NEW DELHI: Union Minister of State for External Affairs (MoS) MJ Akbar, who has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, won't be asked to quit, according to highly-placed government sources.
Sources told Zee News that the government is of the view that asking Akbar to quit over #MeToo allegations will send a bad signal as this comes just a few months ahead of the crucial crucial General Elections next year.
Though the party appears to be divided over Akbar, a section of its leaders feel that the minister should be given a fair chance to present his side. Others in the party, however, feel that Akbar should be asked to quit to save the party from further embarrassment as it was damaging BJP's known stand on women's safety and empowerment.
On his part, Akbar has termed allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by several women as "false, fabricated and deeply distressing" and warned that he will take appropriate legal action against them.
Hours after returning from a trip to Nigeria, the Minister of State for External Affairs issued a statement, virtually rejecting calls for his resignation from the post and seeking to link the allegations against him to the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
There have been mounting demands for his removal from the Union Council of Ministers after multiple women, as part of the #MeToo movement in India, came out with accounts of alleged sexual harassment by the 67-year-old Akbar when he was a journalist.
"The allegations of misconduct made against me are false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice. I could not reply earlier as I was on an official tour abroad," he said in the statement.
"Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. Whatever be the case, now that I have returned, my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action," the BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh said.
Before Akbar issued the statement, the Congress, at a press conference, questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's silence on the allegations against the junior minister and said as the head of the government he should speak on the issue.
"It is for the Prime Minister to speak on this issue, let the country judge its PM by his actions. So far his silence is conspicuous. This question is not only the moral authority of the government, but his own also, and the dignity of the office he holds," Congress leader Anand Sharma said.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi had earlier come out in support of the #MeToo movement, saying it was time for the truth to be told "loud and clear".
Akbar said the "false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage" to his reputation and wondered why "this storm has risen" a few months before the general election?
"Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy. This is deeply distressing. As indicated above, I will be taking appropriate legal action," he said.
Akbar's name cropped up on social media when he was in Nigeria.
The women who accused Akbar of sexual harassment included Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Shuma Raha, Anju Bharti and Shutapa Paul.
"Priya Ramani began this campaign a year ago with a magazine article. She did not, however, name me as she knew it was an incorrect story. When asked recently why she had not named me, she replied, in a Tweet: 'Never named him because he didn't 'do' anything.' If I didn't do anything, where and what is the story?," he asked.
"Shutapa Paul states, 'The man never laid a hand on me.' Shuma Raha says, 'I must clarify, however, that he didn't actually 'do' anything'. One woman, Anju Bharti, went to the absurd extent of claiming I was partying in a swimming pool. I do not know how to swim," Akbar said.
The Minister said both Ramani and Wahab kept working with him even after these alleged incidents, claiming that it clearly established that they had no apprehension and discomfort.
Besides the Congress, the CPI(M) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen demanded Akbar's removal as a minister.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has maintained a studied silence on the matter so far.
When questioned on the issue Textiles Minister Smriti Irani had on Thursday said Akbar himself would be better positioned to speak on the issue. She had urged people not to mock women speaking out against the harassment meted out to them.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi has said her Ministry plans to set up a panel of legal experts to look into the allegations of sexual harassment that have surfaced in the #MeToo campaign, asserting that she believes in the "pain and trauma" of every complainant.
(With Agency Inputs)