By Prarthana Mitra
Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar, the first public servant in high office to be accused in the #MeToo movement by US journalist Priya Ramani, followed by at least 14 other women, resigned from his position on Wednesday. But not before filing a defamation suit against Ramani, the hearing for which is scheduled on October 18, Thursday.
The #MeToo movement which started by calling out the rampant sexism and harassment of women in Bollywood earlier this month, spread like wildfire ever since, going on to cover varying degrees of harassment that women routinely face at any workplace, in the absence of tighter regulations and due to rampant abuse of power.
Priya Ramani, an Indian reporter based overseas, was the first to name a high ranking official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, as scores of other names were being offered up by female journalists across the nation.
Accusations levelled against Akbar
Akbar who has had a prolific career as an editor at several of the largest media organisations in the country, later made his foray into politics and enjoyed a seemingly insulated professional reputation so far. Without naming him, Ramani detailed his harassment of her for the first time in her 2016 Vogue article titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.’ On Monday, October 8, she came forward with the identity of her harasser, who was already an extremely influential editor by then.
“I was 23, you were 43,” the tweet read, as she recounted how the founding editor of The Telegraph had made her feel uncomfortable in a hotel room at Oberoi, Mumbai, during a prospective job interview.
On Wednesday, The Wire published journalist Ghazala Wahab’s account, five days after she opened the floodgates on the former Asian Age editor with a tweet, “I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar.” A truly spine-chilling account of the extent of misogyny and abuse that working women are subject to, the first-person account read,
The next evening, he called me in his cabin. I knocked and entered. He was standing next to the door and before I could react he shut the door, trapping me between his body and the door. I instinctively flinched, but he held me and bent to kiss me. With my mouth clamped shut, I struggled to turn my face to one side. The jostling continued, without much success. I had no space to manoeuvre. Fear had rendered me speechless. As my body was pushing against the door, at some point he let me go. Tear-stricken, I ran out. Out of the office. Out of the Surya Kiran building and into the parking lot. Finding a lonely spot, I sat down on the pavement and cried.
Resignation comes with a backdrop
This soon became a PR emergency for the central government as the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi called for an investigation into the allegations, the first government official to recognise the growing movement. The Congress also demanded that Akbar must either explain the allegations or resign from his post. Even HRD minister Smriti Irani acknowledged the online testimonies against him and called for a probe, along with other female spokespersons who deemed this resignation as a crucial move in an election year.
At this juncture, Akbar, who has been constantly denying all allegations, decided to press charges of defamation against his primary accuser Priya Ramani, alleging a conspiracy to ruin his reputation and goodwill. ”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,” Mr Akbar, 67, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Nineteen journalists later come out in support of Ramani later that day, saying she was not alone and that they would testify in court against Akbar.
Even though he is not the first to step down as a result of the growing movement, Akbar’s resignation puts the power of collective voices in perspective and is significant for urban working women employed in the media and entertainment sector, whom due process has failed in the past.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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