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Indian government minister steps down as country’s #MeToo movement gains traction

Bharatiya Janata Party member M.J. Akbar takes the oath during the swearing-in of cabinet ministers at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on July 5, 2016.
Bharatiya Janata Party member M.J. Akbar takes the oath during the swearing-in of cabinet ministers at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on July 5, 2016. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — A junior minister in the Indian government stepped down after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, delivering the first major victory to the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.

M.J. Akbar, minister of state for external affairs, faced allegations of harassment and assault from female journalists who had worked for him in his previous career as a newspaper editor.

Akbar’s resignation is the most high-profile departure since a delayed #MeToo movement took off on social media in India this month.

Earlier, Akbar had lashed out at his accusers and launched a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani, who publicly named him on Twitter as a serial harasser.

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

Though the case was filed only against Ramani, Akbar in a statement on Sunday denied sexual harassment and assault allegations from more than a dozen women who came forward after Ramani went public.

Defamation can be a criminal charge in India, and a conviction can carry up to two years in prison.

Akbar’s denial and decision to pursue criminal action against Ramani led to a swell of sympathy for his accusers. By Tuesday, calls on social media for Akbar’s resignation escalated — 20 female journalists signed a statement in support of Ramani’s account, and male journalists who had worked for Akbar also started speaking out against him. 

After Akbar’s resignation, Ramani tweeted: “As women we feel vindicated by MJ Akbar’s resignation. I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court.”

Pressure on Akbar mounted this week as fresh accounts of harassment emerged. On Tuesday, the news website Scroll published a new accusation of harassment from journalist Tushita Patel, who prefaced her allegations by saying that she felt compelled to speak out because of Akbar’s brazen denial.

“If I don’t speak up now, I feel I’ll be complicit in your crime,” Patel wrote, addressing Akbar.

In her account, Patel recounted Akbar’s persistent advances. She wrote: “Suddenly you got up, grabbed me and kissed me hard — your stale tea breath and your bristly moustache are still etched in the recesses of my memory. I wriggled out and ran till I reached the road, jumped into an auto rickshaw and started crying.”

As the allegations against Akbar continued to mount, his presence in the cabinet became a liability for a government that has sought to present itself as a champion of women and girls.

Akbar’s female colleagues in the cabinet have faced repeated questions about their views on his conduct.

In response to such queries, three female ministers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government voiced broad support for the #MeToo movement but declined to call for Akbar’s resignation.

The controversy was also becoming a ripe target for Modi’s critics. India’s opposition Congress Party had earlier called for Akbar’s resignation.

On Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party president, alluded to the affair at a public event.

India’s prime minister often uses the slogan, “Educate the daughter, save the daughter,” Gandhi noted, according to the Hindustan Times. “But it so happens that when a complaint against his minister comes, he keeps quiet.”

Sexual harassment cuts across party lines: On Monday, the leader of the Congress Party’s student wing stepped down after misconduct allegations against him emerged.

Akbar, a member of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, was previously a member of the Congress Party. 

A BJP spokesman, Sambit Patra, did not respond to requests for comment. 

On Oct. 8, Ramani named Akbar as the man she had described, but not identified, in a 2017 Vogue article titled, “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, an open letter,” referring to the high-powered Hollywood film producer facing charges of rape and assault from multiple women in the United States. 

Ramani’s accusation unleashed a flood of pent-up rage, with other women who had worked with Akbar speaking out about alleged harassment by him.

One of them, Ghazala Wahab, editor of Force magazine, worked for Akbar at the Asian Age newspaper between 1994 and 1997. She described Akbar’s alleged advances in a first-person account for the news website the Wire.

“Sometimes, he would walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips; and every time I would push him away and escape from his room,” she wrote.

Akbar denied Wahab’s accusations in a statement Sunday. “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.”

Majlie de Puy Kamp told HuffPost India that Akbar forcibly kissed her on her last day as an intern at the Asian Age in 2007: “He grabbed me right under my shoulders, on my arms, and pulled me in and kissed me on my mouth and forced his tongue into my mouth, and I just stood there.”

The article included a brief email exchange between Kamp’s father and Akbar. “These are issues which are so prone to misunderstanding that there is no point debating them,” Akbar wrote after he was confronted. 

Other prominent men in India have also faced repercussions from India’s #MeToo movement. In October, a handful of influential newspaper editors, including Prashant Jha of the Hindustan Times and KR Sreenivas of the Times of India, resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations against them. 

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