#MeToo Accused MJ Akbar At Major Lit Fest: Does Power Make Men Unaccountable?

MJ Akbar At Jaipur Literature Festival, mj akbar, women journalists pledge akbar
Who said #MeToo accusations ruin the lives of men? It is possible for an offender to hold his high status and maintain a clean public image. All he needs is power. Something men like MJ Akbar are swimming in. The former journalist and minister was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, leading with Priya Ramani, in 2018. And here he is, in 2022, almost platformed by a prominent literary festival in India.

Almost, because Akbar’s inclusion on the speaker list at a literary fest’s upcoming edition sparked a wave of outrage online. The page that flashed Akbar’s name on the lineup earlier is showing up with an error now, social media users say. The fest’s official website too is not displaying Akbar’s name.

The global #MeToo wave ushered in a new era of holding men in power accountable, without shame or fear, for their actions. In India especially, where money speaks an intimidating tongue that cushions politicians, a movement of such daring promised an upheaval in the system. And it did, but to what extent?

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Can we expect a positive turn in women’s safety and equality if the system continues to work hand-in-glove with crime-accused men? Does the image-cleaning of a man accused of impropriety by women in India and abroad, by giving him a prominent forum on which to speak, not invalidate survivor stories?

It was only after social media users, many of them women, flagged the issue of Akbar’s participation at the event that the festival perhaps took a decision to omit his name. But should this have to be a lone fight only women have to fight? Could none of Akbar’s fellow speakers – all well-respected, erudite names, many of whom position themselves as champions of women’s rights – have raised their voices?

After Ramani accused him of #MeToo, Akbar took her to court for defamation charges. In February last year, Ramani won the case, marking a momentous victory for women survivors, both vocal and silent, across India. In an empowering judgment, a Delhi court had asserted that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser.”

“Just to see me stand up and go through this process has been very empowering for a lot of people… I hope this verdict will be a deterrent to powerful men who think they can file false cases on women who share their true stories,” Ramani said in an exclusive interview with SheThePeople after her win.

Suggested Reading: Women Knew I’m Telling The Truth. They’ve Been Me: Priya Ramani On #MeToo Win

What becomes of that empowerment, hope and justice if attempts are made to reinstate a harassment accused man to his former glory? Would the fight of women rallying against him, trying to make themselves heard, count for anything? Is that what the esteemed festival, understood to be a hub of stimulating and progressive discourse, would like to be a promoter of?

The inclusion of MJ Akbar at a large literary fest raises serious questions about invalidating survivor stories: Who enables problematic men?

Akbar sure was an accomplished man in the prime of his career. Besides working with India’s leading media houses, he was a notable littérateur regarded for his knowledge. In 2016, he was appointed the External Affairs minister as well. However, in a post #MeToo world, Akbar’s tainted legacy cannot be scrutinised without giving honest heed to women survivors’ stories.

The question major platforms, their patrons and India’s intelligentsia of which Akbar was once considered a key part must ask themselves is this: Who is culpable in enabling problematic men who women don’t feel safe around? Can a person’s command over intellect justify a sidelining of their baser aspects?

Will India’s survivors, permanently scarred by their unsafe experiences, have faith in tools of justice if they see offenders being venerated as if nothing happened?

Views expressed are the author’s own.