Notes on Priya Ramani’s fight for dignity

18 February 2021
MJ Akbar at the Patiala House court complex in 2018. In October that year, Akbar filed a defamation case against the journalist Priya Ramani, who had accused him of sexual harassment. On 17 February 2021, a Delhi court acquitted Ramani.
Amal KS/Hindustan Times
MJ Akbar at the Patiala House court complex in 2018. In October that year, Akbar filed a defamation case against the journalist Priya Ramani, who had accused him of sexual harassment. On 17 February 2021, a Delhi court acquitted Ramani.
Amal KS/Hindustan Times

On the day the judgment in a defamation case against her was supposed to be pronounced—10 February—the journalist Priya Ramani sat in one corner of the corridor outside the courtroom, looking somewhat impatient. It was half past one in the afternoon and the corridor was sparsely occupied. As the clock approached 2 pm, she was too nervous to sit, too nervous to stand. She leaned on a wall, shifted from side to side, took a step ahead then took a step back. She checked her phone and put it back in her bag. She tapped her fingers on her knees. Her husband, also a journalist, was with her, as were a couple of friends. The junior colleagues of her lawyer, Rebecca John, were there, because by custom, senior counsels do not come to collect exam results. 

MJ Akbar, the former union minister of state for external affairs that she had accused publicly of harassment, and who in turn had accused her of defaming him, showed up 20 minutes before 2 pm. He approached the door of the courtroom, but it was not open yet. He turned from the door and started walking towards the benches in the corridor, noticing half way that Ramani was also sitting nearby. Once he took an empty bench, his guards formed an umbrella around him. I went and asked him what his thoughts were. Would he like to say anything? He did not acknowledge me and continued to stare at his phone. His guards shooed me away. Akbar had the air of someone who would rather not be there—strange look for the man who had brought this case to court. He did not even raise his eyes to look around.

Some minutes after 2 pm, the case was called. The small, wood-furnished courtroom of Rouse Avenue was about the size of a tuition-centre classroom. The ceiling was low, within reach of a hand. There were no windows. About two dozen people shuffled into the matchbox-like space, only to be told that the pronouncement was postponed. Ramani left with her shoulders drooping—she would have to wait another week for the trial, already two years long, to come to an end. 

On 17 February, the corridor was more populated. Several of Ramani’s friends had shown up. Akbar sat in the farthest possible corner, with walls for company, still only concerned with his phone, surrounded by his guards and a batch of police officers. At 2 pm, the judge called everyone in and announced another delay, this time for only a half hour. Finally, at 2.47 pm, everyone was called in again. As the judge began pronouncing his order, Ramani looked straight at him. Akbar, looking frail, stared down at the wooden lectern in front of him.

It took a few minutes for the judgment to become clear. The masks were on, but you could see the smiles widening on Ramani’s side—her friends, her lawyers, all eyes shining. Just after it became clear that Ramani would be acquitted, the judge launched into a rehash of Hindu mythology, speaking about how the epics contained lessons on preserving a woman’s dignity. “A right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of a right to dignity,” the judge said. “You stand acquitted in the present case.”

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: MJ Akbar sexual harassment workplace sexual harassment Sexual violence Ranjan Gogoi defamation
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