India has #MeToo moment as claims of sexual misconduct reach government

Michael Safi in Delhi

Entertainment and media industries rocked by accusations against prominent men, including a minister

Tanushree Dutta, an actor, has accused another actor of sexually harassing her on set 10 years ago. Her claims - which are denied - have prompted several other actors to speak out. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

India’s media and entertainment industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct against prominent men that activists are hailing as the belated arrival of the country’s #MeToo moment.

Senior journalists are stepping aside, a film production studio has closed, and one of India’s bestselling authors has issued a public apology after a flood of women named men on social media whom they accused of behaving inappropriately.

On Monday the swell of accusations reached the Indian government, when several women alleged that the country’s junior foreign minister, MJ Akbar, had made unwelcome passes at them during his previous career as a journalist and editor.

Akbar is yet to respond to the accusations and the Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, appeared to ignore questions about them on Tuesday morning.

The endemic nature of sexual misconduct in Indian workplaces was an open secret, but the country had now reached “a certain sweet spot” where women felt their accounts would be heard, said Anoo Bhuyan, an Indian journalist who was among the first to name her alleged harasser on Twitter last week.

Accusations first started being aired on social media last Thursday when several women, along with a 17-year-old girl, accused a comedian, Utsav Chakraborty, of sending unsolicited pictures of his genitals.

He first denied the allegations, then issued an apology on Twitter on Friday: “The past 24 hours were a crucible. I faced a very scary personal truth. I can’t think of myself as a victim anymore. Please tell me what to do now. How to make things right? I don’t want anyone to be hurt anymore.”

The days since have seen a torrent of allegations by women ranging from being the target of suggestive language to accusations of violent rape.

An emerging director, Vikas Bahl, dissolved his film company on Saturday, the same day HuffPost published an investigation accusing him of masturbating on a co-worker after a party in 2015.

Hrithik Roshan, a Bollywood star about to appear in major film produced by Bahl, tweeted on Monday he had asked other producers to investigate the allegations and “take a harsh stand if need be”.

Bhuyan said one of the triggers for the cascade of allegations was the testimony two weeks ago of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, the university researcher who accused the then US supreme court judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh was confirmed at the weekend.

“Watching what was happening to Christine Ford, it was so draining, it was a physical reaction we were having watching this absurd theatrical spectacle playing out,” Bhuyan said.

“I watched her and thought, she is doing this for the team – and I had to ask myself, why I wasn’t ready to do that too?”

Momentum was also built by the Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta, who ten years ago accused Nana Patekar, a veteran actor, of sexually harassing her on set. She recently returned to India and repeated the allegations, which went viral on social media and prompted several other actors to speak out in support. Patekar denies the allegations, telling Times Now TV that it was impossible that he could have sexually harassed Dutta unnoticed on a crowded shoot.

Chetan Bhagat, the author of popular Indian books including Half Girlfriend, wrote an apology on Twitter after a woman posted screenshots in which the married writer said he wanted to “woo” her.

Chetan Bhagat. Photograph: Mail Today/India Today Group/Getty Images

“The screenshots, are of course real, and I am sorry if you felt they were wrong I hope you will accept my apology,” he wrote. He said he felt a strong connection with the woman, had misread the situation and “was going through a phase” at the time.

Akbar is the highest-profile man to be accused of behaving inappropriately, with several women alleging on Twitter he invited them to job interviews in hotel rooms where he made sexual advances.

One of the women, the journalist Priya Ramani, wrote an article last year about an unnamed editor who was “an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer”. On Monday night she posted on Twitter that Akbar was the editor in question.

Akbar, an MP for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, was a celebrated former editor of newspapers including the Kolkata-based Telegraph, the Asian Age and the Sunday Guardian. He is yet to comment on the allegations.

Another journalist, who withheld her identity, said she turned down a job with Akbar’s newspaper after “the whole experience of an interview sitting on a bed in a hotel room followed by an invitation to come over for a drink”.

Prerna Singh Bindra, another journalist, said Akbar “made life at work hell” when she declined his sexual advances.