Narendra Modi’s Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar has filed a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani, who was his subordinate at a news organisation several years ago. It all started with the #MeToo movement trending in India and sundry women journalists giving out names of editors who they alleged behaved ‘inappropriately’ with them.
As the tweets gained traction, a few women journalists tweeted on a particular person. “Some journalists have paid a price but the biggest editor harasser who has changed careers continues to sit pretty in a position of power. The entire world knows about him,” tweeted Swati Chaturvedi.
Sagarika Ghose responded to this tweet: “ Indeed the Genghis Khan of sexual predators. Unfortunately he was ‘active’ in the pre-smart phone era, so there's no proof. If there was social media at the time he would have been hung out to dry.”
Since Ghose responded to Chaturvedi it seemed that they had the same person in mind. Not very long after, Priya Ramani, who had written an article in a magazine last year about a ‘predator editor’ said she was naming the person left unnamed in the article: “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. I never named him because he didn’t “do” anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator; maybe they’ll share,” she tweeted. Ramani’s tweet set off a chain reaction, with more than a dozen women naming Akbar as someone who behaved inappropriately or sexually harassed them.
On a tour of Africa at the time the twitter storm began, Akbar did not respond to the allegations. He returned last Sunday to deny the allegations and said they were lies that ‘did not have legs but poison’, perhaps a euphemism for snakes. He followed this up by filing a defamation suit against Ramani. The rest of the women who made allegations against him have been spared, as of now.
Akbar like any other person has the right to be considered innocent unless the charges are proven. On the face of it, it looks like the charges cannot be proven since it would be difficult to corroborate the allegations with evidence. Testimony of witnesses may not be of much help for the accuser, as some people have already stood up for Akbar too. However, the court can be innovative in dealing with the case.
Time bars and how difficult it was to report sexual harassment before the Vishakha Guidelines came into effect are issues that need to be considered. The case is unique because it was triggered by the #MeToo movement. By now, there have been sundry instances of people being framed, but most cases in America have seen the accused eased out of their jobs.
Akbar has alluded that the allegations came too close to the general elections, while the women have said they do not have a political agenda. Many of these women don’t seem like they have acted in a concerted manner. Their writings and tweets seem to suggest that they have acted at an ‘opportune time’ to get closure for something that may have left them traumatised.
While justice will hopefully be served in the defamation case, what is appalling, although not at all shocking, is the brazen manner in which Narendra Modi has refused to react to the case. The golden rule for those in power is, ‘Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’.
Let us for argument’s sake believe that Akbar is an innocent gentleman being framed by an Opposition party to tarnish the image of the Modi Government. Let us consider that all the women — including New York-based journalist Majlie de Puy Kamp, whose father was a friend of Akbar’s and who interned in Akbar’s ‘The Asian Age’ more than a decade ago and who said: “I am not a citizen, I cannot vote. I do not have a political agenda. Plus, I have a paper trail. My father wrote an email to Akbar about the incident to which he responded. I have evidence. I am disappointed but not surprised by his statement. I am, however, very comfortable with my story” — are agents of an agenda and have been brought together by an Opposition party. Is it okay still for the Prime Minister of India to allow his minister to continue in office?
The answer is, no! If Modi has any doubts about the veracity of the women’s claims or believes that Akbar is the victim of a vilifying campaign, he should say so publicly because he is the PM. He should also in the finest traditions of democracy ask Akbar to step down. He should also order an inquiry to unravel the ‘conspiracy.’ If there is a conspiracy, surely it would leave a trail which can be found by investigative agencies.
However, Modi has chosen to remain silent and not act. It has been his style throughout. He did this when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was accused of calling up the Indian embassy in Britain to issue travel documents to Lalit Modi to travel to Portugal, despite facing an investigation. One of the ministers in the Union Cabinet has an FIR filed against him for rape but continues in office. Two top CBI officers have been accusing each other of corrupt practices but continue to investigate all important cases. Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, both BJP Chief Ministers, have faced serious charges of corruption but never asked to step down. Yeddyurappa, who was removed by the BJP as Chief Minister of Karnataka when L K Advani called the shots in the BJP, was re-inducted after Modi took charge of the party. Governors of Tamil Nadu and a North Eastern state too have come under a cloud in recent times.
Modi has been consistent. He will never have the probity rule imposed on his ministerial or party colleagues because that is one of the important formulae of his success. Modi never stepped down as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002. He refused to accept that as CM he was responsible for not controlling the riots. He took his case to the public and won a handsome victory for the BJP in the December 2002 assembly elections.
On the other hand, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi went by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advice to sack Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, and several others before him, based on allegations of corruption but presided over the decimation of the Congress and the UPA in 2014. By remaining silent, Modi expects the BJP to be re-elected to power in 2019.
(email@example.com)(Published on 22nd October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 43)