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India official accused of sexual harassment steps down

India official accused of sexual harassment steps down
Indian Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar. (Prakash Singh / AFP/Getty Images)

A senior official in India’s government resigned Wednesday following sexual harassment allegations, the highest profile person to lose his post as a #MeToo movement hits the country.

M.J. Akbar, the junior minister for foreign affairs, had been accused by at least 16 women of predatory behavior during his previous career as a leading newspaper editor. The alleged behavior included unwanted advances, forcible kissing and inviting younger female colleagues to hotel rooms late at night, greeting them in a bathrobe.

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Akbar was one of the few Muslims in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which is dominated by majority Hindus.

Most of the women who spoke out against Akbar were in their 20s and early in their journalism careers when the alleged behavior took place, making them especially vulnerable to his advances, they said.

Akbar has denied the allegations, calling them “wild and baseless,” and this week sued one of his accusers – Priya Ramani, the first journalist to name him – for criminal defamation.

In a statement, Akbar said he was stepping down “to challenge false accusations levied against me…in a personal capacity.”

Ramani tweeted that women were “vindicated by M.J. Akbar’s resignation.”

A year after the #MeToo movement made headlines in the United States, it has gathered steam rapidly in India in the last two weeks, with several leading media and entertainment figures stepping down following harassment allegations from women.

The political editor of national daily Hindustan Times, Prashant Jha, relinquished his position pending an investigation. One of India’s biggest comedy troupes, All India Bakchod, had a show canceled after its founders acknowledged mishandling allegations against a colleague.

Phantom Films, the production company behind the Netflix show “Sacred Games,” dissolved when a news report detailed an alleged assault by one of its founders.

Frustrated with a broken justice system, Indian women have taken to social media to narrate searing stories of rape, sexual assault, harassment and unwanted advances.

As allegations against Akbar swirled over the past two weeks, he was on an official trip to Nigeria and did not immediately comment. When he returned to India on Sunday, he issued a strongly worded statement attacking the women and hinted at a political conspiracy ahead of elections due by May.

“Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election?” he said. “Is there an agenda? You be the judge.”

The flood of allegations did not stop. In one of the accounts that emerged this week, a former journalist at the Asian Age, Tushita Patel, described a hotel room meeting where she had been invited under the pretext of work.

“You opened the door dressed only in your underwear,” she wrote. “I stood at the door, stricken, scared and awkward. You stood there like the VIP man, amused by my fear.”

In a journalistic career that spanned four decades, Akbar edited prominent English-language papers like the Asian Age and the Telegraph. He joined Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party before elections in 2014.

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Newspaper editorials called on Modi to fire Akbar, but most politicians maintained a studied silence. One of the exceptions was Menaka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, who called for an investigation into the accusations.

In Indian politics, charges of crimes against women do not necessarily impact the political fortunes of politicians or parties. A study by an independent election watchdog last year found that as many as 51 national and state-level elected representatives had cases filed against them involving crimes against women, including rape and abduction.

Modi’s BJP had the highest number of accused legislators. Earlier this year, the party refused to fire a state lawmaker after he was charged with raping a minor.

11:55 a.m.: This article was been updated with staff reporting and more details.

This article was originally published at 5:50 a.m.

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