Indian minister resigns over sexual harassment allegations

Former journalist MJ Akbar accused of predatory behaviour over 30-year period

MJ Akbar during his swearing-in ceremony as a minister. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

MJ Akbar during his swearing-in ceremony as a minister. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

 

India’s junior foreign minister, MJ Akbar, has resigned following allegations of persistent sexual harassment by numerous female colleagues.

The former high-profile newspaper editor turned politician is the most prominent Indian to be named in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which emerged in Bollywood’s film industry in late September and has since come to prevalence across the country.

Some 15 women had accused Mr Akbar (67) of predatory and sexually aggressive behaviour over a 30-year journalistic career that ended after he joined prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in early 2014. He was appointed junior foreign minister in July 2016.

“Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity, I deem it appropriate to step down from my office and challenge false accusations levied against me also in a personal capacity,” Mr Akbar said in a statement on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, after returning from an overseas trip, he had refused to resign. Instead, he launched an offensive against his accusers, claiming their allegations were a “political conspiracy” ahead of the 2019 general elections.

He also sued journalist Priya Ramani for criminal defamation in a New Delhi court, after she claimed in an article in Vogue magazine that Mr Akbar sexually “preyed” on her during a job interview in his hotel room in Mumbai several years ago.

An Indian policeman takes away a Congress party worker during a protest against Akbar in New Delhi. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP Photo
An Indian policeman takes away a Congress party worker during a protest against Akbar in New Delhi. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP Photo

“Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer. It was more date, less interview,” Ms Ramani wrote.

Ms Ramani welcomed Mr Akbar’s resignation, stating that as a woman she felt vindicated by it. “I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court,” she posted on Twitter.

Pressure to resign

Other female journalists had claimed that as owner-editor of the daily newspaper Asian Age, Mr Akbar had assaulted them in his office, offering them incentives if they consented and posing encumbrances if they did not.

The allegations had placed Mr Akbar under tremendous media and public pressure to resign.

Even his political party, which had initially maintained a silence over the allegations, began distancing itself from him. On Tuesday it said that the alleged incidents dated from a time when Mr Akbar was not a party member.

In addition to newspaper editorials and television debates demanding Mr Akbar’s resignation, an open letter to India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, by 73 retired prominent civil servants called on him to do so.

“Constitutional propriety and morality dictate that the functionary concerned should resign from his office pending an inquiry and must not be reappointed to a high constitutional post till he is cleared of all the charges against him,” the letter stated.