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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Union minister MJ Akbar resigns over #MeToo allegations; ‘vindicated’, says Priya Ramani

MJ Akbar, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct in a tidal wave of #MeToo stories shared on social media, has step down as union minister.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2018 23:26 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar resigned on Wednesday after facing charges of sexual misconduct.
Minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar resigned on Wednesday after facing charges of sexual misconduct.(HT file photo)
         

Minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar resigned on Wednesday, buffeted by a storm of allegations of sexual misconductdating back to the years he was a journalist and newspaper editor in the 1980s and the 1990s, saying he would challenge the accusations in court in his personal capacity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted the resignation, which was also approved by President Ram Nath Kovind’s office late in the evening.

At least a dozen women journalists have accused Akbar, 67, a former editor of The Telegraph, Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age newspapers, of inappropriate behaviour, joining the global #MeToo campaign. He has responded by suing journalist Priya Ramani, who sparked off the barrage of allegations he has denied, for criminal defamation in a Delhi court.

The case comes up for hearing on Thursday.

“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 levelled against me, also in a personal capacity,” Akbar said in a statement released on Wednesday afternoon. “I have, therefore, tendered my resignation from the office of minister of state for external affairs. I am deeply grateful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and to the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj for the opportunity they gave me to serve my country.”

MJ Akbar at his residence at 9 Teen Murti lane
MJ Akbar at his residence at 9 Teen Murti lane ( Vipin Kumar / HT Photo )

Ramani, who has received pledges of support from other journalists, welcomed Akbar’s exit from the government. “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,” she wrote on Twitter.

On Wednesday, 17 former women colleagues of Akbar wrote an open letter supporting Ramani and asking the Delhi court to include their testimonies in the defamation case filed by the minister.

According to a senior functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the resignation was prompted by the intense pressure the party had confronted from rival political parties and activists to sack Akbar after the allegations surfaced against the journalist-turned-politician, who is a member of the Rajya Sabha. Outwardly, senior leaders of the party maintained that the allegations date back to a time when Akbar was not even a member of the BJP.

“The party and the Prime Minister’s office found itself in a quandary, trying to defend a minister against whom serious charges of misconduct were made. For a party that has gone to town with its commitment towards women’s safety and empowerment, defending these allegations would mean undermining their own statements,” said the senior BJP functionary who asked not to be named.

The need to relieve Akbar from his position was also underscored by the feedback received from party workers and cadre of the BJP’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swamayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who are learnt to have conveyed to the party the need to protect its image ahead of the upcoming round of assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

“Many within the party fold and among the Sangh brass felt that it was a good decision (to ask for the minister’s resignation) for the sake of probity,” the functionary quoted above said.

The Congress party questioned the PM’s silence on the issue. Party spokesperson Ragini Nayak said Akbar’s “belated resignation is a result of the persistent pressure put by women who have shared their horrific and uncomfortable stories”.

“It is also a vindication of the Congress party’s unequivocal stand on the #MeToo campaign. Now that MJ Akbar.., has finally resigned, will the PM, Shri Narendra Modi, dare to speak up?” she said.

National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma told IANS: “Finally, the government has listened to the voice of women and acted accordingly. NCW welcomes the move.”

Akbar, who was on an official overseas visit when the first accusations were made, has branded the accounts of alleged sexual harassment by him as malicious and intended to defame him. He has alleged that it was a political conspiracy scripted ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Giving in to the mounting pressure to take action against the complaints of sexual misdemeanour, the women and child development (WCD) ministry announced the setting up of a committee to examine all issues emanating from the ‘#Metoo’ movement, which captures stories of sexual harassment recounted by women.

“I believe in the pain and trauma behind every single complaint. Cases of sexual harassment at work must be dealt with a policy of zero tolerance,” WCD minister Maneka Gandhi said, announcing the committee last week. There has been no action yet towards forming the committee.

Most BJP MPs and ministers have refrained from commenting on the issue. Senior functionaries who spoke on condition of anonymity said there has been “discomfort” within the party over the charges levelled against the minister, and many were of the opinion that he should step down.

National security advisor Ajit Doval’s meeting with Akbar on Tuesday had fuelled speculation that it was meant to send a message from the top to the minister to step down from his position. There was no confirmation from the government or party sources on this.