Notes on Priya Ramani’s fight for dignity

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
18 February, 2021

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.”

When the intent of the verdict had become clear, and the judge was still speaking, Akbar asked something to a junior lawyer standing next to him, only to be shushed with the show of a hand by her, as she leaned forward to listen to the judge. As soon as the pronouncement was complete, Akbar fled, surrounded by the security and the police.

Ramani stayed. She was joined shortly after by the advocate John, who was welcomed with claps by Ramani’s friends. The trial, farcical from the outset, had come to an end. 

It had all started with a tweet, and then another, and then another and then another, filling our screens with long-whispered secrets. Hundreds of men—movie directors, musicians, actors, artists, writers, academics, stand-up comics, journalists and sundry others—were named in harrowing individual anecdotes by hundreds more women. By the end of that heady first week of October 2018, the #MeToo movement in India, a glimpse of which had come a year earlier with the publication of a list, swelled into an avalanche. It descended furiously on our fragile fiction of an equitable society. 

On the evening of 8 October, Priya Ramani posted a tweet—three sentences, thirty words, one link, one name. “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worst stories about this predator—maybe they’ll share. #ulti” She linked an article published by Vogue, in the wake of the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the piece, Ramani described a 1993 meeting with a renowned Delhi-based editor who invited her up to a hotel room on the pretext of an interview, who then made unwelcome advances, singing her songs and asking her to sit close to him on a small sofa. Ramani was 23 years old at the time, and the editor—she did not name him in the piece—was 43. The article then spoke more generally to the “species” of sexual predators. It was framed as a letter, addressed “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World.” 

Somewhere, the face of Mobasher Jawed Akbar would have been lit up by a screen coming to life. Whenever he came to know of Ramani’s tweet, he claimed to have then found his reputation tarnished in the eyes of the public, so much so that he resigned from his cabinet post. After the aid and advice of those still willing to see him, he decided to take the matter to court. Among these advisers was Raian Karanjawala. A friend of the late Arun Jaitley— a BJP politician and defence minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet—Karanjawala is the co-founder of a law firm that takes an interest in sexual-harassment cases—Tarun Tejpal, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of the erstwhile Tehelka magazine, who stands accused of sexually assaulting a junior colleague, was also a client. On 18 October, Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani. The vakalatnama­, or the record of the advocates, filed in the case against Ramani listed 97 lawyers. Finally, as in the case of Tejpal, Karanjawala took the back seat and the senior advocate Geeta Luthra argued for Akbar in court. 

By the time the matter came before the court, Ramani was not the only woman to have accused Akbar of sexual harassment. Ghazala Wahab, another journalist, had wondered out loud on Twitter about when the “floodgates will open about @mjakbar,” two days before Ramani. On 10 October, she wrote a scorching account in The Wire, describing how Akbar sexually harassed her in his office, in the late 1990s. Women continued to come forward after Ramani’s post and Wahab’s article. Even before the defamation case was filed, eight other journalists had come forward with their stories on various platforms—Saba Naqvi, Shutapa Paul, Shuma Raha, Kanika Gahlaut, Suparna Sharma, Prerna Bindra, Kadambari Wade, Ruth David and Majlie De Puy Kamp. Writing in the Washington Post in November, the journalist Pallavi Gogoi accused Akbar of rape. By the time the case was underway, around eighteen women had spoken out about Akbar’s predatory behaviour. With the defamation case, all the home truths learned in October came to be epitomised in the face of one man. The picture was almost Weinsteinesque.

It is not possible to record in exact detail all the arguments presented in court, spread over two years. Nor is it possible to convey the struggles of Ramani in this time, flying to and from Delhi dozens of times from her home and family in Bengaluru, sitting for long hours in John’s office or on Zoom calls, preparing for the next hearing, wondering if she was to be convicted for speaking the truth. The case was never going to be a legal referendum on whether Akbar is a sexual predator or not—that writing was on the wall, or on the internet, for anyone to see. What concerned the court specifically was whether or not Ramani’s tweets and the Vogue article were defamatory.

The prosecution’s strategy was, it appeared, to single out Ramani from the many others who had accused Akbar. It was to bully her with an endless list of lawyers, put her through the slow grind of the legal system, raise enough doubts about her story—which, as she pointed out herself, was not as damning as the others—parade witnesses who read paeans to the “stellar reputation” of their client, and hope for the best. If one account was judged defamatory, one would imagine, the whole narrative could be seen as muddied.

Ramani’s defence was argued by Rebecca John, whose office employs fewer people than the number of women who have publicly accused Akbar. John built her case around the exceptions provided in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, which covers defamation. She argued that Ramani spoke the truth and spoke it in public interest, so she could not be penalised. “The imputation is the truth,” John argued. “You cannot look at defamation in isolation and shut your eyes to the rest of the world and pretend nothing is happening.” 

A crucial point in the prosecution’s bid was that while Ramani mentioned Akbar in her tweet, the Vogue article made no mention of Akbar. It was, according to Luthra, defamation without any defence of truth. She contended that because the open letter never mentioned a name, everything in it could be read, in context of the tweet, as being about Akbar. “All these years later the world has changed but your species is just the same,” Ramani had written to the Weinsteins of the world. “You whip out your tired tricks for a new batch of women every year. ‘Watch me shower.’ ‘Can I give you a massage?’ ‘A shoulder rub?’ ‘I’m ready for my blow job now.’ ‘Are you married?’” 

So, the question became, was this all about Akbar? If the judge agreed that Ramani implied so in her tweet, it would make for a clear case of defamation. The quotes Ramani used were from articles published in the New Yorker and the New York Times about the Weinstein case, and they had nothing to do, in a literal sense, with either Akbar or Ramani. An unnecessary interlude was provided by the fact that Ramani had not attributed the quotes to their original source. An actual question posed to Ramani by Luthra in the middle of all this was, “Is this not plagiarism?” 

Dictionaries were consulted. John argued that Ramani made clear in her tweet that she “began” the piece with her MJ Akbar story. When she said “began,” it could not be taken to mean that she was referring to the whole piece. “Not an expert in English, but from what little I know, there is a clear break after those initial paras,” John argued. In defence of the word “predator,” as Ramani had classified the men she was speaking to, John argued that this was the truth. It was the English meaning of the term, meaning someone who has more power than those he preys upon.

Akbar’s claim was that he knew nothing about the meeting between him and Ramani. During the cross examination, his most frequent response was that he did not, or could not, remember or recollect. (Spectators were reminded of Brett Kavanaugh, of the US Supreme Court, who claimed a similar defence against accusations of sexual assault.) Luthra pointed out that Ramani had provided no material evidence—parking tickets, hotel logs, CCTV footage and such—and that the allegations were made many years after the incident.

The trigger for the article, and the tweet, John responded, was the MeToo movement. It was an experience of living through long buried memories of being sexually exploited, as well as reading the stories of so many others, that had resulted in Ramani speaking out about something that happened decades ago. “The question is not when she made the allegation,” John said. “The question is that when she made the allegation, was it credible or not?”

For evidence, there was a friend who Ramani had called in distress after the meeting, who testified as a witness. Ghazala Wahab, too, came to the stand and Luthra’s objections began with the introduction itself. She told the court her Akbar story. All the while, Luthra and her juniors laughed loudly, giggled amongst themselves and made snide comments. Towards the end of the arguments, in January this year, Luthra made a plea that another case for destruction of evidence be registered against Ramani because she had deleted her Twitter account. 

In the end, Luthra’s arguments—presumably prepared with the help of Karanjawala and his 97 associates—did not convince the judge. In his order, Ravindra Kumar Pandey did not hold the supposed lack of material evidence against Ramani. The court accepted Ramani’s defence that she had disclosed her account to her friend, who then testified to it in court. On the basis of Wahab’s testimony, the court accepted that Akbar was “not a man of stellar reputation.” It could not be ignored that sexual harassment and abuse often took place behind closed doors, the court said. “Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females.” 

It is worth noting that this is not the only trial to have come out of the MeToo movement. A Mumbai court had noted that writer-director Vinta Nanda, who had publicly accused the actor Alok Nath of rape and filed a police complaint in 2018, had done so out of a “personal vendetta” against him. Nath got bail, and his wife filed a defamation case against Nanda. The actor Nana Patekar’s NGO also filed a defamation case against Tanushree Dutta last year, who was among the first women in the Hindi film industry to speak out, in some ways spurring the movement. Dutta had accused Patekar of sexual harassment. The MeToo movement began in India with a list posted by Raya Sarkar, a Dalit student, but its 2018 iteration remained confined to the upper-caste, upper-class and urban, driven by platforms that a vast majority of Indian women have never been on, ensuring that the movement itself was a microcosm of the society we live in. Later in the evening on 17 February, as one woman celebrated a well-fought victory in a court of law, two Dalit girls were found dead in a field in Uttar Pradesh, reportedly tied up and foaming at the mouth.

While the accusations led to Akbar leaving the cabinet, other high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct have not fallen similarly from the BJP’s grace. During Ranjan Gogoi’s tenure as the chief justice of India, a junior employee accused him of sexual harassment. Despite this, he was as good as rewarded with a Rajya Sabha posting following his retirement from judicial office. Whether this differential action has to do with Akbar’s identity or his utility remains anyone’s guess.

But for a brief time in the Rouse Avenue district court, it was possible to forget crude realities. Now that the quibbles over the beginning of that open letter in Vogue had been settled, there was hope to be read in its ending. “There are more brave women now who are not scared to point out the monster in the suit,” Ramani had written. “We’ll get you all one day.” That is a long road, but Ramani’s case will be a milestone. While it was almost demoralising to be taking succour in a judgment that relied on Hindu mythology to uplift and empower a woman, one purpose of the movement seemed to have been served—even male judges whose worldview has been built by these scriptures were beginning to grasp the nuances of sexual violence and to believe in the possibility that a woman is telling the truth.