#METOO In India

With ‘Akbarnama’ Out, Time’s Up For Editor-Turned-Minister

Parul Chandra New Delhi 16 November 2018

In the end, the past seems to have caught up with his present. In a huge fall from grace for a man acknowledged as a brilliant editor and author before he switched careers and took to politics, Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar is expected to be shown the door following serious allegations of sexual harassment by several women journalists.

For now, it’s not a question of whether but when 67-year-old Mobasshar Javed Akbar, known in the world of journalism as ‘Akbar’ or ‘MJ’ will lose his job. “He has to go for impropriety, if not criminality as of now,” said a diplomat.

The government, which is under tremendous pressure to dump him, has chosen to maintain silence on the matter; the minister remains on an official visit abroad.

Nor has the man, accused of sexual harassment by 10 women journalists in the #MeToo storm roiling the country, responded to the allegations. The government seems to be seeking to distance itself from the minister with one of his ministerial colleagues, Smriti Irani, putting the ball in Akbar’s court saying he was in a better position to speak on the matter.

Despite the #SackMJAkbar hashtag gathering momentum, the government hasn’t asked the minister to cut short his foreign visit. On an official visit to Nigeria in the initial days of the sexual harassment charges levelled against him, Akbar has now winged his way to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea from where he would return on Sunday.

Amid allegations of groping, molesting, forcibly kissing, sending lewd messages and the like by many women journalists who worked in the organisations he helmed as editor, Akbar represented India at the India-West Africa Regional Conclave in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and also inaugurated a photo exhibition on Mahatma Gandhi there.

The minister is among the many big names–authors, actors, directors, journalists–in India who have been called out for being sexual predators. Some have issued grovelling explanations and apologies to explain their actions. Others like actors Nana Patekar and Alok Nath have denied the charges.

The avalanche of sexual harassment charges against Akbar, documented by many women in a series of Twitter threads in recent days, was triggered by journalist Priya Ramani. In an article titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World’ which she had penned for Vogue India magazine last year, Ramani had detailed her harrowing experience by a man who everyone said “had transformed Indian journalism”.

Though Ramani had not named the person in her article, she has now disclosed it was Akbar. Just 23 then, she’d been called to his hotel room for a job interview which she described as “more date, less interview”. She recounted she was offered a drink that she refused while Akbar sang old Hindi songs and at one point even asked her to sit near him.

The minister’s alleged sexual peccadilloes have occurred over a span of over two decades and across media publications where he was editor. While some victims of the allegedly amorous advances have recounted their horror tales when he was editor of The Telegraph, a newspaper he launched when still in his 30s and took to great heights, other cases relate to his later stint as editor at The Asian Age and then India Today.

The most damning indictment, however, has come from journalist Ghazal Wahab. In an article for The Wire, she has recounted her “nightmare” which began in 1997 when she was in her early 20s, working with The Asian Age where MJ Akbar was editor. The alleged harassment included molestation inside his office cabin, pawing and forcible kissing. Akbar was then 46.

A fierce critic of Narendra Modi post the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Akbar joined the BJP in 2014. He was a party spokesperson before being made minister in July 2016. Exactly a year before that, he got a Rajya Sabha seat from Jharkhand.

Before joining the BJP, the journalist-politician was with the Congress and won the 1989 Lok Sabha polls from Kishanganj, Bihar. But he lost in the 1991 polls and drifted away from the Congress.

As minister, Akbar, who was born in Telinipara in West Bengal, had his uses for the Modi government. He was engaged in the government’s outreach to countries in the West Asian region as well as members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). There has been considerable engagement with Islamic countries by the present government.

All seemed well until the skeletons began tumbling out of the cupboard. And a storied career as a journalist-politician seems headed for an ignominious end.

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