India’s fledgling #MeToo movement claimed its highest-profile scalp to date on Wednesday as a government minister and veteran editor quit after at least 20 women accused him of sexual harassment.
M.J. Akbar, who became junior foreign minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government after a glittering journalistic career, maintained however that the barrage of allegations were false.
“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 against me,” he said in a statement.
Allegations against Akbar snowballed last week after journalist Priya Ramani accused him of sexual harassment when the pair worked together in the 1990s.
Akbar was “an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer,” Ramani had said.
She said that he would often insist on conducting interviews and meetings in hotel rooms.
“As women we feel vindicated by M.J. Akbar’s resignation. I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court,” she said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Akbar earlier dismissed Ramani’s accusations and said he would sue for defamation. But 20 other women have since offered to testify against him.
Another woman said Akbar cornered and pawed her when she was a junior reporter at the Asian Age newspaper in 1997.
“He ran his hands from my breast to my hips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist,” wrote Ghazala Wahab on news website The Wire.
“I ran out of his cabin and into the toilet to cry my eyes out,” added Wahab, who now works as executive editor of Force magazine.
A third accuser said Akbar had greeted her in his underwear after calling her to his hotel room and then forcibly kissed her.
“Suddenly you got up, grabbed me and kissed me hard — your stale tea breath and your bristly moustache are still etched in the recesses of my memory,” journalist Tushita Patel wrote in an article for Scroll on Tuesday.
She said the incident dated back to 1992 when she was a trainee.
Bollywood’s #MeToo moment
India’s belated #MeToo movement has made headlines in recent weeks with women sharing accounts of alleged harassment by several powerful men in the worlds of Bollywood, journalism, comedy and even cricket.
The phenomenon remains confined to India’s urban elite at present, with vast numbers of women elsewhere in the country lacking either access to justice or a platform to name their tormentors.
The trigger appears to have been actress Tanushree Dutta, who recently accused well-known Bollywood actor Nana Patekar of inappropriate behaviour on a film set 10 years ago. Patekar has denied the claims.
Last Friday, the production of a Bollywood blockbuster was halted after the film’s lead called for the claims against Patekar, his co-star, and the feature’s director to be “stringently” investigated.
Three women had accused Khan of sexual harassment the day before the film was halted.
One said Khan had insisted that she strip during an audition while another alleged the director had flashed his penis at her during an interview. Khan has denied the accusations.
Bollywood director Vikas Bahl has meanwhile been accused of assaulting a female employee of Phantom Films, the production house behind Netflix series “Sacred Games”, in 2015.
Bahl has denied the allegations and threatened to sue his accusers for defamation.
The hallowed world of Indian cricket has also not been spared, with the chief of India’s powerful cricket board, Rahul Johri, on Friday given a week to explain allegations of sexual harassment.
Johri has yet to comment publicly.