India journalist says judgment paves way for more #MeToo stories

Aishwarya KUMAR
·3-min read

She endured more than 50 court appearances over two years, sued for defamation by a former minister after telling her #MeToo story -- but Indian journalist Priya Ramani is proud she spoke out.

On Wednesday, a court in New Delhi rejected the defamation claim by MJ Akbar, the former minister and veteran journalist whom Ramani had accused of sexual harassment -- the culmination of a case seen as a milestone for India's #MeToo movement.

"I'm feeling light and I can't stop smiling... I feel vindicated and that my truth was registered and noted and accepted by a court of law," Ramani told AFP Thursday.

"I think more women will speak up. I have got so many messages from young women saying that this victory gives them hope and they believe in justice."

In 2017, Ramani wrote a story for Vogue magazine about the inappropriate behaviour of an unnamed editor more than two decades ago.

A year later, fuelled by the rage of other women who had been sharing their stories on social media amid the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, she tweeted a link to the story -- and named Akbar.

Ramani's tweet sparked a flurry of allegations by at least a dozen other women about Akbar, and a few days later, he resigned as junior foreign minister, becoming the highest-profile scalp for the #MeToo movement in India at the time.

Akbar, now 70, filed a criminal complaint against Ramani and called her allegations "baseless", kicking off the legal saga.

The former news editor hired one of India's top criminal law firms.

Ramani was represented by Rebecca John, a top criminal lawyer in Delhi, who had offered her services pro bono.

"Fighting a member of the ruling elite" was a challenge, but the Bangalore-based journalist said support from her family, friends and many in the media fraternity was invaluable.

"I was going to take this case to its end, whatever it was," she said.

"I also knew that I had already won by fighting this battle, whether or not I won in court... because I stood up to a powerful man without feeling scared."

- 'Speak up' -

Since the case started, India's #MeToo movement has picked up steam, with more women -- although mostly from the minority urban elite -- sharing accounts of alleged harassment by powerful men in the worlds of Bollywood, journalism, comedy and even cricket.

The country has an abysmal record on sexual violence -- an average of nearly 90 rapes were reported every day in 2019 and many more thought to go unreported -- while conviction rates are low.

In court, Ramani was joined by supporters as she went through the trouble of flying from the southern city of Bangalore to Delhi for hearings, while still trying to maintain a media career.

One low point was when Akbar's lawyers would snigger in court while a witness was sharing her story, and whenever the words "Me Too" were uttered during the proceedings, Ramani said.

On Wednesday, Ramani stood in court with her friends as Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey handed down his 90-page judgment dismissing Akbar's claim.

Pandey wrote that the "right of reputation can't be protected at the cost of right to dignity".

"The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims," he added.

Ramani was stunned and her key defence witness started crying.

Then her phone started lighting up with messages from many women.

"I feel proud for all the women who spoke up during #MeToo. It's our victory," she said.

The #MeToo movement is not going anywhere, she added, saying that she was ready if Akbar appeals the verdict to a higher court, which could lead to another legal battle.

"Women have started speaking up, and it's addictive... I would tell young women to speak up to share their stories (and) to not feel scared... We're all with you."

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