An Indian court has ruled in favor of a female journalist who was sued for defamation after accusing a former minister of sexual harassment, in one of the country’s earliest and most prominent #MeToo cases.
The journalist, Priya Ramani, first made the allegations in a 2017 Vogue India article, in which she described experiencing workplace harassment during a job interview with an unnamed editor in a Mumbai hotel room.
A year later, she identified the unnamed editor as MJ Akbar, a former journalist who was then junior minister for foreign affairs. It prompted more than a dozen women to come forward with allegations against Akbar of groping, assault and harassment.
He denied the allegations, resigned from his role, and sued Ramani for defamation a week after she publicly identified him.
On Wednesday – more than two years after the lawsuit was first filed – the court ruled in Ramani’s favor, acquitting her of all charges. In a powerful concluding statement, Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey argued that the country and its institutions have long failed women and victims of abuse, and defended Ramani’s right to come forward even decades after the incident took place.
“Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females,” Pandey wrote in his ruling. “The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims.”
“The woman cannot be punished for raising (her) voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation, as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution,” he added.
Ramani and her supporters celebrated the decision, praising it as a step forward for women in India.
“I can’t stop smiling today,” Ramani said in a statement sent to CNN by her lawyer. “This case was not about me, it was about what women face at the workplace. My victory belongs to everyone who spoke up during the #metoo movement.
“It feels amazing to have your truth validated in a court of law.”
Her lawyer, Rebecca John, called the ruling an “amazing judgment.”
“We feel very grateful that the court has gone through the evidence meticulously,” she said. “I think it’s altogether a very important moment for all of us, it’s a great moment.”
India’s #MeToo movement
Ramani’s allegations became one of the most prominent cases in India’s #MeToo movement, which swept the country in 2017 and 2018.
In India, where memories of a horrific gang rape in 2012 linger, large numbers of women joined the global outpouring of voices in speaking out about their own experiences of sexual abuse. For many, it was an important moment of solidarity and a means of showing the extent and pervasiveness of sexual abuse in India.
A flurry of high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior followed, shaking the Indian media and entertainment industries.
In one well-known case, former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta spoke publicly about being a victim of assault allegedly at the hands of a former co-star in 2008. In a separate incident, a Bollywood production house was dissolved following sexual harassment allegations against one of its co-founders.
A leading comedy outfit popular with Indian millennials was also shaken when a comedian it worked with faced harassment allegations. In the media industry, a political journalist also lost his position after allegations of inappropriate behavior, pending an internal investigation.
But the allegations have also instigated several defamation lawsuits similar to the one Akbar filed against Ramani. In India, if a defamation case is lodged in the criminal court, defendants found guilty can face prison sentences of up to two years – an outcome that adds an additional layer for victims coming forward.