Former Indian journalist and Union Minister M. J. Akbar (L) has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 16 women. Photo: AFP / Prakash SINGH
Former Indian journalist and Union Minister M. J. Akbar (L) has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 16 women. Photo: AFP / Prakash SINGH

Faced with growing demands for his resignation, the Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar, who faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment, stepped down on Wednesday. He claims he is now going to challenge what he calls “false accusations” through a criminal defamation suit.

Akbar, a former prominent journalist and a minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, has been accused by as many as 20 women on social media of sexually harassing them during his time in the media.

Akbar, who was the editor of newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Asian Age, is the first significant political leader to be hit by India’s #MeToo movement. The movement, which saw its second wave this year, has accused big names from the media and entertainment industries of being sexual harassers.

“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 levied against me, also in a personal capacity,” Akbar said in a statement after tendering his resignation. President Ram Nath Kovind accepted Akbar’s resignation with immediate effect, ANI reported.

The minister denied the allegations against him calling them “wild and baseless”. On Monday he filed a private criminal defamation suit against the first accuser, Priya Ramani.

“As women we feel vindicated by MJ Akbar’s resignation. I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court #metoo,” tweeted Ramani who accused Akbar of harassing her in a column she wrote for Vogue; she did not mention Akbar’s name in the column but posted her article on Twitter on October 8 commenting that she was now naming Akbar. She detailed how Akbar, then 43, had invited her, a 23-year-old reporter, to his hotel room for a job interview.

Push for resignation

Akbar tried to stay on as a minister and to deflect attention from the accusations by suing Ramani. However this led to demands for his resignation from all political quarters and from many of his former colleagues in journalism. The Congress raised questions against the BJP government’s lack of action in dealing with the accusations against Akbar even as the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj refused to comment on the allegations. When Akbar finally resigned his ministerial position, Union Minister Ramdas Athawale said, “Opposition was asking him to resign on moral grounds. This is a right decision taken by him. The allegations…… should be properly investigated.”

Although Ramani is the sole accused in the defamation case, a group of 20 journalists who had worked at the Asian Age where Akbar was an editor for 15 years, came out to voice their support for their former colleague. The journalists have urged the court to hear their testimonies against MJ Akbar; they claim that some of them have suffered sexual harassment at his hands while some were witness to it.

Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Club of India, the Press Association and South Asian Women in Media on Monday issued a joint statement seeking a probe into the allegations against Akbar.

On Wednesday, a group of former civil servants wrote an open letter addressed to the President of India, with a copy to the Prime Minister of India, asking for Akbar’s resignation pending an inquiry. They expressed “outrage at the conspicuous lack of action by the Government of India in responding to the statements by sixteen women regarding the sexual harassment faced by them from a person who is today a member of the Union Council of Ministers.”

Allegations of harassment

Following Ramani’s tweet naming Akbar, multiple accounts of him harassing young female journalists surfaced; some of the women were, at the time of the alleged harassment, as young as 18 years old when they were allegedly maltreated by the middle-aged Akbar. Several accusers also called him a sexual ‘predator’.

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.

Senior journalist Saba Naqvi, wrote a piece describing her experience with Akbar in the 1980s when she was working under him in Calcutta. Though she was “someone who got away” and didn’t experience physical harassment, she describes how she continuously had to flee from Akbar’s advances and finally quit the job within a year.

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. She alleged that the harassment resulted in her resigning from the job and going back home to Ahmedabad.

Responding to the resignation of the influential minister and former journalist, Swati Maliwal, the chairperson of Delhi Women’s Commission tweeted saying, “The credit for the resignation goes not to the Centre or MJ Akbar but directly to the #MeToo campaign. Esp (especially) to those brave women who reported the assault & those women and men who stood by them.”

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