“Bahut hua naari par vaar” (“enough with the violence against women”) declared one of the slogans used by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the General Election in 2014. As it stands, the months ahead of the 2019 election now have a different phrase altogether: “innuendo and malice”. That is what Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar had to say on Sunday about allegations by as many as 14 women accusing him of sexual harassment. “Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy,” Akbar said in his statement, which also held out the threat of legal action.

Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Saba Naqvi, Majlie de Puy Kamp, Shuma Raha, Harinder Baweja, Shutapa Paul, Suparna Sharma, Anju Bharti, Malini Bhupta, Kadambari Wade, Kanika Gahlaut, Ruth David and Prerna Bindra. These are the women who have spoken on the record about Akbar’s alleged actions. Some of these alleged accounts would fall under any definition of sexual harassment, other allegations would constitute outright assault.

Akbar, presumably the political party to which he belongs, as well as his leader in government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, believe that these 14 women – from various news organisations, of different age groups, now in different parts of the world – are somehow part of a conspiracy to defame him ahead of an election. Never mind the fact that Akbar is not a directly elected politician and has no popular base, never mind the fact that the movement through which his name has emerged, #metoo, has largely been about exposing harassers in liberal spaces, never mind the corroboration from across multiple accounts and the acknowledgment from even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that #metoo is an important movement and that the women speaking up should be supported. As far as Akbar, and by extension his party and government, are concerned, none of this matters.

Male denial

In his statement, which comes after five days of complete silence despite more women speaking up about his behaviour, Akbar offers what Scroll.in’s Ipsita Chakravarty identified as the “four stages of male denial

  • First he dismissed the allegations, saying “accusation without evidence has become a viral fever”, adding that “a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened”.
  • Then he proceeded to “gaslight”, saying because the cabin in his office was small it is “utterly bizarre” to think anything happened there. He added that another accusation of an incident in a pool could not be true because “I do not know how to swim.” Moreover, he pointed out that the women continued to work with him, obviously ignoring the power dynamic involved.
  • Next, Akbar offerred injured entitlement, in this case suggesting the women are speaking up simply because elections are around the corner. “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge.”
  • Finally, the minister offers up a threat, saying he would be speaking to his legal team about what action needs to be taken.

All of Modi’s promises to take on crimes against women, of promoting “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (protect our daughters, educate our daughters), of declaring that “no civilised society” would tolerate “injustice against women” will be exposed as hollow if he does not insist on Akbar stepping down, while institutions figure out how to address this moment. Refusing to even acknowledge the potential that these women might be speaking the truth is exactly the kind of reaction that has a chilling effect, telling others everywhere that their voices will not be heard. It conveys the message that sexual harassers can be tolerated if their politics are right even though no one speaking up about Akbar has made it about his politics. It is a shame and a travesty. The Indian government should do better.