The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is protecting a minister in his government who has been accused of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, not by one, but by a dozen women. The accusations against junior foreign minister MJ Akbar, formerly a celebrated newspaper editor, include professionally inappropriate behavior, making sexually loaded comments, touching, grabbing and forcibly kissing women.
The women who have spoken out are journalists and interns who were interviewed for jobs by Akbar or had worked with him. By speaking out, they made public for the first time allegations that had been whispered in media networks for over two decades – that Akbar was a serial sexual harasser and worse.
Not unreasonably, the expectation was that after these accounts went public, Akbar, a junior minister with no electoral base, would have to resign at least his ministerial post. After all, which government would want to be burdened with a minister accused of sexual assault and sully its claim to champion women’s causes. Instead, Akbar has been allowed to make a risible statement of denial, call his accusers liars and keep his job.
Women ministers’ statements
In the week during which that the women journalists went public, and Akbar continued to travel on official work overseas, there were some reports of disquiet in the Bharatiya Janata Party and in a some sections of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, over Akbar’s continuing in government. But only three ministers of the Modi government, all women, showed public support for the journalists who had written about their experiences at the hands of Akbar. All three ministers acknowledged that it took enormous courage for the women to speak out.
Textile Minister and former TV actor, Smriti Irani, said: “…it’s very difficult for women to come out and talk about whatever happened in their professional lives... I have said again and again...that anybody who is speaking out in no way should be shamed…victimised or mocked.”
Maneka Gandhi, the Union minister for women and child development said: “We should stand by them, it’s taken them a lot of courage to come forth, none of them are coming forth to malign...they are coming forward out of anger. If a woman is touched obscenely in any way...verbally or physically... she never forgets it, never!” Gandhi was unequivocal, “… as I have said before, I believe…that these complaints are true”.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that it takes enormous courage for women to speak out. “...Their speaking out requires courage...,” she said. “To have the courage to come out and speak, I support them for that…”
Amit Shah’s position
But these ministers were not speaking for government. It was party president Amit Shah, in his characteristic style, who flagged what the silent prime minister was apparently thinking. In advance of Akbar’s return to Delhi on Sunday, Shah cast aspersions on the accounts given by women online and in the social media. He said: “We have to see whether these allegations [against Akbar] are true or false. We have to check the veracity of the post and the person who posted it. You can also post something using my name.”
Menaka Gandhi had said “I believe these accounts are true.” Amit Shah said there was no reason to believe the accounts were true. Menaka Gandhi had said, “Regarding taking action against them, the ones that are in office...hopefully the system will react…” The system did react, in support of Akbar.
By keeping Akbar in government, Narendra Modi mocked not only the women who have had the courage to speak out against a powerful man who is alleged to be a serial sexual predator, but also his own ministers. By going along with Akbar who said that the women who have spoken out against him are liars, Modi showed that he does not believe women, including his own ministers.
The unmistakable message that Modi has sent the country is that he and his BJP government believe that sexually harassing women and sexually assaulting women is just fine, that these are a man’s entitlement, not crimes for which a man should be held to account. That he and his government stand firmly with an alleged sexual predator and against his victims. That India under the BJP is no country for women.