New Delhi: Minister of state for external affairs, M.J. 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 and threatened legal action against the women journalists who made the accusations.
In a statement issued after his return from a two-nation tour of Africa, Akbar said the sexual harassment allegations were “false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice"—in a clear sign that he does not intend to quit over the issue as was being speculated earlier.
He said he could not respond to the charges previously as he was on an official tour.
Swarmed by journalists on his arrival earlier on Sunday, Akbar brushed aside a volley of questions by saying he would be making a statement “later on".
“Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. Whatever be the case, now that I have returned, my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action," the minister said in his statement.
“These false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill. Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy. This is deeply distressing. As indicated above, I will be taking appropriate legal action," the minister said.
The accusations first surfaced on Twitter a week ago as Akbar began his trip to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Mint columnist Priya Ramani named the journalist-turned-politician in a Twitter post last Monday as the editor she had alluded to in an article in the Vogue magazine on sexual harassment at the workplace in October 2017.
Later through the week, at least nine other female journalists made public their stories of alleged misconduct by Akbar amid a barrage of accusations in India’s #MeToo movement, which singed prominent names in India’s entertainment and media business since its eruption several weeks ago.
That Akbar went ahead with his visit to Equatorial Guinea after Nigeria was indication enough that he was not being asked to step down nor that he intended to quit, despite calls for his sacking by the opposition Congress party and the furore on Twitter.
On Sunday, Akbar questioned why the women who had accused him did not report the incidents previously. “This is the reason why no one went to the authorities for so long, because I had done nothing," he said.
“Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge," Akbar said, referring to polls coming up in five states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana—starting 12 November. India is also to go to national polls in 2019.
Within Akbar’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), senior leaders are of the view that there is no formal complaint against the minister to warrant his removal.
“There is no legal case against M.J. Akbar and in the absence of a formal complaint how can any action be taken against him. Most of these cases are at least a decade old, proving these allegations against him would be difficult," said a senior BJP leader.
Another BJP leader said the allegations could be politically motivated. “These cases are difficult to prove and could be politically motivated against the junior minister," the second BJP leader said.
The opposition Congress however kept up its attack on the minister and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). “I wonder how over a dozen women sharing their experiences can be claimed as political conspiracy? Bigger wonder is which constituency does his stepping down impact in elections? The only clear answer is that this government is actively protecting and promoting the sexual perverts," Congress’s national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi tweeted.