Bharatiya Janata Party politician and former minister MJ Akbar has denied the sexual harassment charges laid against him by more than a dozen women. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singth
Bharatiya Janata Party politician and former minister MJ Akbar has denied the sexual harassment charges laid against him by more than a dozen women. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singth

India’s #MeToo movement has taken the country’s media houses by storm over the last 10 days, with a number of male editors and journalists being called out as sexual harassers.

Now the movement has named its first significant political figure. M J Akbar, formerly a prominent journalist and presently the Minister of State for External Affairs, has been the subject of multiple accusations of sexually harassing female colleagues during a high-profile media career.

Akbar on Monday filed a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani in Delhi’s Patiala House Court a week after the female journalist accused him of sexual harassment on Twitter.

Akbar released a statement on Sunday dismissing the allegations against him as ‘wild and baseless’, adding that he was looking to take legal action against accusers. At least a dozen women have leveled accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

The junior foreign minister, who was away on an official foreign trip when the allegations emerged, returned to India on Sunday.

Accusations against Akbar began to surface after journalist Priya Ramani tweeted about a piece she had written for The Vogue magazine in 2017. In it, an unnamed senior figure in the journalism world was presented as a habitual sexual abuser of female colleagues young enough to be his daughters. In her tweet, Ramani revealed that the subject of the article was MJ Akbar. She called him a ‘predator.’

Following Ramani, Akbar’s former colleague Prerna Singh Bindra accused him of sexual harassment in a tweet: “He was this brilliant, flamboyant editor who dabbled in politics, who called me — my 1st job — to his hotel room to ‘discuss work’ after I put the edition to bed — read midnight — and made life at work hell when I refused. Couldn’t speak up due to various compulsions, but yes #MeTooIndia.”

Another senior journalist, Saba Naqvi, wrote a piece describing her experience with Akbar in the 80s when she was working under him in Calcutta. Though she was ‘someone who got away’ and didn’t experience harassment, she describes how she continuously had to flee from Akbar and quit the job within a year.

“I was dealing with a predator, who would have had a high success rate in pinning down his prey. His genius and talent was made an excuse for his behavior but when the moral center is hollow, even cleverness wears thin, as it has done with the Badshah,” Naqvi wrote, referring to Akbar as the Badshah of the newsroom in her article. Later, she revealed in a tweet that it was indeed M J Akbar she was referring to.

Journalist Ghazala Wahab wrote in the Wire that she was repeatedly harassed by Akbar in his cabin at the Asia Age office in New Delhi in 1997 when she was working there. She alleged that the harassment resulted in her resigning from the job and going back home to Ahmedabad.

Majlie de Puy Kamp, a US-based journalist, alleged that Akbar sexually harassed her when she was 18 and had just finished high school. She told HuffPost that the incident happened in 2007 at Akbar’s cabin at the Asian Age office, a newspaper he founded. Puy Camp said she met Akbar through her parents who had earlier worked in Delhi as foreign correspondents.

Journalist Shutapa Paul recounted similar experiences to Ramani where she was called to meet Akbar at his hotel. Paul wrote that she was working at the Calcutta bureau of India Today in 2010 when she was harassed by Akbar.

When Paul refused to meet Akbar again at his hotel when he visited Kolkata, she said she suffered professionally. “After that refusal, I became completely invisible in the organization. None of my stories were getting approved, whatever I wrote was being ridiculed at edit meetings,” she tweeted.

The Indian National Congress, a party in opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has asked for Akbar’s resignation from his ministerial post in prime minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Congress leader Jaipal Reddy told the media, “Union Minister MJ Akbar should either give a satisfactory answer to the allegations or he should resign. We demand an inquiry into the matter.” The Congress also criticized External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for refusing to comment on the issue, especially since Akbar is a minister in her department.

Following the backlash, BJP chief Amit Shah was quoted by The Times of India as saying, “We will have to verify whether these allegations are true or false. We have to check the veracity of the post and the person who posted it… We will definitely look into the issue.”

Until now, no action has been officially taken against Akbar who implied that the accusations may have been politically motivated. “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election,?” he asked in his statement.

The second wave of MeToo, which surfaced this month, has called out big names from the media and entertainment industry. The social media movement has also borne some fruit offline. Expressing concern over the instances of alleged sexual harassment, the Editors Guild of India has asked news media organizations to conduct unbiased probes into all cases and condemned “predatory conduct” by powerful men.

One of the prominent accused, KR Sreenivas, the editor of Times of India in Hyderabad, resigned from the organization. After seven women had petitioned the newspaper to take action against him, he was sent on administrative leave pending an inquiry into the accusations against him. Another accused, Prashant Jha, also stepped down as the political editor of Hindustan Times and said he would continue as a reporter in the organization.

Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, on Friday said her ministry will constitute a four-member committee of retired judges to conduct public hearings of sexual harassment cases emerging from the online campaign.