A not-too-surreptitious attempt to give the #MeToo allegations a politically motivated, anti-BJP or anti-Modi government has begun, with posts on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.
Leading in this, of course, is Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar. Akbar, on his return from Africa on Sunday, October 14, dismissed allegation of sexual harassment saying that with elections coming up, there could be a political motive behind them. He also threatened legal action against those who accused him of sexual harassment.
Many posts on social media tried to portray the #MeToo movement in India a campaign by anti-Hindu/anti BJP elements, saying they malign Hindu gods and pick only pro-BJP personalities. They were, however, called out by others.
Sonam Mahajan and author Atiya Zaidi pointed out that Sajid Khan, Utsav, Vinod Dua, AIB, Subhash Kapur had also been named by victims of sexual harassment.
Akbar, meanwhile, proceeded to lodg a criminal defamation case at Patiala House court against journalist Priya Ramani today, said a PTI report. The case is only against Ramani and makes no mention of the 10 other women who had made accusations against Akbar. Earlier today, Indian Express had spoken to five women journalists who had accused Akbar, including Ramani, who said they stood by their statements. Ramani is among over 10 other women, had accused him of sexual harassment. Akbar has accused Ramani of “wilfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously” defaming him and has sought the issuance of notice to Ramani under section 499 (defamation) and section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 500 of the IPC provides that an accused may be awarded two years jail term or fine or both in the event of conviction.
The complaint mentions the accusations being circulated “in a motivated manner for the fulfilment of an agenda”. It terms the allegations made by Ramani as “scandalous” and “very tone and tenor” ex-facie defamatory. It also states that the allegations have not only damaged the minster’s goodwill and reputation in his social circle but also affected his reputation in the community and friends, family and colleagues, causing irreparable loss and tremendous distress.
Ramani was the first to accuse Akbar of sexual harassment. In a tweet on October 8, she had revealed that in the article she had written last year, Akbar was the unnamed editor she mentioned as inviting her to his hotel room for a job interview and asking her to sit on the bed. After this, several other women journalists who had worked with Akbar came up with similar accounts.
Among others to accuse Akbar include Force magazine Executive Editor Ghazala Wahab, US-based journalist Majlie de Puy Kamp and UK-based journalist Ruth David.
Akbar in his statement on Sunday said all allegations against him were “fabricated and spiced up”. Threatening legal action against the woman journalists, he also questioned the timing of the charges and termed them is as a political conspiracy against the BJP ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Responding to the stand taken by the Modi government and the silence of women ministers like Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani and Maneka Gandhi, senior journalist Ghazala Wahab, who has accused Akbar of sexual misconduct, accused them of “treachery”.
Questioning their silence on sexual harassment allegations against a Union minister by at least 11 women, she tweeted a couplet: “Kahoon kis tarah se ke woh bewafa hai, Mujhe uski majbooriyon ka pata hai (How can I call out their treachery when I know their compulsions).”
Priya Ramani, the journalist to first name M.J. Akbar, has said “truth is the best defence” and she is not worried about the possibility of a defamation case, reported The Telegraph. Earlier, at least five women journalists told The Indian Express said they stand by their statements.
Two of them said they were disappointed by Akbar’s reaction, but they were not surprised.
Suparna Sharma, Resident Editor, The Asian Age, told The Indian Express, “I stand by my testimony of the two incidents — one in which he plucked my bra strap, and the other when he stared at my breasts. I also stand by the fact that he did the same with other women in the office. I am disappointed with Akbar’s response but I am not surprised. This is going to be a longish battle, and the next step in many cases is a legal step.”
Sharma said that for her, “it was not over yet”, and that she was speaking to friends for “legal advice”.
Responding to Akbar’s question, “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda?”, New York-based journalist Majlie de Puy Kamp (30), said: “I am not a citizen, I cannot vote. I do not have a political agenda. Plus, I have a paper trail. My father wrote an email to Akbar about the incident to which he responded. I have evidence. I am disappointed but not surprised by his statement. I am, however, very comfortable with my story.”
Puy Kamp has accused Akbar of forcibly kissing her when she was interning at The Asian Age in 2007.
Freelance journalist Kanika Gahlaut, who worked with Akbar from 1995 to 1997, too said, “I stand by whatever I said.” Gahlaut had told The Indian Express that she wasn’t sure “if everyone got hit (on)”, but “I certainly did, and my friend did”.
Shutapa Paul, who had tweeted about her experience with Akbar on October 10, told The Indian Express Sunday that she will “not be intimidated by my tormentor and cower down”. She said: “I am shocked and dismayed. MJ Akbar’s brazen shaming of all of us is evidence of his sense of entitlement and power. Our fight is the fight for every woman; a fight for justice, a fight against feeling violated in the workplace and in daily life.”
The newspaper also reached out to US-based journalist Majlie de Puy Kamp who too has accused Akbar of sexual harassment. Responding to Akbar’s charge that the allegations against him are politically motivated, Kamp said she isn’t an Indian citizens and can’t vote. “I do not have a political agenda…I have evidence. I am disappointed but not surprised by his statement. I am, however, very comfortable with my story,” she reportedly said.
Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal also attacked MJ Akbar and said his behavior was “notorious” and “lecherous”. She asked if all women are making false allegations against Akbar. “They are after your seat in Parliament? What a moron MJ Akbar is! If anyone is impacting BJP adversely today, it is MJ Akbar for his notoriety and lecherous behavior,” she said.
The DCW chief also questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the entire controversy. She said PM Modi’s “silence” and “inaction” is “unbelievable”.
Meanwhile, the Congress has also upped the ante against the Modi government and has reiterated its demand for Akbar’s resignation over the allegations of sexual harassment. Former Union ministers and senior Congress leaders Anand Sharma and Salman Kurshid said the prime minister ought to speak about these serious allegations against his minister.
“It is a question of women’s dignity, security and safety. There is a difference in his saying and doing. Where is his ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign going now? It is the duty of the prime minister, his constitutional duty and moral duty, to speak. Why has the PM chosen to be silent is the fundamental question. Tell the country what your views are,” Sharma told reporters on Sunday.
The Aam Aadmi Party said it is not surprised that Akbar has not resigned despite the charges of sexual misconduct.
“There are many who are surprised by Union minister MJ Akbar not offering to resign. However, the Aam Aadmi Party expected the same from a BJP government minister. He comes from a party where another Union minister remained a minister despite of being accused of rape. He comes from a party where Kuldeep Singh Sengar is still part of BJP despite raping a young girl and getting her father killed,” the party said.
It added that the AAP “believes that this is purely Modi brand of politics, where all accusations are judged and rejected by the accused itself.”
Taking a jibe at MJ Akbar and his claim that the allegations against him are politically motivated, Nationalist Congress Party leader Majid Memon said, “If any set of women or any group against BJP had to politically hatch a conspiracy to bring disrepute to BJP or embarrassment to Prime Minister Narendra Modi they would have chosen a much better minister than this man who never contested election.”
Juhi Singh, of the Samajwadi Party said, “I think the BJP has nothing to with development and women empowerment. No party leader is speaking against the minister and this shows what kind of politics they are doing.”
Press associations have said they will be coming out with strong responses to the developments on Sunday. The associations are likely to stage protest against Akbar and the BJP to express solidarity with the woman journalists who have levelled the allegations.
Meanwhile, media reports quoting sources in the BJP said Sunday that though there was some “uneasiness” and “embarrassment” felt by a section of its senior leaders over the charges of sexual harassment against Akbar, the party leadership had chosen to “play it safe” and not seek the minister’s resignation because such action on the basis merely of accusations made on social media without evidence and a criminal complaint would have made the government appear vulnerable and set a bad precedent.
“The main issue is that the government did not want to give in to pressure from those who made allegations, but cannot present evidence. If one minister steps down in these circumstances, there is no certainty that there will not be similar allegations against others. The government does not want to set a precedent,” a party leader told The Indian Express.
“Anyone can make such allegations against anyone, especially against those who are in public life. If we make ministers or leaders resign on the basis of such allegations, that too without allowing them legal course, there will be no end to this. None of those who levelled allegations (against Akbar) have taken the matter further,” he said.
Earlier, BJP leaders had maintained that Akbar would get the chance to present his version after he returned to India from abroad Sunday. Party sources said he has given his side of the story both to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
A founding editor of The Telegraph daily and Sunday magazine, Akbar joined politics in 1989 and became a Congress MP. He joined BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. A Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh, he was inducted into the Modi government in July 2016.