Priya Ramani interview with SheThePeople: A Delhi court Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a two-year-old defamation case filed against her by former minister MJ Akbar, whom she had accused of sexual harassment. Post the verdict, hailed by India’s women as a watershed moment in the national #MeToo movement, Ramani exited the court with a dazzling beam on her face, saying it was a victory for all women who have faced similar ordeals.
A day after the historic one, as Ramani speaks to us, that beam hasn’t left her face. “I haven’t stopped smiling,” she says, reiterating that congratulations are in order, not solely for her, but for all women across India.
Ramani’s allegations against Akbar, which dated back to incidents from 1993, first came to public light between 2017 and 2018, when India was still in its nascent stages of #MeToo. At the time, her survivor story instantly became explosive for it dared to name Akbar, a man with and in power, by virtue of his Minister for External Affairs seat.
Ramani’s story had, by then, uncorked many similar stories from other female journalists with similar allegations against Akbar. He reacted, first by slapping a criminal defamation case on October 15, 2018, only on Ramani, and then resigning from his ministerial post on October 17.
In those two years and four months, there have been close to 50 hearings in the case, with Ramani soldiering on represented by senior advocate Rebecca John and her “amazing team,” as she calls them.
Simultaneously, she says, there was unshakable support from the wings she couldn’t have done without.
“All the other women who spoke up alongside me [Suparna Sharma, Ghazala Wahab]… Lots of women who came regularly to court. Friends, journalists, always there cheering me on. My husband Samar [Halarnkar], some other male colleagues and friends from the field. I had lots of support and I couldn’t have done it alone,” she says, adding with a laugh, “They were walking around on eggshells for me before every court hearing.”
Priya Ramani Interview, Post A Momentous Verdict
Ever since this entire ordeal came forward, through the multiple hearings, days ahead of the judgment, and finally, when it was delivered on February 17, women on social media have expressed anguish, shock, hope and elation that measures up close to Ramani’s. Why does her court victory feel so personal to us? What compels us to celebrate this empowering verdict with her?
“It is personal to a lot of women because we have all gone through it,” she says. “All women know I am telling the truth. They’ve heard this story so many times, they’ve experienced this story, they’ve been me. Just to see me stand up and go through this process has been very empowering for a lot of people.”
What was particularly noted yesterday, aside from the foregrounded win of Ramani’s truth in front of the judiciary, was the content of the 91-page verdict delivered by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey.
Here are just some of the many powerful statements the verdict included:
- A woman has right to put her grievance even after decades.
- Even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser.
- Right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity.
- Society must understand the impact of sexual abuse and harassment on its victims.
Impressing upon the significance of this verdict, Ramani says, “As far as the #MeToo movement goes, this verdict is very important. The judge has said so many important things: you can talk about sexual harassment decades after it has happened, you can talk about it on any platform you want. It is acknowledging the existence of and validating the #MeToo movement.”
“He also said you can be a man of social stature and yet be a sexual harasser. I hope this verdict will be a deterrent to powerful men who think they can file false cases on women who share their true stories,” she adds.
Watch the exclusive Priya Ramani interview here:
Ramani On What Changed And What Remains
In 2018, reports had famously claimed Akbar had the weight of 97 lawyers behind him. For Ramani, it meant a long-drawn-out legal battle against a man of immense resource and power. What kept driving her forward? “Friendships, sisterhood and anger that this man thought he could take me to court for telling my truth and get away with it,” she reflects.
Through 2018 well into 2021, India outside the Ramani-Akbar battleground was going through simultaneous upheavals of its own, with a string of protests, agitations, important newsbreaks and scores upon scores of #MeToo stories. Not to forget the rising communal dialogue of ‘love jihad‘ that seeks to “control who women marry and why they marry and is one more fight for us to fight,” she says.
How did Ramani, in all this, estimate her microcosm within the macrocosm of the multiple other big campaigns that bubbled outside?
“India changed around me,” she says. “Every court hearing there would be something dramatic happening in India, CAA, arrest, dissent. It was surreal to go through this case in the middle of a changing India and now to be in this little positive bubble where we’re surrounded by bad news.”
“But it’s given a ray of hope to everyone and restored some faith in the judiciary. A lot of women have messaged me they feel very hopeful after this verdict.”
Her moment, a clear milestone in women’s uprising against the sexual violence and oppression they face, may herald a more positive outcome of the #MeToo movement than previously seemed possible. Will the road bumps be easier to tackle in a post-February 17-verdict world?
“There are a lot of disappointments in the #MeToo movement but I see it as a continuum. Something that we have to keep fighting, keep struggling for, keep talking about keep sharing our stories. This verdict is very important. It will encourage more women to speak up and discourage men from filing false cases against women. Especially defamation cases,” Ramani says, recalling from the judgment, “The right to dignity is more important than the right to reputation.”
But it’s given a ray of hope to everyone and restored some faith in the judiciary. A lot of women have messaged me they feel very hopeful after this verdict.
The Road To Justice: For Little Girls And Grown Women
A lot of times, as the Delhi Court observed too, women register a delayed response to their experience of sexual harassment or abuse. For every hundred stories told, there are a thousand that go untold. Though the validity of a survivor’s story isn’t dependent on the time passed or intensity borne, it presents a complex picture as far as justice reaching all women is concerned. How then can we ensure this network runs smoothly?
Ramani ponders, “There are no easy answers to such questions. But we have to share our stories with as many people as we can, especially with women. We have to build collectives.”
“In the 90s, when there were no legal redressal mechanisms, we told each other stories. We had this unofficial system where we warned each other to be careful of a certain sexual predator or not be alone in the room with him. I guess until the systems are strengthened, we’ll have to continue relying on these older methods of survival.”
Recalling the time she had started out in the field, she says, “In my time, we were fighting a lot of other battles: the right to not be in an arranged marriage, the right to go out and work. I was the first woman in my family who ventured into the workplace from my generation.”
“Many of those battles have been conquered,” she says, “and so young women are slightly better equipped to not be intimidated in the workplace.”
Does that mean little girls and boys are looking upward to a better, safer world than what she lived through? “Right now the world looks pretty bleak,” she admits. “But they’ll have to figure it out like we did. We’ll just have to equip our daughters to deal with whatever lies out there.”
“In the 90s, when there were no legal redressal mechanisms, we told each other stories. We had this unofficial system where we warned each other to be careful of a certain sexual predator or not be alone in the room with him.”
And almost prophetically, Ramani gives us a look into that more empowered, more sensitive future, saying, “Since yesterday, my daughter has been getting messages from her friends congratulating her on her mother’s victory. And she’s only 10 years old.”
Views expressed are the speaker’s own.