#MeToo: The Women Who Brought MJ Akbar Down

Social Commentary

#MeToo: The Women Who Brought MJ Akbar Down

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In October 2017, Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar had no choice but to resign. After days of dilly-dallying, calls from the Opposition, equivocation from the ruling government, and a defamation lawsuit, Akbar was forced by public pressure or conscience to step down. He is the most high-profile casualty of India’s #MeToo movement.

A powerful former editor, Akbar’s shenanigans in the newsroom were an open secret for decades. At last count, 16 women had spoken up about how he harassed them and 20 journalists came forward to testify against him in court.

Spearheading the movement against this far-from-great Akbar is journalist Priya Ramani. A year ago, Ramani wrote about a “talented predator” in Vogue India, although she did not specify Akbar’s name until India’s #MeToo movement gathered steam. In her account, she talks about how she looked up to Akbar as a role model and mentor before he called her to a hotel room for an interview and asked her to sit on the bed next to him. She went on to describe how his reputation made it difficult for his victims to challenge him.

This is a textbook #MeToo story: A man takes advantage of his power and mistreats women because he believes he can get away with it. Akbar did not imagine when he forced himself on his juniors inside cubicles and invited his colleagues to his hotel room, where he appeared in his underwear, that two decades on, many of these women would blossom and become powerful in their own right. Today, they have banded together to back Ramani, even as a Akbar has sued her for defamation with an army of 97 lawyers.

In addition to the lawsuit, Akbar came up with a ludicrous conspiracy theory – that the allegations against him, a junior minister, have only surfaced in the run-up to the 2019 election – as if to take credit for the entire #MeToo movement. His condemnation was as casual as his sexism. He dismissed the testimonies of reputed women – FORCE Magazine editor Ghazala Wahab, Times Group editor Meenal Baghel, film critic Suparna Sharma, and Hyderabad Times editor Christina Francis – as malicious innuendo, fabrication, lies with no legs.

But the truth is, Akbar’s reputation cannot stand on its own against the combined reputations of these women. And therein lies an instructive lesson for every man out there. Akbar could dare to be defiant because like hundreds of men in this country, he probably believes that the reputation of scores of successful women cannot match up to that of a single powerful man. Sorry, Mr Akbar, but the world changed when you weren’t looking.

His intimidation has not deterred the survivors of his abuse. When journalist Tushita Patel accused Akbar – the 16th woman to do so – of “grabbing her and kissing her hard”, four more came out in solidarity right after. Perhaps Akbar’s resignation was intended to stem the #MeToo tide that threatens to take down other powerful men in its wake. At any rate, it seems unlikely that Akbar, with his consistent refusal to take responsibility and his counter lawsuit, came to the decision on his own.

Akbar could dare to be defiant because like hundreds of men in this country, he probably believes that the reputation of scores of successful women cannot match up to that of a single powerful man.

Does this mean that it takes the clout of 20 powerful and credible women to bring down one harasser? What message does this send to India’s women, whose harassers are not public figures, and who are not the nation’s top journalists and writers? That their stories will be ignored, that they will be painted as opportunistic and crazy, that their reputations and dignity will be sacrificed at the altar of male power?

Maybe, but it is a fight worth fighting. After all it took a group of angry, irrepressible women to force Akbar to resign. The women who challenged Akbar were always stronger than him. Today, they proved that they’re also stronger than the culture of shame and apathy that kept them silent for so long.