Journalist Cleared of Defamation Charge Revives India’s #MeToo

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“I feel like it’s a beacon of hope in the middle of all this darkness.”

— Priya Ramani, a journalist, on being cleared of wrongdoing in a defamation suit

By Emily Schmall via The New York Times

A powerful politician sued Priya Ramani for criminal defamation after she accused him of sexual harassment. Women hope her clearing spurs a stalled movement.

BANGALORE, India — Last month, Priya Ramani, a journalist who had accused a prominent government official and former newspaper editor of sexually harassing her during a job interview, was cleared of wrongdoing in a defamation suit he brought against her.

Since the decision, Ms. Ramani has received hundreds of messages from women thanking her for speaking up.

“I feel like it’s a beacon of hope in the middle of all this darkness,” Ms. Ramani said in an interview at her home in Bangalore. “This is like one dot on the continuum, one marker, you know, on the continuum of women fighting back against gender violence and assault in India, but it’s not going to solve everything.”

In India, where talking publicly about sex is taboo and female virtue is heavily prized, the #MeToo movement arrived late and haltingly. The floodgates opened in 2018, when Tanushree Dutta, a Bollywood star, spoke about a long-pending criminal case she had filed against a famous co-star she said had groped her on set. The anger wasn’t especially new — women’s rights activists have long protested persistent harassment and discrimination in India — but Ms. Dutta’s testimony encouraged dozens of women, Ms. Ramani among them, to come forward with #MeToo stories of their own.

But when the man Ms. Ramani had accused, M.J. Akbar, filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against her, it sent a stark message to others: that speaking out can be punished.

Several women who have come forward with #MeToo stories in the past have been hit with civil defamation lawsuits, but the criminal defamation suit filed by Mr. Akbar carried much steeper punishment, including the possibility of up to two years in jail. He appeared in court with 97 lawyers. Before she was sued, Ms. Ramani had never entered a courtroom.

As the case proceeded very visibly in the news media, the #MeToo accounts on social media all but stopped. The costs of coming forward — the scrutiny, the public questioning of her integrity — were just too high.

It all started in 2018, when Ms. Ramani, swept up in a nationwide wave of truth-telling on Twitter, identified Mr. Akbar, then a minister of state in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, as someone who had harassed her in 1993. She had described her experience in an article for Vogue India in 2017 but didn’t name him at the time.

“It was journalism’s worst-kept secret,” Ms. Ramani, now a columnist for Bloomberg Quint, said of Mr. Akbar. “No one in the profession was surprised at all.”

Mr. Akbar immediately denied Ms. Ramani’s allegations in a statement, rushing back to Delhi from an official work trip to Africa. He resigned from his cabinet post. One day after that, Mr. Akbar, who remains a lawmaker in the upper house of India’s Parliament, sued Ms. Ramani for criminal defamation.

During the two-and-a-half-year court case that followed, Ms. Ramani traveled dozens of times from Bangalore, where she lives with her husband and daughter, to attend nearly all of the 54 hearings in Delhi.

“The last two years have been stressful, these fortnightly court dates and going to Delhi and trying to live a normal life with this dark cloud over my head and my 10-year-old saying to me, ‘You have to go to Delhi again?’” she said.

In Delhi, Rebecca John, her lawyer, defended her pro bono.

“Defamation has become weaponized, and it is being used either to prevent people from speaking or ensuring that a chilling atmosphere is created so that other people will not speak,” Ms. John said.

Before she became a defendant, Ms. Ramani had spent most of her nearly 30-year career as a features and business writer and editor, at one point editing the Indian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine.

The harassment incident occurred when she was 23, during an interview for a job with The Asian Age — a then-new publication founded by Mr. Akbar, who was then famous for his reporting on the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque.

For the job interview, Mr. Akbar asked Ms. Ramani to come to his room at the Oberoi, an upscale hotel on Mumbai’s seafront, according to her account in Vogue India. He offered her alcohol, serenaded her with old Hindi songs and invited her to sit next to him on a bed that had been turned down for the night, she said.

Despite the uncomfortable interview, Ms. Ramani accepted a job with The Asian Age. She didn’t tell her parents about the incident, knowing they would tell her to forget her journalism career.

“It was like we were that generation that was going out to work, so maybe we figure this is part of the thing we have to deal with in the workplace, and we will have to deal with it, rather than anyone else helping us through this,” she said.

The 1990s, when Ms. Ramani started that first job, brought a wave of women entering India’s professional world. The Supreme Court’s Vishaka guidelines in 1997 defined and explicitly prohibited sexual harassment at work. But these same guidelines, intended to support women, were often met with a deeply entrenched cultural code of silence around sexual harassment and assault. In other words, they were ignored. Among men, they also bred resentment of women in the workplace.

Little changed for women at work until 2013, when India passed the Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, or POSH, Act, which requires employers to set up in-house committees with the powers of a civil court to investigate complaints and suggest remedies. The law was designed to make it easier for women to raise concerns and to save women the difficulty and cost of seeking help through India’s already clogged judicial system, where cases can linger for years or even decades.

The numbers of complaints rose by 45 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

But even with the act in place, many women still didn’t file complaints. A survey by the chamber of nearly 3,400 working women in India found that two-thirds of the women who had experienced sexual harassment at work chose not to file a complaint. They didn’t trust the process or expect it to result in consequences for the accused, the survey found. Some women were also concerned about their physical safety.

There was no clear way to report sexual harassment back then, Ms. Ramani said. Mr. Akbar ran the newsroom. The only legal recourse was a criminal law against insulting the modesty of a woman. Instead, women relied upon “informal mechanisms,” Ms. Ramani said, warning one another to steer clear of the boss.

In its decision last month, the court said that Ms. Ramani’s disclosure did not constitute criminal defamation because it was truth told in the public interest and for the public good. It also helped combat sexual harassment in the workplace, the judge said. The court also said that there was no statute of limitations or inappropriate forum — say, Twitter — for women who are the victims of sexual harassment at work to complain.

But on March 25, Mr. Akbar appealed the verdict. He declined an interview request, but his lawyer, Geeta Luthra, said that they were challenging the trial court’s finding that Ms. Ramani’s allegations on Twitter had been in the public interest.

“It would be a harmful precedent if legal principles requiring due process are sacrificed at the altar of an alleged cause,” Ms. Luthra said, referring to #MeToo.

If the Delhi High Court overturns the lower court’s order acquitting Ms. Ramani of the defamation charges, she could again face the prospect of a two-year jail sentence. But if the high court upholds the judgment, it could set a precedent in India for how workplace sexual harassment cases are tried.

Ms. Ramani and her supporters see her triumph in the lower court as a rare win for those taking on the powerful.

It has also given hope to hundreds of women that it may bring a spotlight back to #MeToo.

“You gave me hope for a movement that I felt had failed many of us,” Asmita Bakshi, a journalist, wrote in a text to Ms. Ramani.

Ms. Bakshi added: “You didn’t need to do it at such great personal cost, but you endured it. You are amazing and you are a hero, as a journalist, as a woman and as a person, no matter what the frumpy old men in suits say. So much love.”

Emily Schmall is a South Asia correspondent based in New Delhi. @emilyschmall