“The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate.”
– O. Henry
Perhaps not surprisingly, rather as expected Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar has not stepped down after being accused by more than a dozen people of having committed acts of sexual harassment and abuse during his previous career as a journalist. Akbar, who is in the eye of a storm over allegations of sexual harassment in India’s #MeToo movement, on Sunday dug in his heels as he rejected the charges terming it baseless and threatened legal action against the women journalists who made the accusations.Akbar is one of the many leading names from the media and entertainment industries who have been accused by their co-workers of sexual misconduct. In Akbar’s case some of his former female colleagues charged him with sexual harassment and indecent behaviour when they worked together some 20-30 years ago. These revelations made the country sit up and take notice of the growing volume of accusations against some very established names, Minister of Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi informed that the government will set up a committee to look into the charges and advise measures including institutional framework to deal with such charges. On the other hand, some of those figured in the ever-growing list of ‘predators’ have taken legal recourse and sent notices to their accusers. Even Akbar has threatened to take legal action against those who have accused him of sexual harassment.
There is no denying that the ‘MeToo moment’ is crystallising around an immediate call for accountability: Akbar, the minister in the NDA government, should have resigned after being called out by several women for predatory behaviour as an influential editor. A section had expected if he doesn’t step down on his own, the government he serves would persuade him to do so. Under the circumstances it (resignation) would have been the ‘right choice’ both for him as well for the Narendra Modi-led NDA government. Rather upon his return from foreign trip, he decided to go offensive calling all these accusations are canards hurled at him as part of “a viral fever among some sections”. He would have found himself in good stead had he quit first and attempted to defend himself legally or otherwise later. Unfortunately, he chose not to. It is also true Akbar is, indeed, innocent until proven otherwise of ‘doing anything’. But here too propriety demands that a member in public service steps aside, or is made to, so that legal process arrives at logical conclusion. The big question here is: Can Modi government afford to have a minister carrying a taint like this?
The Minister of State for External Affairs could not have brazened it out without a say from the head office – a nod from Modi and BJP president Amit Shah — the duo who call the shots in the BJP. By not asking Akbar to tender his resignation, Prime Minister Modi has sent a wrong message about his government’s stand on sexual misdemeanors of high-profile people and harassment of women in workspaces. The government, that boasts of several women-centric policies and programmes, from Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao to Ujjwala, and speaks boldly of the injustices of triple talaq, might have to pay the price in future for its stand on Akbar.