#MeToo hits BJP govt: Sushma Swaraj stays silent about allegations against MJ Akbar

NEW DELHI:External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj refused to answer questions about sexual harassment allegations that were leveled against her deputy, Minister of State MJ Akbar, as the #MeToo ride sweeps across the country.

uttara@tribuneindia.com

Smita Sharma
Tribune News Service
New Delhi, October 9

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj refused to answer questions about sexual harassment allegations that were leveled against her deputy, Minister of State MJ Akbar, as the #MeToo ride sweeps across the country.

The Tribune pointedly asked Swaraj on the sidelines of her ministry’s ‘India for Humanity’ event what she would do as a woman minister about the allegations that a senior journalist Priya Ramani levelled against Akbar. Instead of answering, Swaraj walked away.

Swaraj’s ministerial colleague also refused to respond to the specific allegation, instead responding generally: “The ministry has a stated position that wherever there is a case of sexual misconduct or abuse qualifying for jail term under criminal law for three years or more, there is no deadline within which the complaint must be filed. There must be an investigation into such cases”.

Reacting on the issue, the Congress demanded that the matter should be investigated.

"It is an extremely serious matter and the minister concerned needs to speak up. Silence cannot be a way out. This matter should be investigated. We would like to hear from both the minister in question and the Prime Minister on this issue," Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told reporters.

In tweets on Monday, Priya Ramani wrote: “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t “do” anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator—maybe they’ll share.”

Her tweet contained link to an article she had penned for The Vogue last year titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world’. In the article, written in the form of letter to a ‘Male boss’, Ramani recounts an occasion when a former editor reportedly called her to his bedroom at 7 pm when she was a young reporter. Her article however didn’t name this ‘Male boss’.

But when women began sharing their stories as the #MeToo storm swept the country, Ramani revealed the name of her supposed harasser—senior journalist MJ Akbar. After her tweet went viral, two more women journalists—Shuma Raha and Prerna Singh Bindra—accused Akbar, now a minister—of harassment, all dating back to the days when he was a eminent journalist and editor.

“It was #MJAkbar. I do not say this lightly. I know the consequences of false accusations and it has been now 17 yrs and I have no concrete proof. But I was young, just made features editor, super impressed with our brilliant editor, sensitive writer(read Riot after Riot),” read the first among series of tweets posted by Bindra.

Incidentally, in March this year, when former Samajwadi Party leader, Naresh Agarwaal took a sexist jibe at MP Jaya Bachchan for her acting profession soon after he switched to the BJP, Swaraj had severely critcised it. “Shri Naresh Agarwal has joined Bhartiya Janata Party. He is welcome. However, his comments regarding Jaya Bachhan ji are improper and unacceptable,” Swaraj had tweeted.

The Tribune asked Akbar for his response on Monday. Akbar is in Abuja in Nigeria for an India-West Africa conclave and is expected to return to Delhi on Wednesday.

Sources however say that since the accusations were personal in nature and date back to before he became a minister, either he in personal capacity or the BJP’s political leadership should be asked to respond. — With agency inputs