GATHERING STORM: Twenty women journalists, most who worked with ‘The Asian Age’ — MJ Akbar was editor of the newspaper for 15 years — put out a joint statement in support of their colleague Priya Ramani, currently facing criminal defamation charges for being the first to call out the minister for sexually harassing her during his years as editor. The journalists have urged the court to hear their testimonies against MJ Akbar, claiming that some of them suffered sexual harassment while others witnessed it
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MJ Akbar was forced to resign after multiple women spoke out against him as part of the #MeToo movement. However he is not the only sexual predator in the Modi Cabinet. There are several others who have not yet been named and shamed, let alone forced to resign. The worst offender is reportedly the Minister for Culture who keeps making inappropriate statements against women
Priya Ramani was the first woman to accuse Union minister MJ Akbar.Akbar then filed a defamation lawsuit against Ramani.
MJ Akbar’s plan, blessed by his party, was to brazen it out with a hope that the #MeToo storm would die down.
It did not. The criminal defamation suit against Priya Ramani which followed was expected to silence who hadn’t yet spoken out. That did not happen. Tushita Patel, his former colleague, called him out after the legal challenge he threw at Priya Ramani.
The women of #MeToo were unafraid.
They had bottled and buried MJ Akbar’s inglorious behaviour before Priya Ramani outed him as a person she had written about a year ago. That opened the flood gates.
What happened next shocked everyone as MJ Akbar remained not only defiant but attempted intimidation by hiring one of the most expensive law firms in the country. Akbar, who returned to India on Sunday morning amid sexual harassment allegations levelled against him by multiple women, called the allegations “false, fabricated” and “spiced up”.
Stating that these allegations caused irreparable damage to his reputation, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP said his lawyers would decide the next course of action after looking into the allegations against him. “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,” Akbar a statement released on Monday afternoon.
Calling it an “agenda” to malign his image before the upcoming polls, the BJP leader said: “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge. These false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill,” he was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.
Akbar said the only office where he worked with Ghazala Wahab, the woman journalist who has accused him of sexual harassment, 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,” he said.
He said Priya Ramani, the first journalist to accuse him of sexual misconduct, and Wahab, continued to work with him despite the alleged incidents and it “clearly establishes they had no apprehension and discomfort. Reason why they remained silent for decades is very apparent, as Ms Ramani has herself stated, I never did anything,” Akbar said.
While Akbar was a minister of state in the Union government, being defended by Karanjawala in court and by his party in people’s court, the women of The Asian Age, his one-time fief, had one another. The rest is history.
Priya Ramani is no longer alone. Apart from her family, including her journalist husband, she has a sisterhood of sorts standing by her. Twenty journalists say they wish to testify in court against the Union minister to support Priya Ramani.
Dismissing Akbar’s statement, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi asked why the BJP leader has not stepped down yet. “I wonder how over a dozen women sharing their experiences can be claimed as political conspiracy? Bigger wonder is which constituency does his stepping down impact in elections? The only clear answer is that this government is actively protecting & promoting the sexual perverts,” Chaturvedi posted on Twitter.
The Congress has been demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spell out his stand on the issue. “The PM’s silence is conspicuous. A PM who speaks on everything is silent on #MeToo. The silence raises questions on the dignity of the PM’s office. The country has been waiting for days for PM Modi’s to clear his stand on this,” Congress leader Anand Sharma said at a press conference.
Akbar, a former journalist, returned from an official trip to Nigeria on Sunday and dodged a volley of questions from reporters at the Delhi airport. Around 2pm, Akbar left for a meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
According to government sources, Akbar’s position became “untenable” after multiple women spoke out against him as part of the #MeToo movement, which has seen big names from the field of literature, entertainment, journalism and advertising being shamed for alleged sexual harassment. Sources added that other ministers have been complaining about being asked to comment on Akbar at every public event.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party has maintained a studied silence on the matter so far, party sources said the charges against him are serious. There is also a view within the party that there is no legal case against him, and allegations pertain to a time long before he became a minster.
Akbar was first called out by journalist Priya Ramani, who had last year written about his alleged inappropriate behaviour for a magazine without taking his name. She confirmed this week that the allegation was against Akbar.
Akbar, who has been the editor of prominent newspapers like The Telegraph, Asian Age and The Sunday Guardian, is a member of the Rajya Sabha from the BJP. In her article, Ramani had said “Akbar is an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer.” “You know how to pinch, pat, rub, grab and assault. Speaking up against you still carries a heavy price that many young women cannot afford to pay,” her article said. Detailing how he made her uncomfortable, she said he had called her for a job interview to a “plush south Mumbai hotel” when she was 23 and he was 43. Akbar did not meet Ramani in the hotel lobby and insisted that she meet him in his room. There, he offered her a drink. Although she refused, he drank vodka, sang old songs to her and asked her to sit close to him, she alleged.
Soon after Ramani’s account, more women journalists came forward with their stories. A journalist named Shuma Raha said Akbar called her to his hotel room for an interview for Asian Age in Kolkata’s Taj Bengal in 1995. She said that he didn’t “do” anything, but “an interview sitting on a bed in a hotel room followed by an invitation to come over for a drink that evening was rattling and deeply uncomfortable”. She said she declined the job offer.
Another journalist, Prerna Singh Bindra, said Akbar also called her to his hotel room to ‘discuss work’ after she had fired the edition at midnight. She alleged that he “made life at work hell” for her when she refused.
Another journalist, Tushita Patel, detailed how he once met her in his apartment wearing only his underwear and delighting in her apparent discomfort and then on two separate occasions forcibly kissed her — once after insisting she came to his hotel room, and once after pulling her into a vacant conference room at work.
All the furore has had its desired effect. MJ Akbar resigned as junior minister for external affairs on Wednesday, a day ahead of the first court hearing in the defamation case, saying he would fight the “false accusations” in his personal capacity.