The resignation of Union minister MJ Akbar from the council of ministers in the wake of charges of sexual harassment and assault hurled against him by several women as a part of the #MeToo India campaign marks the culmination of an inglorious chapter of Indian politics.
Allegations that the former minister of state for external affairs invited colleagues and prospective recruits to his hotel room, touched them inappropriately, kissed them forcibly or molested them in separate incidents when he was their Editor mark a new low in the saga of journalism if they are borne out.
That Akbar sought to brazen out the controversy by denying any misconduct on return from an overseas official trip even as more and more women journalists jumped into the fray with a flurry of charges showed that today’s breed of educated women is awakened to their rights and prepared to pick up cudgels when needed.
Akbar apparently thought that he would manage to browbeat the #MeToo brigade but he instead fuelled heightened anger.
True, sexual harassment is not something to which there would normally be witnesses but the claims of nearly 20 women made even the sceptics sit up and take notice.
Akbar’s impassioned plea that this campaign was inspired by vested interests and that he was the victim of a conspiracy fuelled with the impending Lok Sabha elections in mind to defame his party the BJP cut no ice since it lacked credibility in the face of numerous similar complaints.
It focussed attention on the harassment of women not only in newspapers and electronic media outlets but also across the spectrum in various fields of work-life, especially in show business. The more Akbar denied the charges, the more skeletons in various cupboards came tumbling out of closets. That many of the complainants had stories to tell which dated back two or three decades shows how frustration had remained bottled up for so long.
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The hard reality is that women continue to suffer in silence and though the upwardly mobile among them are speaking up, there are countless others who are too bogged down by dogmas and traditional practices to give vent to their feelings. Of course, like in anything else there may be some who exaggerate their plight or play into the hands of vested interests, but those numbers would at best be miniscule.
The Nirbhaya case of a young girl who fought her rapists gallantly but ultimately fell a victim to them has inspired many. The Visakha guidelines framed by the Supreme Court in a sexual harassment case in 1997 and superseded in 2013 by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 have increased awareness but in practical terms the society still has long ground to cover.
The lecherous attitude of many men towards women is to a shocking degree and needs to be buttressed with societal pressure which is what has been at play in the ‘me too’ case.
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While politicians in general excel in paying lip service to women’s protection, they are often the worst violators of norms in terms of sexual behaviour. It is indeed time that sexual predators be unmasked, shamed and punished with no holds barred so that an effective deterrent may develop.
The criminal defamation suit filed by Akbar against Priya Ramani may be an opportunity for many women who have faced harassment to testify and must be pursued to bring out the stark reality. The politician must indeed not be allowed to withdraw his complaint now that he has quit office. Priya’s claim that Akbar had called her to his hotel room when she was 23 and he was 43 for a job interview which was ‘more date, less interview’ needs to be pursued threadbare.
While on paper there is deterrent punishment for sexual offences, the cases are seldom pursued. It is time women power asserts itself more strongly.