New Delhi: Hours after returning from his African tour, minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar claimed that the multiple allegations against him of sexual harassment from women journalists are part of a political vendetta, and threatened to take legal action against his accusers.
When Akbar landed in New Delhi on Sunday morning, he was met by a battery of mediapersons, but he remained tight-lipped and said that a statement would be released soon. A few news channels and websites jumped the gun and claimed that Akbar had tendered his resignation via email to the Prime Minister.
Akbar’s statement clearly indicates that he has no plans to step down.
“The allegations of misconduct made against me are false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice,” said the minister.
“Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. Whatever be the case, now that I have returned, my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action” he said.
Over the last few days, at least 14 women have offered their accounts of alleged sexual harassment by Akbar when he was a journalist as the #MeToo movement picked up speed. Ghazala Wahab detailed, in a first-person piece in The Wire, her experience working under him at Asian Age when he was the editor-in-chief of the paper. She accused him of harassing her physically and mentally repeatedly to the point that she was forced to quit the paper.
Addressing Wahab’s allegation, he dismissed the claims outright.
“Another accusation was made repeatedly by Ms Ghazala Wahab, in an effort to damage my reputation. She claimed that she had been molested in office, 21 years ago. This is 16 years before I entered public life, and when I was in media.
The only office where I worked with her was that of The Asian Age. A part of the editorial team then worked out of a small hall. At the time concerned, I had a very tiny cubicle, patched together by plywood and glass. Others had tables and chairs two feet away. It is utterly bizarre to believe that anything could have happened in that tiny space, and, moreover, that no one else in the vicinity would come to know, in the midst of a working day. These allegations are false, motivated and baseless.
Ms Wahab states that she complained to Ms Veenu Sandal, who wrote features for the paper. Ms Sandal has described Ms Wahab’s version as nonsense, in an interview to the Indian Express. Ms Sandal has also said that she has never heard, in 20 years, anybody accusing me of any such thing.”
Priya Ramani, a journalist, had outed Akbar in one of her stories in Vogue India without naming him in 2017. She alleged that Akbar set up an interview late at night in a hotel room, asked her to have a drink with him and also to sit next to him on the bed all the while singing old Hindi songs. “Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator – maybe they’ll share,” she tweeted.
Akbar claimed that Ramani began “this campaign a year ago with a magazine article”.
“She did not however name me as she knew it was an incorrect story. When asked recently why she had not named me, she replied, in a tweet: ‘Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything.’ If I didn’t do anything, where and what is the story? There is no story. This was admitted at the very inception. But a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened. Some are total, unsubstantiated hearsay; others confirm, on the record, that I didn’t do anything.”
Akbar added that Ramani and Wahab’s continued presence in office after the alleged incidents “clearly establishes that they had no apprehension and discomfort”.
“The reason why they remained silent for decades is very apparent: as Ms Ramani has herself stated, I never did anything. This is the reason why no one went to the authorities for so long, because I had done nothing,” he said.
He also dismissed other allegations from Shuma Raha and Shutapa Paul on the lines that the accusers stated that he “didn’t ‘do’ anything”.
“One woman, Anju Bharti, went to the absurd extent of claiming I was partying in a swimming pool. I do not know how to swim,” added Akbar.
Claiming a political conspiracy behind the slew of allegations, he said, “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge. These false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill”.
Reiterating his threat on legal action, the minister of state added, “Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy. This is deeply distressing. I will be taking appropriate legal action”.
Five of the women who have accused Akbar of sexual harassment have told the Indian Express that they stand by their statements and will continue their fight. “I stand by my testimony of the two incidents — one in which he plucked my bra strap, and the other when he stared at my breasts. I also stand by the fact that he did the same with other women in the office. I am disappointed with Akbar’s response but I am not surprised. This is going to be a longish battle, and the next step in many cases is a legal step,” Suparna Sharma, resident editor at Asian Age, said. Majlie de Puy Kamp, Priya Ramani, Kanika Gahlaut and Shutapa Paul too have expressed their disappointment at the minister’s statement and said that they stand by their allegations.
One of the women who had spoken out publicly, Majlie de Puy Kamp, hit out at Akbar’s claim that there was a political agenda driving the charges. De Puy Camp, who now works in New York as a journalist, was an 18-year-old intern at the Asian Age when she said Akbar harassed her. “I am not a citizen, I cannot vote.,” she told the Indian Express. “I do not have a political agenda. Plus, I have a paper trail. My father wrote an email to Akbar about the incident to which he responded. I have evidence. I am disappointed but not surprised by his statement. I am, however, very comfortable with my story.”
Though Akbar’s lengthy statement attempted to debunk the accounts of Wahab, Ramani, Bharti, Raha and Paul, it is silent on the specific charges levelled by de Puy Camp.