Hang in there women, MJ Akbar is a victory, but the #MeToo fight is just starting
Now that Akbar is freed from shackles of political scrutiny, he can drag Priya Ramani’s name through the mud without dirtying BJP’s image.
It took 20 women journalists decades to speak out against the alleged sexual harassment and assault they faced at the hands of their erstwhile senior editor. With complete impunity, secured by the silences of these women, this man went on to climb every ladder of political power placed before him. Today, as the Minister of State for External Affairs, he was forced to resign. Why? Because of an internet hashtag and two simple words: Me too.
For a generation that learnt its activism in the comment sections of Facebook pages, the resounding global success of #MeToo comes as validation that to be “millennial” isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, we fight our battles with hashtags, and sometimes, we win. A union minister has resigned without a single march or hunger strike or overnight sit-in — all because of a large-scale mobilisation on the internet. We tweeted our revolution, but not to its end.
In the midst of this celebration, we cannot forget that the defamation case against Priya Ramani is still coming up in the Patiala House Court Thursday. Don’t be fooled, M.J. Akbar did not resign out of the goodness of his heart. He is, after all, vehemently defending his innocence to the last degree. “I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me; also in a personal capacity,” he wrote in his statement. But the likely reality is that the current political dispensation could no longer shield itself from the disgraceful optics of keeping a man accused by over 20 women in power — it just doesn’t look good, this sort of complicity. But the true complicity is beneath this veneer of accountability. By pressuring Akbar to resign, the BJP government has bought itself a get-out-of-jail-free card. He resigned; they did their part, what more do you want from them? A BJP MLA accused of rape, mind you, is still in power. Akbar wasn’t a mass mobiliser anyway. In terms of his electoral significance to the BJP before 2019, he really wasn’t a Muslim worth the headache.
The Congress won’t say anything either, because Akbar was once a regular guest to their dinner parties. Media houses, as self-proclaimed trumpets of truth, were forced to speak up; the incidents of harassment, after all, took place under their watch.
Now, Akbar is freed from the shackles of political scrutiny and public accountability — he is not a minister anymore. This means he can drag Ramani’s name through the mud using the considerable financial and political capital at his disposal without dirtying BJP’s image in the process. This is when the true test starts: How much pressure can the #MeToo withstand when it doesn’t have structures to point fingers at? Just because you toppled Akbar from his pedestal, doesn’t mean you strip him of his entitlement – influential people are, and will, help him behind closed doors.
Where do we go from here? As part of the movement, women everywhere must decide what the final aim of #MeToo is: is the social excommunication of proven harassers enough to placate the struggle, or do we want to continue pushing for justice in the eyes of the law? The women who accused Akbar must make the difficult decision of figuring out if they want to file a separate case against him — it won’t be easy, but the world is watching. It’s time for us to see if our civilised systems hold forth in the face of extreme pressure. And pressure, I believe, from both sides.
This will be remembered in our history books as India’s Harvey Weinstein moment, but for a country like ours, where the fight against sexual conservatism has to make its way through layers of structural and societal hurdles, it’s actually so much more than that.