A court in Delhi has acquitted a journalist of defamation after she accused a former government minister of sexual assault, in a landmark ruling for India’s #MeToo movement.
Indian journalist Priya Ramani had faced up to two years in jail for criminal defamation over an article she had written accusing Mobashar Jawed Akbar, a former foreign minister and newspaper editor, of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room during a job interview.
Ramani had initially written the article for Vogue in 2017 without naming Akbar, but decided to go public in 2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement.
Following Ramani’s statement, over 20 other women came forward with allegations against Akbar, ranging from rape and assault to systematically using his senior position to harass young female journalists.
Akbar was the founder and editor of several Indian newspapers as well as serving as a politician in the Congress party government between 1989 and 1991 before joining the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government in 2014 when they took power.
In the aftermath of the allegations, Akbar resigned as a junior external affairs minister, one of the most high profile #MeToo resignations in India. He dismissed the allegations as “false, baseless and wild” and in 2018 filed a criminal defamation suit against Ramani. The court on Wednesday ruled that he did not prove his criminal case against her.
Akbar famously brought 97 lawyers with him in his first submission to the court. As the case continued for over two years, Ramani refused to settle with Akbar out of court and in September 2020 told the Delhi court she had shared her experience in order to encourage other women to speak out.
“It feels amazing, it truly does,” said Ramani, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom after Wednesday’s verdict. “I feel vindicated on behalf of all the women who have ever spoken out against sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment has got the attention it deserves despite the fact that it is me, being the victim who had to stand up in court as the accused.”
Ramani said she hoped that the verdict would make “powerful men think twice before they take victims to court”.
After the #MeToo movement swept India in 2018, hundreds of women took to social media to speak out against sexual misconduct and some named their alleged harassers. However, many of those who spoke out found themselves facing legal threats, including for criminal defamation.
Many hope the verdict in this case will set an important precedent. Ramani’s lawyer, Rebecca John, called it “the most important case of my lifetime”.
The judgment by judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey drew praise from many, in particular its emphasis that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser”.
“Victims of sexual abuse sometimes do not speak up for many years because she might have no idea that she is a victim of such abuse. She may believe she is at fault,” Pandey told the court in Delhi. “The right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of the right to dignity.”
The decision to clear Ramani of defamation charges was met with relief and triumph by women across India.
Indian writer Sonia Faleiro, author of The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, said: “In India it takes immense personal courage to speak truth to power, especially when the individual in question is a member of the government who will likely use every means at their disposal to destroy you.”
Describing Akbar as “a Goliath convinced of his invincibility”, Faleiro said Ramani’s court victory was “a success for India – a success for every woman and indeed every person. At a time when free speech in India is under severe threat, she embodied David and gave us all hope.”
Karuna Nundy, a supreme court lawyer who helped shape India’s anti-rape bill, said: “This victory is significant because it preserves women’s right to speak and have published their true #MeToo accounts of sexual assault and harassment, even if they choose not to file cases against their harassers. Many won’t, until we strengthen the system.”
Nundy praised the court’s judgment for recognising “that a woman has right to complain of being assaulted or harassed long after the crime.”.
Dozens of journalists and writers also spoke of the significance of the ruling. “This is a big win for all women in India and a huge step forward for gender justice in the workplace,” tweeted journalist Sagarika Ghose.
“Her victory feels so personal to me, and to scores of women like me,” tweeted Shilpa Rathnam, a television journalist. Journalist Aparna Jain said in a tweet that Priya had “won this case for every woman”.
“Priya has borne the brunt of this entire case. The travel. The accusations. The questions. The abuse. She has borne it for every woman who knows. For all the women mentioned in that trial,” wrote Jain.
Akbar, who denies all the allegations, was granted the right to appeal.