New Delhi: Accusations of sexual assault and harassment levelled by almost a dozen women under the #MeToo campaign notwithstanding, minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar on Thursday proceeded on an official visit to the Equatorial Guinea after Nigeria, quelling speculation that he would be asked to cut short his Africa tour and step down.
Two people familiar with the developments said on Thursday that the minister had gone to the tiny West African country bordering Cameroon. The two people had earlier said that Akbar would return to New Delhi on Friday after his Nigeria leg of the Africa tour. The visit to both countries was planned before the accusations against him came to light, the two people said separately.
That Akbar was going ahead with the visit to Equatorial Guinea without cutting short the trip was indication that he was not being asked to step down, at least not immediately, a third person familiar with the matter said.
Accusations against Akbar first appeared on Twitter on Monday, as the minister started his visit to Nigeria, leading an Indian delegation to a Confederation of Indian Industry-EXIM Bank conclave in Lagos. Nigeria is India’s largest trading partner in Africa and one of fuel-starved India’s major sources of petroleum.
Indian-owned or operated companies are the second-largest employer in Nigeria, according to the Indian external affairs ministry’s website.
Tiny Equatorial Guinea is the fourth-largest supplier of natural gas to India, after Qatar, Nigeria and Australia. The main items of India’s exports to Equatorial Guinea are food products, cereals, meat, pharmaceuticals, machinery and apparel.
In India, however, Akbar continued to remain at the centre of India’s snowballing #MeToo movement. Journalist Priya Ramani was the first to name Akbar for alleged harassment. By Thursday, the number of women who had accused him of inappropriate conduct had risen to at least 10. The controversy has singed many in India’s entertainment world, starting with Bollywood.
The opposition Congress on Wednesday was the first to demand Akbar’s resignation and was later joined by others. Akbar’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, by and large, remained quiet on the matter, with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj ignoring questions on Tuesday about whether the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government intended to take any action against him.
On Thursday, minister for textiles Smriti Irani issued a carefully-worded statement. “Women don’t go to work to be harassed. They go to work to live their dreams and earn a respectable living. I am hopeful that all these ladies who are speaking out get the justice that they deserve,” Irani said. “The gentleman concerned would be better positioned to speak on this issue... Anybody who is speaking out should in no way be shamed, victimized or mocked.”
The most stringent action that the government could initiate against Akbar was launching an informal inquiry against the journalist-turned-politician, said a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity. A knee-jerk reaction such as dismissing him from his post pending the completion of the inquiry, was unlikely, added the leader.
“An informal inquiry is more likely, but if people think that M.J. Akbar would be asked to resign once he returns from Nigeria, then it is very unlikely to happen,” the leader said.
“The government carries out informal inquiries in cases of complaints. It is the most likely route the government would take. The government would also want to check the validity of these allegations,” the leader said on condition of anonymity.