Union minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar resigned from his position on Wednesday (October 17) after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and molestation emerged against him. In a statement, Akbar said, quoted by ANI, “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 the false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity. I have therefore tendered my resignation from the office of minister of state for external affairs. I am deeply grateful to the prime minister Shri Narendra Modi and to the external affairs minister Smt Sushma Swaraj for the opportunity they gave me to serve my country.”
At least 15 women journalists have openly come out with harassment allegations against Akbar. Ghazala Wahab, now the executive editor FORCE newsmagazine, wrote a detailed account on The Wire of her time at Asian Age, where she worked under Akbar, alleging that he molested her and harassed her repeatedly, until she could not take it any more and quit.
Former Mint Lounge editor Priya Ramani was the first to call him out, via a tweet. Ramani had written about her whole experience in a Vogue India article in October 2017 where she called out a ‘celebrity editor’ without naming him for his inappropriate behaviour with women journalists. She also described how Akbar set up interviews with women journalists in hotel rooms “with drinks at hand”. On October 8, Ramani publicly identified Akbar as the central character of her piece.
After Akbar resigned, Ramani said women feel vindicated.
Shutapa Paul, founder editor of NewCrop, had been among the slew of Indian journalists who had accused Akbar of harassment. She had posted on Twitter about her experience working with Akbar after joining India Today magazine in 2010.
“This was long overdue and it was important that Mr Akbar took moral responsibility for his actions and stepped down from his post. Credit must go to the role played by the media, journalistic fraternity and civil society,” Paul told The Wire after Akbar issued the statement of his resignation.
Within hours of Ramani’s statement naming Akbar as her harasser, at least three more women journalists made allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar, who is presently a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and has been at the helm of renowned newspapers like The Telegraph, The Sunday Guardian and the Asian Age.
On Tuesday, October 9, journalist Prem Panicker also added another account of M.J. Akbar harassing a young woman in 1994 while he was recruiting for the Asian Age. He told The Wire that his cousin, who is now deceased, was a fresh graduate who applied for a reporter’s job and went to the Leela Kempinkski in Mumbai to be interviewed by Akbar. After being greeted by his assistant, she entered the bedroom area and sat on the couch, when Akbar proceeded to sit beside her, put his arm around her and ask her about herself.
Panicker said the interview concluded mere minutes after his cousin told Akbar that she was interested in journalism because her cousin Prem Panicker was one too – and that he was waiting in the hotel lobby for her.
Over the next few days, three more women came on the record, detailing various allegations of harassment.
The Wire has contacted Akbar to seek his response to these allegations and others that have been shared with The Wire and this report will be updated if he responds.
Last Tuesday, minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj was asked whether the ministry will be internally probing the allegations against Akbar. In a video of the encounter, Swaraj can be seen ducking the questions and walking away.
When Akbar returned to India on Sunday, he denied the allegations and also filed a civil defamation suit against Priya Ramani. According to reports, Akbar has hired 97 lawyers to represent him in the case. Social media users and journalists have however, expressed support to Ramani, who has also stated that she would not be intimidated by the suit.
Two days after Akbar described the allegations of sexual harassment against him as lies and launched a defamation case against journalist Ramani, 19 former and current employees of The Asian Age came out in support of Ramani.
These journalists have urged Delhi’s Patiala house court, where Akbar has filed his defamation case to “consider some of their testimonies about their experiences at his hands.” By speaking up, Ramani had “lifted the lid on the culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation” that Akbar engendered and presided over at the Asian Age, the statement said.