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The Indian government has challenged public opinion by supporting MJ Akbar, a high-profile minister of state for foreign affairs, in his refusal to resign over allegations made as part of India’s developing MeToo movement that he sexually harassed young women employees when he was an editor of leading newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s.
M.J.Akbar Akbar, 67, rejected the accusations as “false and fabricated” and today (Oct 15) he filed a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, one of more than 10 journalists who have named him for implied sexual and other advances.
Most of those involved were young and he was their editor when the alleged incidents occurred. One has written that he tried to kiss her when she was a teenager and suggested he set her up with an apartment. Another, then a student, said he wore “a bathrobe with nothing underneath while meeting young women in hotel rooms” in the 1980s,
Akbar is one of many men with prominent roles in the film industry, television, the media and elsewhere who have been publicly accused on Twitter over the past two weeks as the #MetooIndia movement, which began last year in the US with Harvey Weinstein, the film personality, have mushroomed in India.
Abuse of women is widespread in India and is rarely discussed, partly because of the shame felt by those who have suffered, and partly because of fear of reprisals, especially at work. The question now is whether the Twitter claims and revelations, many of which have been widely gossiped in the past, will lead to a gradual change of attitudes.
Several of those accused have resigned from their positions in films and the media. Akbar is the first to take legal action. Chetan Bhagat, a prominent author of popular fiction, has rejected charges made against him as “false,” while Suhel Seth, a flamboyant marketing and image building expert, who is frequently on Twitter and television discussion panels, has gone unusually silent and has deleted his Facebook account that tracked his travels and friends.
Seth is an international specialist in damage limitation public relations and it looks as if the government has decided to back Akbar’s almost aggressive response in an attempt to prevent further allegations against other public figures, including politicians (there are rumors concerning one cabinet member). Perhaps significantly, Akbar has hired Karanjawala & Co, a leading law firm run by Raian Karanjawala, who is a close friend of Seth, to represent him. Seth has not replied to emailed request for a comment. It seems there are over 90 lawyers on the case (below).
It is possible that the legal action might deter some women from going public with fresh accusations against these and other men. Ramani however has said “truth and the absolute truth” is her “only defense”.
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Other journalists involved have reiterated their stand after Akbar said their stories were “fabricated.”
Akbar has also questioned the timing of their charges, suggesting that they are part of a political conspiracy against the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government ahead of the general election next April.
Many of the men accused have much to lose. Film personalities and journalists might scramble back, but others could find that more difficult.
Akbar, for example, has built a ministerial career in the BJP, having earlier been a Congress Party MP and launched newspapers that include the Asian Age. Bhagat is one of India’s most popular authors, especially among younger generations, with books that explore ambitions for success in university, love and a career. Seth spends much of his life flying to foreign capitals and his close contacts include Ratan Tata, the veteran Indian industrialist, George Osborne, the former British finance minister, and senior Financial Times editors.
The women however may find it difficult to defend their claims in law because, as several have said, “nothing happened.” Priya Ramani wrote on Twitter that she did not name Akbar when she first wrote about his advances in India’s Vogue magazine a year ago “because he didn’t ‘do’ anything.”
It is unlikely, given the nature of Indian society, that women will be prepared to go public with cases where men were successful in their advances because they would be seen as tainted. Unlike probable reactions in the US and Europe, many husbands and in-laws would not be understanding or sympathetic.
“Most of those who did succumb, will not dare to come forward – there will be too much shame,” said Madhu Trehan, a leading editor, in a television discussion.
She and others are also concerned that women seeking publicity and instant attention – or settling vendettas – will make false and unjustified claims against men, doing harm to their reputations. Akbar’s legal action could have the effect of stemming such false claims as well as more warranted allegations.
A survey by the IndiaSpend media analysis firm has found that registered cases of sexual harassment at Indian workplaces increased by 54 percent from 371 in 2014 to 570 in 2017, according to official data. But as many as 70 percent of women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017
Suhel Seth’s Twitter photo
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India’s MeToo outpourings began when Tanushree Dutta, a model and Bollywood actress, alleged harassment on the sets of a movie in 2008 by Nana Patekar, an actor. Dutta has filed a police complaint naming Patekar and a choreographer, producer and director who were involved with her in the film “Horn Ok Please.” She told the police that Patekar had “indecently” touched her on the sets of the movie and said she suffered psychological trauma and was unable to work in films.
The accusations against Akbar are that he summoned young female journalists to hotel rooms and harassed them at work. “My last six months as a journalist at Asian Age, the newspaper he edited, were pure hell with repeated physical advances,” wrote @ghazalawahab
Ira Trivedi, a successful author, wrote in Outlook magazine on October 13 that, when she was in her early 20s, Bhagat “made a pass (and) tried to plant a kiss on my lips” in his hostel room after having tea in a public area. He “seldom passed on an opportunity to make overtures” when they met later and “groped” one of her friends on a bus. Seth “became too familiar with me and other women – putting his arms around our waists at parties, holding us a second longer than necessary after a self-imposed hug, planting one on our cheeks or lips when you least expected it”.
Trivedi is the daughter of a senior bureaucrat and felt well-enough established to remain in contact with the two men at literary and other events and repel any advances. The stories she told didn’t happen in the workplace and, taken individually, what happened to her may seem merely inappropriate. Trivedi and others have however been motivated to go public to demonstrate widespread behavior and support #MeToostories of more serious harassment against more vulnerable young women.
The government’s aim now seems to be to support Akbar’s legal action and hope that this stems the tide of revelations against him and others. The Congress Party is seizing on the allegations to demand Akbar’s resignation, which is being called for in the media and has been supported today by journalists’ associations. Congress will make as much political capital as possible out of the case in the run-up to important state assembly elections next month and the general election.
Narendra Modi’s government however has shown over the past four years that public apologies and admissions of guilt are not its style. Some government ministers, including two women, have said that the guilty should be punished, but Akbar is far from admitting guilt.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant