MJ Akbar sues one #MeToo accuser for defamation

Unfazed Priya Ramani vows to fight legal battle; activists want MJ sacked.

New Delhi/Mumbai: Union minister M.J. Akbar, accused of sexual harassment by over a dozen women journalists, most of whom had worked for him, on Monday filed a private criminal defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani who was the first to level charges of sexual misconduct against him as part of the raging #MeToo campaign.

Mr Akbar’s lawsuit, filed in a Delhi court, names Ms Ramani as the sole accused and says she “intentionally put forward malicious, fabricated and salacious” allegations to harm his goodwill and reputation.

“The complainant (Akbar) also had a long career in journalism, he launched India’s first weekly political news magazine,” the complaint said and listed out defamatory imputations made by Ms Ramani on social media against him.

An unfazed Ms Ramani said, “I am deeply disappointed that a Union minister should dismiss the detailed allegations of several women as a political conspiracy. By instituting a case of criminal defamation against me, 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.”

“Needless to say, I am ready to fight allegations of defamation laid against me, as truth and the absolute truth is my only defence,” said Ms Ramani as several people, including lawyers, rallied around her offering help in meeting her legal expenses and some appealed on social media for crowd funding.

The #MeTooIndia handle tweeted that Mr Akbar’s defence team has 97 lawyers against Ms Ramani as an intimidation tactic. However, a member of the minister’s legal team said that 97 lawyers of the law firm signed the “vakalatnama” to lend support to the case and make a statement that their case is strong. “Ít is not an unusual practice,” said a lawyer, about the number of advocates who signed the document to represent Mr Akbar in court.

On Monday, Mr Akbar was back at work, attending meetings at the ministry of external affairs. On Sunday, Mr Akbar had rejected the allegations as “false, abricated and deeply distressing” and ignored demands for his resignation.

Ghazala Wahab, one of Mr Akbar’s former colleagues who had written a graphic account of her alleged prolonged harassment by him, wrote in an article on a website on Monday that her former editor’s statement is “rambling” and “full of tired clichés”.

On the political front, the BJP, which had maintained a stoic silence over the sexual assault allegations against Mr Akbar, tacitly threw its weight behind him.

Party spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao was asked at a press conference whether the ruling party agrees with Mr Akbar on his statement on the allegations levelled against him by several women. “It is not about agreeing or disagreeing. He has presented his version,” Mr Rao said.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi, campaigning for Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, stepped on the gas and asked people to “save their daughters from the BJP and (Prime Minister) Modi.”

He said the Prime Minister who has given the slogan of “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao”, has “no room in his heart for the oppressed and women”.

In New Delhi, Youth Congress workers staged a demonstration in front of Mr Akbar’s official residence, demanding his “immediate resignation” over allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Four journalist associations — Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Club of India, Press Association and South Asian Women in the Media — through a joint statement said that they were “deeply disappointed with Mr Akbar’s statement threatening legal action against those who had accused him of sexual misconduct”.

The associations demanded a fair probe into the allegations against him and said that it “would only be appropriate that the minister step down from his post till such time as the inquiry is completed”.

Women’s rights activist Vani Subramanian said that she is not surprised that Mr Akbar had moved court as “such people tend to react in this way when their power and entitlement is challenged”.

Centre for Social Research director Ranjana Kumari said that as an individual the Union minister has every right to move court, but the case is not between him and a journalist, but “14 other media persons”, who have accused him of sexual misconduct.

“He is in a position of power and he can influence people,” Ms Kumari alleged.

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