MJ Akbar quits over allegations of sexual harassment

IANS
NEW DELHI, 17th Oct: The Me Too campaign claimed its first political scalp on Wednesday when MJ Akbar quit as Minister of State for External Affairs ten days after several women came out with allegations of sexual harassment and molestation by him during his days as editor in the media. Two days after defiantly resisting calls for his resignation, the 67-year-old former Editor of the Asian Age, where much of the alleged harassment took place, made a brief statement announcing his resignation.

Akbar said he deemed it appropriate to fight the charges against him legally in a personal capacity, two days after defying calls for his resignation when he returned from abroad on Sunday. The resignation came as Modi was under attack from the opposition for his silence on the issue. However, Akbar's continuance in the government appeared untenable in the face of growing accusations despite his filing a defamation suit against one of the accusers, Priya Ramani, who first wrote about her ordeal while working with him.

Reacting to Akbar's decision, the women, who had levelled the charges against him, said they were vindicated by his stepping down. The Congress said that the belated resignation of the minister was a result of persistent pressure put up by the women and asked if Prime Minister Narendra Modi will speak on the issue.

"Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity, I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levelled against me, also in a personal capacity. "I have, therefore, tendered my resignation from the office of Minister of State for External Affairs. I am deeply grateful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for the opportunity they gave to serve my country," Akbar said in the statement.

On Sunday, after returning from a trip abroad, the Minister called the allegations levelled against him as "wild, baseless and false" and had threatened to sue the accusers. He had also asked why a storm had risen a few months before the general election and wondered whether there was an agenda.

On Monday, he filed a defamation case against Ramani. Nearly 20 women journalists had accused Akbar of sexual harrasment and given their accounts of travails with Ghazala Wahab accusing him of molestation. The accounts of women continued to pour even after Akbar had filed the defamation case and men, who had worked in the newspapers he edited, also came out in support of the women. A Delhi court will on Thursday hear the defamation case filed by him.

Sources said there were discussions in the government over the unrelenting accusations against Akbar. The RSS too conveyed its support for the women journalists with its senior functionary Dattatreya Hosabale echoing in a tweet that there was need for sensibility about what is right and what is wrong. The political cost of his continuing in office seemed to be mounting with Congress President Rahul Gandhi raking up the issue indirectly in his election rallies in poll-bound states.

On Tuesday, Gandhi made a veiled attack on Modi saying a man who gives the slogan "beti padhao, beti bachao" went silent when asked about allegations against his Minister. The Congress has demanded his resignation and removal. The BJP had been maintaining a studied silence on the allegations against Akbar except a statement by party chief Amit Shah who said the charges have to be looked into.

Akbar, a former Congress MP who had joined the BJP ahead of Lok Sabha elections in 2014, was inducted into the government in 2016. In her reaction to his resgination, Ramani said she was "vindicated".

"As women, we feel vindicated by MJ Akbar's resignation. I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court," Ramani tweeted. Journalist Suparna Sharma who had accused Akbar of having "plucked my bra strap", said the fight was not over with his resignation. "Akbar should have resigned immediately after returning to India instead of issuing a statement," said Sharma.

"When he issued the statement, it seemed it was government versus Priya Ramani. Now that he has resigned, it is Akbar vs Priya Ramani," she said insisting the former minister should withdraw the defamation case against Ramani. She said the longer he fights this battle against Ramani, more women will come out while noting that the fight against sexual harassment will continue. Ghazala Wahab who had accused Akbar of molesting her in his room in the office, said his quitting was the effect of the #MeToo movement.

"It is a collective victory for all the women," said Wahab. "On #MahaAshtami Devi Durga slays the demon? #MJAkbar gone...." tweeted journalist Saba Naqvi who had called Akbar a "predator". National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma welcomed Akbar's resignation. "Finally, the government has listened to the voice of women and acted accordingly. NCW welcomes the move."

Delhi Commission for Women Chief Swati Maliwal said: "Finally, M.J. Akbar has resigned. Shame on him for having delayed it for so long. The credit for the resignation goes not to the Centre or M.J. Akbar but directly to the #MeToo campaign." Congress national media panelist Ragini Nayak said: "Akbar's belated resignation is a result of the persistent pressure put by women who have shared their horrific and uncomfortable stories. Now that he has finally resigned, will Prime Minister Modi dare to speak up?"


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