MJ Akbar: Indian minister defiant amid #MeToo storm


MJ Akbar, junior minister for foreign affairs in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and a former influential newspaper editor, has over the past week been accused by former female colleagues of groping, assault and harassment.

Responding to the allegations after returning to the Indian capital from an official visit abroad, Akbar called the allegations “false and fabricated” and questioned their timing, hinting at a political campaign against him as India prepares for general elections next year.

“Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge,” Akbar said in a statement tweeted out by him Sunday.

He said he would take legal action to protect his name. “Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. 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 combative response after days of pressure on Prime Minister Modi to act on the issue prompted stinging criticism, with the leading daily newspaper The Hindu saying Akbar’s position was “untenable” in an editorial published Monday morning.

The paper also questioned the suggestion by Akbar — who is a member of the indirectly elected upper house of the Indian parliament, not the directly elected lower house — that the allegations might somehow be linked to the coming elections.

“Mr Akbar’s conspiracy theory that the #MeToo charges have settled upon him because elections are now looming is weak and totally unconvincing,” the Hindu said in its main editorial piece Monday.

“He has no political heft and a conspiracy to tarnish him and secure his speedy exit from the Narendra Modi government would have left it none the weaker.”

Without a resignation, the paper said, the focus now “cannot but shift to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why wasn’t his resignation demanded and secured on his return to the capital?”

Journalist accused

Attention first fell on Akbar after journalist Priya Ramani identified him last week as the subject of an article she had written for Vouge India in 2017, describing an experience of workplace harassment during a job interview with an unnamed editor in a Mumbai hotel room.

Taking to Twitter early last week, she said the piece was about her experience with Akbar.

“Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer. It was more date, less interview,” Ramani wrote in her piece, which she said took place when “I was 23, you were 43.”

“Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I’m fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again,” she added in the piece.

Since Ramani’s revelation, several other women have come out with their accounts of Akbar’s behavior.

India’s #MeToo movement appears to have been spurred by allegations late last month by former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, who spoke publicly about being a victim of assault allegedly at the hands of Nana Patekar, her co-star in a 2008 film.

In subsequent weeks, accounts of sexual misconduct shook the wider media and entertainment industry. In one high profile case, a Bollywood production house has been dissolved following sexual harassment allegations against one of its co-founders.

A leading comedy outfit popular with Indian millennials was also shaken when a comedian it worked with faced harassment allegations, while in the media industry, allegations of inappropriate behavior saw a prominent Delhi-based political journalist lose his position pending an internal investigation, according to reports.

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