“A lot of women have already messaged me and told me how hopeful this makes them feel, how empowered it makes them feel. In addition to giving more women the courage to speak up, this verdict will also dissuade powerful men from filing false cases against women who do speak up”.
Priya Ramani sounded relieved, happy and resolute as she spoke to me days after the landmark verdict by a Delhi court that acquitted the journalist of criminal defamation, charges brought against her by former union minister of India MJ Akbar, who she had accused of sexual harassment.
Akbar had to resign as a minister in the Modi government in 2018 after Ramani’s revelation, which lead to nearly 20 other women speaking out against him.
“Women can’t be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse,” the court said while acquitting Ramani. It added that “right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of right to dignity”.
Important verdict for India’s #MeToo movement
This verdict isn’t just significant for Priya Ramani, who could have faced two years in jail for “defaming” Akbar because she spoke out against his harassment.
It is also an important verdict for India’s #MeToo movement, which began online on social media in 2018, when several women came forward with their horror stories of sexual harassment.
Many of these women found huge support but there was also the expected backlash — “why are you speaking up now, so many years later”; “why didn’t you file a complaint then?” etc.
This verdict is significant because Priya Ramani stood up to a powerful man in the government, at a time when sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice of India were brushed aside; when other women, like those who spoke out from the entertainment industry, were shunned for daring to break their silence.
The verdict is significant because it will, as Priya says, give more women the courage to speak up and give hope to the many voiceless women at the workplace who face sexual harassment on a regular basis and find it hard to speak up in a culture that discredits their voices.
What makes this judgement by Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey significant is that the passage of time is no longer something that will be held against a woman for speaking about the violations of her rights. This is a line of attack most often used against survivors.
Priya Ramani’s ordeal happened over 20 years ago. “Every time there was a hearing, people would tag me (on Twitter) to tell me I was definitely going to lose because why should the court care about something that happened 20 years ago”, Priya told me.
The judge said “It can’t be ignored that most times sexual harassment is committed behind closed doors”.
“Most of the women who suffer abuse can’t often speak up due to stigma and attack on their character,” he added.
Victim on trial
But beyond the euphoria of this verdict, the realities are deeply complex. What Priya Ramani’s story also tells us is how messed up our systems are. Instead of MJ Akbar being held accountable in a court of law for all the accusations of sexual harassment he faced, it was the victim, Priya Ramani, who was put on trial.
“It was very tough”, says Priya. “First there was the anger that a case had been filed against me for sharing my truthful story and to intimidate me and all the other women who spoke up.
There was a bit of fear that he is a powerful man from the ruling elite; there was despair with these never ending court dates and the feeling that it would never end; there was a fatigue of managing regular life alongside the case”, she said to me.
For over two years, Priya Ramani faced a courtroom where the atmosphere was often intimidating and hostile. I was witness to many hearings where Priya was virtually bullied by opposing counsel.
“Every time the words #MeToo were mentioned in court, the opposing team of lawyers would snigger and whisper among themselves. There was that vibe throughout the trial and it was very aggressive. My strategy was just to look inward and block out everything around me and not make eye contact with sniggering lawyers and stare directly at the judge.
"All three of the judges were empathetic and especially the first judge Samar Vishal whom I had to tell my story to. I just looked at him directly and no one else and just focused on my story and blocked out everything that was happening in the courtroom”, Priya said.
The verdict will also shine a spotlight once again on workplace harassment and mechanisms in place to deal with the problem. The #MeToo movement forced many organisations to relook at how they deal with complaints and compliance with Supreme Court mandated guidelines on the same.
Priya, her lawyer Rebecca Mammen John, and her rock of a husband, Samar Harlankar, have shown many of us the most important toolkit in these times — how to grow a spine.