'So many have an MJ story': Sexual assault charges against MoS of foreign affairs mount, boss Sushma dodges media

Editor's note: Following Rituparna Chatterjee's report — Is India’s #MeToo moment here? Women are angry and they are naming and shaming their abusers — Firstpost will publish a series of articles collating personal accounts of those who have made allegations of harassment, along with responses from those who have been accused of such behaviour. This is an ongoing exercise and will be updated to reflect new developments. If you wish to draw our attention to instances of harassment you may have experienced or witnessed, tweet to us @firstpost with the hashtag #MeToo.

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While women from across the media have flooded social media with 'MeToo in India' messages and harrowing stories of their encounter with sexual harassment, mostly at their workplace, politicians, Union ministers and leaders of ruling parties have maintained a stoic silence on the issue. However, Minister of External Affairs Sushman Swaraj on Tuesday may have made matters worse by refusing to comment on the sexual harassment allegations against MJ Akbar, a former journalist who is now a Minister of State in the MEA.

Adding to the exhaustive list of women who have been sexually harassed, molested or assaulted by their male bosses, several women journalist called out Akbar on Twitter and alleged sexual harassment when he was a working journalist. Now a Rajya Sabha MP and the Minister of State for External Affairs, Akbar was the founding editor of The Telegraph, had launched The Asian Age and worked at a number of other media organisations, including The Sunday Guardian.

Women began to share their encounters with Akbar after journalist Priya Ramani re-plugged her article in Vogue from October 2017. Written after a string of women accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, Priya wrote about her experience with Akbar, but did not name him. In the Vogue article, Ramani said that Akbar had invited her to a hotel room in Mumbai for an interview and made uncomfortable advances towards her. She was 23 years old, while he was 43.

“I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator — maybe they’ll share.”

Soon after Ramani shared her tweet, a number of women retweeted and shared their own encounters with Akbar, accusing him of making them feel uncomfortable by calling them to his hotel rooms for interviews, inviting himself to their houses with a bottle of alcohol to even turning up at their houses "for coffee".

Even as this latest addition to the #MeToo movement took over headlines, Sushma refused to respond when she was asked whether there would be an “internal investigation” into the allegations against Akbar. TimesNow and India Today reporters yell out to her, reminding her that she is a "woman minister", and ask her what action she would take against Akbar, but Sushma chooses to stay mum.

Even as Sushma refused to comment on the allegations against Akbar, Congress national spokesperson Manish Tewari said the case dates back to when Akbar was a journalist, not a political leader. "MJ should come up and speak on this. The prime minister should speak on the allegations against his minister," he said. "The minister concerned (Akbar) should speak up. Silence cannot be a way out. It's an extremely serious matter and should be investigated."

The #MeToo movement, which began with sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein last year, picked up pace again in India after actor Tanushree Dutta accused her co-star from 10 years ago Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of Horn Ok Pleasss. Buoyed by her move to speak up against sexual misconduct by men, women beyond the realms of just Bollywood have been sharing their experiences and the trauma they have gone through. Notable among them have been the accounts shared by female journalists, bringing to light the prevalence of sexual harassment in the media.

'Top journo-turned-politician/MP whom everyone is too scared to name' was a recurring theme on social media, several of which alluded to Firstpost's piece, written by a contributor who sought anonymity to avoid causing anguish to her family — the author and this website have chosen to adhere to that original position.   

A journalist quoted Ramani’s tweet, saying, “So many of us have an MJ story.”

Another Twitter user, who had tweeted her experience with a "brilliant, flamboyant editor who dabbled in politics" on Sunday, revealed on Tuesday that it was Akbar who had called her to his his hotel room to "discuss work" and "made life at work hell" when she refused his advances".

Another Twitter user said she had gone through an experience with Akbar similar to Ramani's at a hotel in Kolkata in 1995, after which she declined the job offer. “I must clarify, however, that he didn't actually ‘do’ anything. But the whole experience of an interview sitting on a bed in a hotel room followed by an invitation to come over for a drink that evening was rattling and deeply uncomfortable,” she wrote.

A woman recounted how he “turned up at my friend’s house one night for a coffee” and how he “made life hell for her at their workplace” after she did not let him in.

Another Twitter user highlighted an account from 1999, which he said was based on Akbar.

Scroll.in quoted a former journalist who worked under Akbar in the 1990s as saying that Akbar would “try his luck with anything that moved, but was not particularly vindictive”. “I think Akbar is slimy in many ways. There was a clear category of successful male behaviour that he fell within — this was the trouble. People didn’t even realise or think that there is anything wrong with this behaviour,” she added.

The website quoted another journalist who worked with Akbar as saying that he would “try and manipulate young, impressionable women”. “There were always more young women than men in office, and it used to be called Akbar’s harem. This was the reputation he came with,” the report quoted her as saying.

While the majority accused Akbar of obscenity, journalist Joyeeta Basu wrote in his defence, saying Akbar had been "one of the best bosses" to her, and that she had "never felt uncomfortable" with him. She also clarified that she was not asked to share the tweet by anyone.

News18 reported that Akbar had made “sexually-loaded statements and gestures” in his capacity as editor-in-chief of a top national newspaper. According to the report, the Ministry of External Affairs is “in the know” of these allegations against Akbar, and that journalists who cover the ministry have asked for a response on the claims of Akbar’s “unsolicited advances towards women and his subordinates”.

Speaking to TimesNow, BJP leader Shaina NC said it take a “lot of courage” for women to share their ordeals, and what they say should not be questioned. Besides Shaina — even though she did not name Akbar — and Union minister Maneka Gandhi, there has been no word on the matter, or the #MeToo movement from any BJP leader or the government.

Akbar, who is currently in Nigeria, has not responded yet to the allegations. Firstpost has reached out to him for comment, but he has yet to respond.

In her article from 2017, Ramani described men’s predatory behaviour in office spaces, saying that "the world has changed but your species is just the same". The Firstpost article concludes by saying, “I cannot not call him out in this climate because ensconced in his important job, he seems to believe that he’s protected.”

But the #MeToo movement hopes to do what Ramani signed off her article with: "We’ll get you all one day."


Updated Date: Oct 09, 2018 18:22 PM

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