NEW DELHI—I didn’t even know I was holding my breath until my phone screen flashed the message “Priya Ramani is acquitted.” And then my Twitter timeline exploded with happiness, tears and hope—from women I know, women I don’t know. But we were bound by an elation that felt deeply personal in a country where women are used to daily defeats and disappointments.
What happened on Wednesday afternoon was that an Indian court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case filed against her by a former government minister. In 2018, during a #MeToo wave in the country, Ramani had alleged in a social media post that she was sexually harassed in 1993 by MJ Akbar, then a top newspaper editor, when he had called her to a hotel in Mumbai for a job interview. Following her allegations, over 20 other women had come forward to make sexual misconduct allegations against Akbar—who was then a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet.
The allegations led Akbar to step down as minister, but not before he filed a criminal defamation case—using an archaic, colonial-era law—against Ramani. Over the last two years, we have all watched the case unfold with nervous anticipation because the future of the #MeToo movement in India as well as the campaign for safer workplaces for women in the country hinged on the outcome of this case. If she was silenced, we would all be silenced. Following the defamation suit, many voices had already been quieted and the #MeToo movement had petered out.
In 2018, Ramani told a Delhi court that “it was important for women to speak up about sexual harassment at the workplace. Many of us are brought up to believe that silence is a virtue." But even for those who did not believe silence was a virtue, our patriarchal system has always managed to silence them.
I was 26, when I had relocated back to India after working for three years in the British media and picked up work as a correspondent in the Calcutta bureau of an Indian daily. A year and a half into my job, I had to quit because of sexual harassment by the chief of bureau. I went to the highest of authorities in that newspaper with my complaints. Mostly people were incredulous that I was talking about sexual harassment. You were supposed to grin and bear it, not lodge a complaint against a “man of repute.” Because even if the allegations were true, I somehow, “must have led him on.” There was no social media, no anti-sexual harassment law then.
The incident killed my career, while my harasser went from strength to strength in the organization including raving eulogies after he passed on from a terminal disease some years back. My complaint was never acknowledged. It’s a scar I have borne for over 16 years now. I am still bitter—I still don’t trust the system.
And I am not alone. An annual review earlier this month by the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry—India’s first national business chamber for women—found that almost 69 percent of victims of sexual harassment keeps it quiet because of a lack of trust in the system, fear of reprisal, and concern for their careers, and a belief that there would be no consequences for their harasser. A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry report found that only 31 percent of the companies it surveyed had instituted internal committees to probe sexual misconduct allegations.
Back in Calcutta, many women came up to me later, telling me in confidence that they were harassed by this man, too. But no one would go on record. If I knew what would happen to me, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone on the record either. For the next few years, no other media organization in the city would hire me, no matter what references I produced.
And while I was fighting for justice, they came at me from various quarters. One male editor sitting in Chennai gave my harasser a character reference; he didn’t even know me. Female colleagues remained silent, or offered unasked commentary on my character to the human resources manager. My only ally was my fiancé and colleague—now my husband—who stood by me, but we were already engaged and his testimony did not hold much weight. A good friend who was witness to the harassment bowed out, too, panicking about his career. He did well in life, reaching to the top management level in various news organizations, while my career was cut short. The chairperson of the group—a woman—did not even bother to acknowledge my emails.
But this was 2004. The Supreme Court had already formulated the Vishaka Guidelines on sexual harassment in 1997, but there was scant awareness—-I definitely did not know about them. The guidelines would become the basis for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013, whereby organization were required to have internal committees to probe sexual harassment allegations.
After months of these onslaughts, I was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. My self-confidence was decimated; I began to doubt the truth that I had lived through for months before I had lodged a formal complaint. I gave up seeking justice and instead tried to resurrect what was left of my career in the city but without much success—and around five years later when I was presented with an opportunity to move to another city and start afresh, I grabbed it. I managed to revive my career but the harassment and the attack on my dignity remained a deep scar that never fully healed.
But when I read through the court’s ruling—a ruling that recognized that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser” and that “sexual abuse takes away dignity and self confidence” and stressed that “the right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity” and most importantly that “women have the right to put their grievances even after decades”—I felt a vindication that was my very own.
And I was not alone, from activists to the average woman in the street, everyone was suffused with the hope that this was a turning point in the history of women’s movements in India. Gender activist Kavita Krishnan says this win is important because “it will act as a deterrent for the next man who thinks all he needs is a defamation suit to silence a woman.”
Rituparna Chatterjee, a safe workplace campaigner agrees. “In a country where as a woman, the simple act of existing feels like going to war every day, this is huge, even though let it sink in that we are celebrating the fact that a woman was not punished for her truth,” she says.
The judgment in Akbar’s defamation suit will be a “good precedent for existing cases,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, a nonprofit that works to empower women. “It’s so important that the court recognized that a woman’s dignity is more important than a man’s reputation,” she said.
Kumari, who is part of over 30 sexual harassment committees, says the judgment will resuscitate India’s #MeToo movement and encourage more women to seek legal redress. In 2004, I did not go to the courts because I was discouraged by almost everyone who said it would just mean continuing harassment for me. While I was waiting for the judge to rule in the case, there was a pit in my stomach and my fingers were tightly crossed. Because as I told my husband, “you never know.”
“There are some days when trust needs to be reinstilled in the system,” says Pallavi Pareek, founder and CEO of Ungender, a Delhi-based advisory firm that works to improve diversity and inclusion within the workplace, with a focus on sexual harassment and maternity discrimination, in accordance with existing laws. “This judgment will bring confidence to millions of women out there who contemplate everyday, whether to speak up or not. Women who doubt whether anyone will believe them.”
Yes, it is one judgment and perhaps not enough to overhaul a system that is engineered to act against women—but if the ruling had gone against Ramani on Wednesday, the repercussions would have been grave. At the very least, it would have institutionalized workplace harassment for women.
So, let us bask in Ramani’s win—tomorrow we will pick up the fight again.