Home Minister Amit Shah will chair a panel of four cabinet ministers to examine ways to prevent workplace sexual harassment, a ministry spokesman said on Wednesday, as activists criticised the official response to the #MeToo movement. The movement triggered a public outcry in traditionally conservative India, with former junior Foreign Minister MJ Akbar and Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi among dozens of high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct.
The new panel, which includes Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, was set up last week, a home ministry official told Reuters. "The group of ministers was set up on July 18 since the previous panel lapsed ahead of the formation of the new government," spokesman Shelat Harit Ketan said.
The new government was formed after the general election victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in May. The previous panel, which made no public recommendations, had been set up after the #MeToo online campaign to out alleged sexual harassers, which had begun in the U.S. entertainment industry, took off in India in late 2018.
A year after the accusations surfaced, activists say the movement has gone quiet in India after some of the accused fought back with defamation suits. Akbar, who resigned as junior foreign minister after the accusations, is suing one of his accusers, while Gogoi was cleared of sexual misconduct by a panel of judges in May, to protests. Both have consistently denied wrongdoing.
"There has been negative publicity, hardly any cases have been filed," said prominent women's rights activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes. "Complainants are afraid of approaching the courts or filing criminal complaints." Opposition Congress lawmaker Sushmita Dev called the government's decision a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of its failure to make public the findings of the earlier panel. "It is a foregone conclusion that nothing was done in the past. That is why the proceedings were hidden," she said. "The new committee should hold consultations with all stakeholders and thoroughly examine existing legislation."