An Indian government minister has hit back at a series of allegations of sexual harassment, rejecting calls to step down and suing one of his accusers, after he became the most prominent public figure to be named in what's been dubbed India's #MeToo movement.
MJ Akbar, junior minister for foreign affairs in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and a former influential newspaper editor, has over the past week been accused by former female colleagues of groping, assault and harassment.
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Responding to the allegations after returning to the Indian capital on Sunday from an official visit abroad, Akbar called the allegations "false and fabricated" and questioned their timing, hinting at a political campaign against him as India prepares for general elections next year.
On Monday, Akbar's lawyers sued a former colleague of his who had made the first allegation against him last week.
Delhi-based law firm Karanjawala & Co. confirmed that it had filed a defamation complaint on Akbar's behalf against journalist Priya Ramani in a Delhi court, arguing that she had "willfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously" defamed him "on wholly and completely false, frivolous, unjustifiable and scandalous grounds," according to the court filing.
On October 8, Ramani named Akbar as the subject of an article she had written for Vogue India in 2017, describing an experience of workplace harassment during a job interview with an unnamed editor in a Mumbai hotel room, the first in a series of public allegations against Akbar by former colleagues. Taking to Twitter early last week, Ramani said the piece was about her experience with Akbar.
Ramani responded to Akbar's defamation suit in a statement released Monday evening. She said that she was ready to fight the defamation lawsuit. "Mr Akbar has made his stand clear: rather than engage with the serious allegations that many women have made against him, he seeks to silence them through intimidation and harassment," she tweeted.
"Those who have spoken up against Mr. Akbar have done so at great risk to their personal and professional lives," Ramani said.
Earlier, Akbar's combative statement on Sunday prompted stinging criticism, with the leading daily newspaper The Hindu saying Akbar's position was "untenable" in an editorial.
The paper also questioned the suggestion by Akbar -- who is a member of the indirectly elected upper house of the Indian parliament, not the directly elected lower house -- that the allegations might somehow be linked to the coming elections.
"Mr Akbar's conspiracy theory that the #MeToo charges have settled upon him because elections are now looming is weak and totally unconvincing," said The Hindu said in its main editorial piece Monday.
"He has no political heft and a conspiracy to tarnish him and secure his speedy exit from the Narendra Modi government would have left it none the weaker."
Without a resignation, the paper said, the focus now "cannot but shift to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why wasn't his resignation demanded and secured on his return to the capital?"
In her 2017 piece for Vogue, recounting her interview experience when she was in her 20s and Akbar was in his 40s, Ramani wrote: "Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer. It was more date, less interview."
"Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I'm fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again," she added in the piece.
Since Ramani's revelation, several other women have come out with claims about Akbar's behavior.
India's #MeToo movement appears to have been spurred by allegations late last month by former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, who alleged that she had been a victim of assault allegedly at the hands of Nana Patekar, her co-star in a 2008 film.
In a press conference last week, Patekar dismissed questions, saying, "My lawyers have told me not to speak to the media so I can't say anything. Otherwise, I would have said something in the past four days. This case is 10 years old, what was true then is true today."
In the weeks since Dutta made her allegations, accounts of sexual misconduct have shaken the wider media and entertainment industry. In one high-profile case, a Bollywood production house has been dissolved following sexual harassment allegations against one of its co-founders.
A leading comedy outfit popular with Indian millennials was also shaken when a comedian it worked with faced harassment allegations. While in the media industry, allegations of inappropriate behavior saw a prominent Delhi-based political journalist lose his position pending an internal investigation, according to reports.