MJ Akbar is the first minister who has had to resign in this government after a media firestorm.
UNION Minister MJ Akbar, accused by several women of sexual harassment and assault, dug his heels in — until the #MeToo campaign moved the ground beneath his feet, forcing him to step down Wednesday.
Over the past week, more than a dozen women accused Akbar of inviting them to his hotel room, touching them inappropriately, kissing them forcibly or molesting them when he was their editor and making the newsroom a hostile place to work.
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 that has spread and been amplified on social media.
Calling the charges “fabricated,” Akbar filed a criminal defamation case Monday against journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to mention Akbar by name. That case comes up in the Patiala House Court on Thursday and he mentioned it in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity,” Akbar said in his statement Wednesday, “I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity”. He added that he has, therefore, tendered his resignation from his ministerial role. He said he was “deeply grateful” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj for “the opportunity they gave me to serve the country.”
On October 8, Ramani had tweeted an article she had written a year ago, saying that 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 years old and he was 43 for a job interview, which was “more date, less interview” and Akbar also 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 had worked with him 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.
More women shared their stories over the week, including Tushita Patel who 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 had 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 had accused him of “mostly preyed 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 to all the allegations on Sunday, returning to the country after being on an official tour abroad for a week. Dismissing the allegations as “false and fabricated,” Akbar had 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 had refused to take a stand on the issue, leaving Akbar to fend for himself. Neither the party nor the government backed Akbar publicly even as 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 the party.
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 should not be judged.
Though Irani refused to comment specifically on Akbar, saying that the “gentleman himself” should respond, 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”.
What may have made his position untenable, sources said, was the fact that on Wednesday, 20 women journalists who had worked with Akbar at The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle where had been the editor-in-chief 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.”
In their statement, the women, three of whom head newsrooms today, had said that Akbar has refused to “acknowledge” or “atone” for his actions that have been the cause of “immense pain and indeed harm to many many women over the years”.
By Krishn Kaushik