Indian minister quits to fight sexual harassment accusations

FILE PHOTO: India's Minister of State for External Affairs Mobashar Jawed Akbar walks inside his residence in New Delhi, India, October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian government junior minister resigned on Wednesday to fight accusations of sexual harassment from more than a dozen women during his previous career as a journalist, the most high-profile casualty of a growing #MeToo movement in the country.

The women have accused M.J. Akbar, a junior foreign minister, of inappropriate behavior before entering politics.

Akbar was a prominent editor who founded several publications including the Asian Age. He has denied the accusations and filed a criminal lawsuit against one of the women for defaming him.

“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 in a personal capacity,” Akbar said in a statement.

The #MeToo movement, which began in the United States more than a year ago in response to accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in the entertainment industry, gained traction in India in late September after the actress Tanushree Dutta said actor Nana Patekar behaved inappropriately on the sets of a film they were shooting in 2008.

Patekar has denied any wrongdoing.

Since then, more than a dozen men in the media, entertainment, political and art worlds have been accused of offences, ranging from sexual harassment to rape.

“As women we feel vindicated by MJ Akbar’s resignation. I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court,” journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to accuse Akbar, said in a tweet.

Akbar, 67, has filed a defamation suit against her. The case is due in a Delhi court on Thursday.

PRESSURE TO GO

India is a conservative country and discussion of sex is taboo for many people. Women have long lagged behind men in workplace participation.

“Eventually the truth prevails,” Ghazala Wahab, another journalist who accused Akbar of making physical advances, told CNN NEWS 18.

While Modi’s Hindu nationalist government did not make a public statement, pressure was building internally for Akbar’s removal as more allegations of misconduct surfaced, sources in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said.

Akbar’s boss, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Women and Child Welfare Minister Maneka Gandhi both were opposed to him continuing in office while he fought a legal battle against his accusers, the sources, who cannot be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said.

Since he got back from a tour of Africa on Sunday, Akbar had sought a meeting with Modi but that did not come through. He also asked to meet the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a close Modi aide, but that too did not happen.

Ram Das Athawale, junior minister for social justice, said he supported Akbar’s decision to quit.

“The allegations against him should be properly investigated,” Athawale said.

Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst at Jain University in the city of Bengaluru, said Akbar’s defamation lawsuit and his subsequent resignation could indicate damage limitation by the government.

“You are facing an election in several states and this could have been highly embarrassing for the government. It would have been tough for the government to justify retaining him,” said Shastri.

Allegations of sexual harassment have ensnared the opposition party as well. This week, the chief of the youth wing of the Congress stepped down after a female member alleged harassment, the party announced.

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