There was dissonance within the Sangh Parivar on Friday over the fate of Union minister M J Akbar, who is facing allegations of sexual harassment. Akbar is currently in Equatorial Guinea, a central African country, after having postponed his return to India.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi proposed to constitute a panel of legal experts to look into the allegations of sexual harassment, which have surfaced in the #MeToo campaign. The minister didn’t directly speak on allegations against Akbar, but said she believed each of the women who have come out. “They should speak out and in one jolt, finish off this matter altogether so that men are frightened from ever sexually assaulting or making women uncomfortable,” she said. On Thursday, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani said Akbar himself would be better positioned to speak on the issue. She urged people not to mock women speaking out against the harassment meted out to them. Party sources said a decision on Akbar’s fate would be taken once he returns on Sunday.
However, other Sangh Parivar leaders have either kept quiet on the issue or ridiculed the complainants. This is despite Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale tweeting his support to the movement on Thursday.
Railway minister Piyush Goyal addressed a press conference in the evening to respond to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s accusations on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Rafale fighter jet deal. But Goyal turned away when asked about the government’s reaction on allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar.
The BJP mahila morcha, the party’s women’s unit, marked the birth anniversary of Vijaya Raje Scindia, the BJP’s tallest woman leader, on Friday. The event also kicked off her birth centenary celebrations. When asked about charges against Akbar, Lata Kelkar, the chief of BJP's MP women’s unit, said she didn’t consider women journalists to be so innocent that anyone can misuse them.
RSS leader Indresh Kumar said victims shouldn’t have stayed silent for 15-years, but complained at the time of the incident. “Complaining after 10-15 years isn’t appropriate,” he said, but said allegations should be looked into. A day after he was asked a question on the issue, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi came out in support of what has come to be known as the #MeToo movement. “It’s about time everyone learns to treat women with respect and dignity. I’m glad the space for those who don’t, is closing. The truth needs to be told loud and clear in order to bring about change,” Rahul Gandhi tweeted, using the hashtag MeToo. But he did not comment on the charges of sexual harassment against Akbar.
Justice Gautam Patel of the Bombay High Court also came out in support of the campaign. He said he “fully supported” the women who had decided to share their experiences of sexual harassment and name their tormentors. He referred to the case of American actor Bill Cosby, who was convicted last month in a case of sexual assault that took place 14 years ago.
He said just as evidence was gathered and due process of law was followed by the authorities in Cosby's case, authorities in India also must ensure that the due legal process was followed in cases where women were naming their harassers and seeking action.
In Mumbai film industry, directors Sajid Khan, Subhash Ghai and Luv Ranjan were accused of sexual harassment, leading to big stars Akshay Kumar, Farhan Akhtar and Ajay Devgn expressing their solidarity with the movement.
More women should come out and address the issue of sexual harassment and narrate their experiences, Gandhi said. "I believe in all of them. I believe in the pain and trauma behind every single complainant," she said. The minister did not comment on the allegations of sexual harassment against her colleague Akbar.
"It takes a lot for women to come out like this. These cases have been elephants in the rooms for the last 25 years. The question here is how can they prove these after all these years... they have faced verbal assault, they have been touched, pinched, their clothes have been pulled...
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"The first thing to do is naming and shaming these monsters. Naming and shaming will go a long way in lessening the pain these women have been carrying," she said. The next step, she said, is to set up a committee that can listen to the women. The committee will look into the legal and institutional framework in place for handling complaints of sexual harassment, including some of the complaints if required, and advise the ministry on how to strengthen these, the WCD minister said.
Gandhi said women could complain through the She Box (www.shebox.nic.in), which provides a single window access to every woman, irrespective of her work status to register complaints related to sexual harassment. Complaints can also be lodged at email@example.com, she said. All the cases will be closely monitored by the ministry.