Hours after landing in Delhi from his foreign tour on Sunday, Union minister MJ Akbar, facing sexual harassment allegations against him by several women journalists, broke his silence, through a statement. Dodging the calls for his resignation, Akbar said allegations of sexual harassment against him were "false, fabricated and deeply distressing". He also linked the allegations to the general elections and vowed to a take legal action against his accusers.
His statement came as a surprise for many given the fact that at least 11 women, mostly journalists, have accused the journalist-turned- politician of sexual harassments.
Not only Akbar but also his party, Bharatiya Janata Party, has been under immense public pressure in the wake of the allegations. Besides the Opposition-led by the Congress, the media has been asking questions over the silence of BJP leaders, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to a Hindustan Times report, the BJP brass has issued a diktat to party spokespersons to not comment on the issue. Party leaders and spokespersons have been refusing to answer the questions related to the subject.
On Tuesday, when reporters asked External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her deputy Akbar, she ignored the question. Television footage showed Swaraj walking away without answering journalists.
PM Modi, who has been promoting the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign and fought to ban triple talaq among Muslims, is also facing public wrath for not speaking up on the issue so far.
Union Women and Child Welfare Minister Maneka Gandhi has been the only BJP leader to call for an investigation into the allegation.
On Friday, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale said Akbar will have to surrender if charges of sexual harassment against him are discovered to be true.
“But it’s a serious factor as no one has the right to violate any girl’s modesty. Likewise, MJ Akbar too isn’t above regulation of this land. Akbar is recently out of nation (Nigeria)... However, he will have to surrender if the complaint is correct,” Athawale said.
On Thursday, the BJP ally Shiv Sena demanded the removal of Akbar. The saffron party also said the charges against Akbar needed to be investigated thoroughly.
"As far as I know, there are five to six women professionals who have openly narrated how they were sexually attacked by M J Akbar. The details are worrisome and serious. Hence, I demand that he should be removed from his post immediately," Sena spokesperson Manisha Kayande said.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently talks about 'Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao'. Hence, in order to maintain his own image, Modi should remove Akbar from his post," she added.
Priya Ramani, formerly worked with India Today, The Indian Express and Mint, had first shared her account a year ago when the #MeToo campaign exploded in the US with the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Ramani, however, had not named Akbar when she wrote in the Vogue India article in October last year. On October 8, Ramani shared the article tweeting: “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator—maybe they’ll share.”
To this, in his statement, Akbar said: “Ms Priya Ramani began this campaign a year ago with a magazine article. She did not however name me as she knew it was an incorrect story. When asked recently why she had not named me, she replied, in a Tweet: ‘Never named him because he didn't 'do' anything.’”
“If I didn't do anything, where and what is the story? There is no story. This was admitted at the very inception. But a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened. Some are total, unsubstantiated hearsay; others confirm, on the record, that I didn’t do anything.”
Ghazala Wahab, the executive editor of Force magazine Wednesday shared her experience with Akbar in an article for The Wire. In the article, Wahab wrote that during her initial years at the newspaper, she "accepted everything as part of the office culture — Akbar's flirtation with young sub-editors, his blatant favouritism and his bawdy jokes.
"His eyes fell on me. And my nightmare began" in her third year at The Asian Age. She also wrote that Akbar’s persistence in trying to force himself on her in his cabin at The Asian Age office, the emotional tactics he resorted to when he realised his physical advances would not work and also how he got the newspaper's tarot card columnist to tell her he really loved her.
"I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar," Wahab had tweeted on October 6. Wahab said she decided to write her "Akbar story" after much persuasion by her former colleagues at The Asian Age, where she worked with him.
Senior journalist Seema Mustafa, who worked with Wahab, said she had heard such rumours around the newsroom.
“But now I read the story of Ghazala Wahab, a case of total harassment and nastiness by MJ Akbar. Out of the MeToo movement, but a strong indictment of the editor and his behaviour. A confirmation of what we thought he did, and had little by way of evidence. She says she spoke to me, and I am sure she is right. If she spoke to me she did not share the details as she has written them now,” said Mustafa, while writing for The Citizen.
On Wahab’s allegation, Akbar said: “Another accusation was made repeatedly by Ms Ghazala Wahab, in an effort to damage my reputation. She claimed that she had been molested in office, 21 years ago. This is 16 years before I entered public life, and when I was in media.
“The only office where I worked with her was that of The Asian Age. A part of the editorial team then worked out of a small hall. At the time concerned, I had a very tiny cubicle, patched together by plywood and glass. Others had tables and chairs two feet away. It is utterly bizarre to believe that anything could have happened in that tiny space, and, moreover, that no one else in the vicinity would come to know, in the midst of a working day. These allegations are false, motivated and baseless.
“It is pertinent to remember that both Ms Ramani and Ms Wahab kept working with me even after these alleged incidents; this clearly establishes that they had no apprehension and discomfort. The reason they remained silent for decades is very apparent: as Ms Ramani has herself stated, I never did anything.”
Soon after his statement, senior journalist Barkha Dutt lashed out at Akbar on Twitter, saying: “Unbelievable..if government does not sack #MJAkbar and they have decided to brazen this out we in the media must boycott him and all of his ministry's official events. We cannot let down the 14 women who have shown the courage to speak #metoo #SackMJAkbar.”
Unbelievable..if government does not sack #MJAkbar and they have decided to brazen this out we in the media must boycott him and all of his ministry's official events. We cannot let down the 14 women who have shown the courage to speak #metoo #SackMJAkbar https://t.co/7ljYe0GH8g— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) October 14, 2018
Taking a dig at the government, Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha also tweeted: “50 crore ka girlfriend, he said. Why are you surprised by his support for #MJAkbar ? The silence says a lot. In 2019, let’s remember that, India. Don’t forget. #MeToo #MeTooIndia.”