New Delhi: Defying widespread calls for his ouster over multiple charges of sexual harassment, Indian Union Minister M.J. Akbar on Sunday termed the allegations “wild and baseless” and questioning their timing and vowed to take legal action against the accusers.
As the #MeToo movement gained momentum in the country, around a dozen women journalists accused Akbar of sexual harassment and molestation, leading to a growing chorus for his ouster as the Minister of State for External Affairs.
On his arrival from an official trip in Nigeria, Akbar issued a statement rubbishing the charges and wondered if there was an agenda behind the allegations as they came ahead of next year’s general elections.
“Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. Whatever be the case, now that I have returned (from abroad), my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action,” he said hours after his return.
While there have been speculations that he may resign upon his arrival, Akbar gave no indication of his stepping down nor was there a word from the government or the ruling BJP as to whether he would continue in the government.
“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,” said the 67-year-old former Editor of Asian Age.
Former Mint Lounge Editor Priya Ramani was the first to accuse Akbar. As days passed, more and more women journalists who had worked with him came out with their complaints.
Among others to accuse Akbar include Force magazine Executive Editor Ghazala Wahab, US-based journalist Majlie de Puy Kamp and UK-based journalist Ruth David.
Akbar in his statement gave a point by point rebuttal of the charges.
Referring to charges by former colleague Ramani, Akbar said: “Ramani began this campaign a year ago with a magazine article. She did not, however, name me as she knew it was an incorrect story. When asked recently why she had not named me, she replied, in a Tweet: ‘Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything.’
“If I didn’t do anything, where and what is the story? There’s no story. But a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened. Some are total, unsubstantiated hearsay; others confirm, on the record, that I didn’t do anything,” he said.
“Shutapa Paul states, ‘the man never laid a hand on me’.
“‘Shuma Raha says, I must clarify, however, that he didn’t actually ‘do’ anything’. One woman, Anju Bharti, went to the absurd extent of claiming I was partying in a swimming pool. I do not know how to swim.”
“Another accusation was made repeatedly by Ghazala Wahab, in an effort to damage my reputation. She claimed that she had been molested in office, 21 years ago. This is 16 years before I entered public life, and when I was in media.
“The only office where I worked with Ghazala Wahab 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.
“Pertinent to remember Ramani and Wahab kept working with me even after these alleged incidents; clearly establishes they had no apprehension and discomfort. Reason why they remained silent for decades is very apparent, as Ramani has herself stated, I never did anything,” added Akbar.
A founding editor of The Telegraph daily and Sunday magazine, Akbar joined politics in 1989 and became a Congress MP. He joined BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. A Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh, he was inducted into the Modi government in July 2016.
While the government has not officially responded, Union minister Ramdas Athawale said Akbar should resign if the allegations against him were true.
“If someone is insulting women, action should be taken against such an individual. If personalities like Akbar are found guilty, action should be taken against them,” Athawale told the media in Pune while calling for the allegations to be investigated.
The Congress and Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) flayed Akbar for his brazenness.
“Akbar calls the sexual allegations a political conspiracy. It adds insult to injury and humiliation. Let this be a tipping point moment for the #MeToo movement. Don’t be intimidated. This is the time to rise even further. This is the time to fight back, appalled,” Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha twitted.
AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj said Akbar’s decision not to quit was expected.
“Akbar comes from a party where Kuldeep Singh Sengar is still part of the BJP despite being accused of raping a young girl and getting her father killed,” said Bharadwaj referring to the MLA from Uttar Pradesh, the main accused in the 2017 Unnao gang rape and murder case.
“AAP believes this is purely Modi brand of politics, where all accusations are judged and rejected by the accused itself. The party supports the cause of brave women coming naming and shaming the sexual predators,” he added.