The resignation of India’s junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar following mounting accusations of sexual harassment against him over the past week is a welcome development. It will not only enable a thorough investigation being conducted into the allegations and Akbar’s counter-claims of defamation, but also diminish the perception of yet another powerful public figure in India getting away with the alleged abuse of women.
Akbar has denied all wrongdoing and said he was stepping down to fight his accusers in court. While the former minister retains every right to pursue his legal options, the Editors Guild of India — of which Akbar was once a president — has urged him to withdraw the criminal defamation case he filed against journalist Priya Ramani. It has taken a lot of courage and conviction for the 20-plus and growing bunch of brave women to speak out about alleged harassment and gross abuse of power by a formidable editor — so it would be bizarre and paradoxical for Akbar to deploy the instrument of criminal defamation against his former colleagues.
Akbar’s case also marks the arrival of the #MeToo movement currently sweeping India’s film and media industry at the doorstep of the political establishment. But will Akbar’s saga prompt a reckoning within the political fraternity of a country plagued by sexual violence against women? The avalanche of #MeToo accusations sweeping India at the moment makes everyone think it certainly should. But with a society still largely enshrined in powerful and institutionalised patriarchy, that is wishful thinking.
The pushback from Akbar — and Bollywood veterans Alok Nath and Vikas Bahl — in filing major defamation cases against their accusers represents the challenges ahead for the nascent #MeToo movement in India. At a time when more than a dozen men in politics, media, entertainment, sports, and the arts have been accused of a range of offences, the long-term solution lies in tightening India’s mostly toothless sexual harassment laws, and creating the circumstance where the implementation of such laws is possible without fear, intimidation or political pressure. The problem of sexual harassment in India is widespread and runs deep — and now that the long overdue #MeToo movement has gained traction, many more names of high-profile harassers and abusers are likely to surface along with hundreds of other similar cases.
Finally, the campaign against sexual abuse must be widened to include victims of rape and gender violence. The current movement is mostly centred around India’s urban habitat, with victims often enjoying easy access to social media and news studios. But the movement must also bring justice for victims who suffer in silence in the rural and backward areas — for whom there’s neither any access to file grievances nor any scope of their horrors being heard. Only then will the true power of #MeToo be realised in India.