MJ Akbar resignation big victory for #MeToo: Real troubles for ex-minister may begin during defamation hearing

We, initially, had one set of critics who were surprised why MJ Akbar wasn’t resigning — or why Prime Minister Narendra Modi wasn’t sacking him. Then, we had a second set of analysts who were surprised at the fact that anybody should be surprised about it. Oh no, they said, wilting under pressure wasn’t Modi’s style.

On Wednesday, the entire lot of them were in for a big surprise. When he was least expected to, Akbar resigned as the Minister of State for External Affairs. After accusations raged against the former editor for nearly two weeks, women who accused Akbar of sexual misconduct welcomed the decision. At last, he paid for the sexual misdemeanour that he had perpetrated on women journalists in his employ when he had been an editor.

The resignation wasn’t expected, at least not so soon, because it was only on Monday that he slapped a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, one of the more than dozen journalists who exposed him. Not only did Akbar not hint of any intention to quit; he even appeared to be firm in fighting it out, calling the allegations “false” and “fabricated”.

But the #MeToo tales of Akbar were getting to be too many, too disturbing and too appalling and too shameful, and the chorus for his resignation was growing too strong for Modi to ignore the implications of this disgrace for his party and government.

Akbar’s exit is as much of a jolt to the political species as it is to the exalted profession of journalism, which had engendered and tolerated sexual harassment of female subordinates by their male bosses. And the minister’s resignation is not just a huge victory for the #MeToo crusade: it will also go down in history as a humongous landmark in the Indian women’s fight for their rights.

The #MeToo campaigners can claim another victory as well. Akbar’s resignation means a recognition by Modi and BJP’s top honchos that the campaign is not confined to just the elitist cream of the feminist society, as some have claimed. Modi is acknowledging that the feminine outpourings have percolated to the middle class, a major support base for the ruling party. Modi’s electoral victories, beginning his 2014 Lok Sabha poll triumph, are attributed to the significant backing he received from the middle class, especially women. He could ignore the #MeToo tsunami sweeping this section only at his peril.

As for Akbar, his troubles are far from over

 MJ Akbar resignation big victory for #MeToo: Real troubles for ex-minister may begin during defamation hearing

File photo of Union minister MJ Akbar. Facebook

In fact, his tribulations will turn from the political to legal, once the Delhi court begins to hear his defamation case against Priya Ramani on Thursday. He filed the suit with what looked like cocksure confidence that he could take on his tormentors, and though it’s inadvisable and unwarranted to predict the outcome of the case, it’s fairly clear that the proceedings in the courtroom will make him as uncomfortable as his female victims in the newsroom.

If Akbar himself, in the end, becomes a victim of the shock and awe that he had intended to deliver to his alleged defamers by filing this case, he can only blame himself. It may not turn out to be the kind of an open-and-shut case he had hoped it would be. It most certainly won’t be as simple as opening and closing the pages of the newspapers that he so brilliantly produced. In fact, the case may present a tricky legal mess of a kind Indian judiciary has rarely had to contend with, and there is no reason to believe, at least not as yet, that he can come out of it unscathed.

The case, filed in the court of Delhi’s Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, poses a maze of questions that spring from laws governing defamation as well as sexual harassment, both of which have grey areas that do not automatically guarantee a legal success for him.

Twist in the tail?

Akbar’s emphasis on the whole thing being his “personal” affair is, of course, not without significance. He mentions “personal capacity” twice in the first sentence of his one-paragraph resignation announcement. He said: “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”

While this helps BJP distance itself from the incidents of sexual harassment which happened a long time ago when he had nothing to do with the party, this also could legally help the former editor.

It might look on the face of it that a public person or a minister may be on a stronger ground to claim defamation with superior resources and potential for influencing witnesses.
But Akbar’s lawyers can cite the so-called "Sullivan doctrine" of the American legal system that has been incorporated into the Indian jurisprudence to claim that the onus of proving malice in the allegations is less on a private citizen than on a public personality. The court may, however, take a dim view of such an interpretation.

And yet, Akbar will have quite a task on his hands. One question, among many others, that should trouble him is: Though his witnesses will certify his “good conduct” as a journalist, can they refute the specific instances of sexual harassment made by Priya Ramani and other women journalists?

Above all, Akbar may soon be asking himself: Is he biting more than he can chew by filing the suit against Priya Ramani?

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 14:31:41 IST