegation, or the Government so far, the Opposition ramped up pressure raising questions on the Government’s commitment to women’s rights. The Congress said Akbar must either offer a satisfactory explanation or resign. “It is important to remember that all these allegations are from the days of Akbar’s journalistic career,” said a senior BJP leader. “Not one is related to his stint as Minister.”
Also, no clear signal has come from the leadership, said a senior party leader. “There is no FIR against him to act against him. But it poses a moral issue. It’s for Akbar to take a call on this issue,” said another BJP functionary.
Significantly, several women leaders of the BJP, when contacted by The Indian Express, declined to comment on the allegations against Akbar but came out in support of the #MeToo campaign which has over the last few days taken the social media by storm with women sharing their stories of sexual harassment by men in media, film and entertainment. Akbar is the first political figure to feature in that growing list.
“I am happy about the campaign,” Union Minister Uma Bharati told The Indian Express. “Now there will be a change in the atmosphere at the workplace. Men will not dare to harass or assault women. Women can work without fear and they can come out if anyone tries to harm her because of her gender. Men will be careful now,” Bharati said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by LoK Sabha MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Poonam Mahajan.
Bharti saw the #MeToo campaign as a “good” movement. “I want everyone to stand by women who have come out disclosing the names of these men who had made their lives difficult. I would like then to start another campaign “I did it’ .. they should be proud of what they did. That will be useful for more women to come out.”
Meanwhile, the Congress said Akbar’s continuance in the Council of Ministers was untenable. “I think Akbar must either offer a satisfactory explanation or must resign. How can he be in the ministry with this serious allegation being levelled against him by responsible journalists who worked with him? We demand an inquiry into M J Akbar’s conduct. If Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh in America could be asked to answer for something that he did in his youth, Akbar did whatever he did much later in his life,” senior Congress leader S Jaipal Reddy said at the AICC briefing.
Darshana Vikram Jardosh, BJP MP from Surat, asked why women had not come out earlier against such harassment.
“Why were you waiting for years? I don’t believe these allegations,” she said adding that she would be forced to believe that “the atmosphere” was not right for them. “Now under Narendra Modi government, the atmosphere is more free and that’s why women are coming out now. In Gujarat, we had a free environment under the Narendra bhai regime, so women could complain immediately,” she said.
Yuva Morcha National President and BJP MP Poonam Mahajan said: “The #MeToo India campaign is merely scratching the surface for what a women actually goes through daily. I am so happy that the conversation has started and we need to reach a place where women are safe in work place, at home and society in general. I am hopeful that this will help educate people on women’s rights and it is important that it extends beyond just the internet.”
Lekhi, a lawyer, has concerns. Having worked as a gender trainer, she argues that there needs to be a balance. “During our training program, we always tell girls to report the case immediately.”
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Lekhi said: “There are two things — that men in power can misuse their position but there are women who use sexuality to advance their career. When you don’t complain immediately and come out after years without any proof or evidence, you not only draw suspicion but also call for defamation and legal action.” The campaign has been good, Lekhi said, but the approach should be “solution-oriented.” Given that most of the disclosures have been in the media, she said, “it’s time for media to look within.”