MJ Akbar is accused of rape. Can we stop talking about his ‘legacy’?
Now that MJ Akbar, former external affairs minister (and bizarrely still a Member of Parliament), has been charged with rape by US-based journalist, Pallavi Gogoi, will the apologists in our fraternity finally zip up? I have spent the last few weeks dismayed by the responses of several senior colleagues. I have argued publicly with the women among them — Tavleen Singh, Manjeet Kriplani, Seema Mustafa — because I looked up to them as trailblazers of their generation. To see them mock the #MeToo movement, and worse, attack the women speaking up has been surreal. Their tweets reflected a medieval misogyny with comments that blamed the women instead of the perpetrators of harassment and abuse. Will they now be embarrassed into retracting these remarks? Will they apologise?
As for the men, too many senior male colleagues, who are contemporaries of Akbar, have been mealy-mouthed in their condemnation. It was only when the momentum of #MeToo became inescapable and woman after woman came forward that you saw more male editors ready to take a stand. In other words, they spoke only when it was risk-free to do so and after the women had done their work for them. At least a dozen women who have either levelled charges or other women who have said they are ready to testify to back the accounts of these women, have provided fence sitters with enough parachutes for a safe landing just in case there was turbulence. The fact is that even one woman’s account of credible allegations should have been enough. Women should not need the safety of numbers to find support and empathy. Yet you see a similar reluctance and diffidence in taking a stand with the other men named by women in the #MeToo revelations: Suhel Seth, Vinod Dua, Jatin Das, Kiran Nagarkar, Vikas Bahl and many more. The message this sends to women is: Find yourself multiple co-complainants if you want to be taken seriously. While this may be inevitable, it also patently unjust.
But while blatant sexism can be confronted and argued with, the most disturbing dimension of the #MeToo debate in India has been the instinct of so many commentators to cast these men in the role of damaged and ‘’flawed’’ individuals who simultaneously represent both brilliance and baseness. Sorry, but this is a load of self-serving nonsense. I can’t bear to read one more tweet or op-ed on Akbar’s epigrammatic turn of phrase or blazing talent as an editor. We saw exactly the same conflicted social and peer group response when Tarun Tejpal was accused of rape.
Akbar or Tejpal — and whoever comes next — cannot and must not be mythologised as brooding men of intensity with great achievements and a few minor chinks in their armour. This is not Fountainhead and they are not Howard Roark. This is real life where the starkness of the violations they are alleged to have committed must be met without ifs, buts, alsos and maybes. The constant demand for a “fuller narrative’’; the drawing room laments at the end of great careers — it is almost as if no matter what men do, there is an institutional indulgence when it comes to sexual violation. In an otherwise unsparing age of instant judgment and polarised opinions, can you explain why there are so many calls to separate the art from the artist? Why is there such a concerted effort at legacy building for the Akbars and Tejpals of the news media? Look no further than America where the massive body of work by Charlie Rose or Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein collapsed into instant oblivion after rape and abuse stories surfaced in the media.
In India, too, this clumsy and shameful romanticisation of men named in the #MeToo movement must stop. Sure, it can be tough when you personally know the people concerned — many of them have been in our social and professional circles of interaction — and an initial awkwardness is natural. But to keep dwelling on Nagarkar’s writing, Dua’s television prowess, Seth’s networking or Das’s painting is to deflect from the main issue. And to remain silent is to be complicit.
Rape is a criminal offence and one that the state can take suo motu cognisance of. Nor must it be bound by the statute of limitations. The Goa police acted on its own in the Tejpal rape case well before the complainant came forward. The National Commission For Women wrote to the Goa police based on media reports. Pallavi Gogoi’s chronicle underlines that Akbar’s resignation as minister is hardly enough. Not just is his criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani (who first named him) a cruel joke; he must be expelled from the BJP and from Parliament. And then investigators must take over. For all those who say due process — yes, that is the due process we expect. Meanwhile, spare us anecdotes of his glory days as an editor. We don’t care.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal