Indian minister loses high-profile #MeToo defamation case

In 2018, Priya Ramani became first of a string of women to go public with allegations against MJ Akbar

AFP February 17, 2021
India's former junior foreign minister MJ Akbar lost a defamation suit against a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

A former minister lost a defamation suit Wednesday against a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment, in a verdict hailed as a major victory for India's #MeToo movement.

In 2018, Priya Ramani became the first of a string of women to go public with allegations against MJ Akbar, a former high-profile newspaper editor and later a junior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

She was inspired by the #MeToo movement against sexual assault that sprang up in the United States and spread worldwide following accusations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017.

Ramani wrote an article in Vogue magazine about the inappropriate behaviour of an unnamed editor the same year and one year later alleged it was Akbar.

She said she was 23 when Akbar called her to a Mumbai hotel for a job interview more than 20 years ago and told her to come up to his room.

"Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer. It was more date, less interview," she wrote in the article.

"You offered me a drink from the mini bar (I refused, you drank vodka), we sat on a small table for two... and you sang me old Hindi songs after inquiring after my musical preferences. You thought you were irresistible," she said.

"The bed, a scary interview accompaniment, was already turned down for the night. Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you," she said.


Akbar, 70, who has not been charged with any offence, called the allegations "baseless".

Soon after, he stepped down as junior foreign minister and sued Ramani for defamation, saying it had caused "irreparable damage to (my) reputation and goodwill".

Ramani told reporters outside the New Delhi courtroom on Wednesday that sexual harassment had got the attention it deserves despite her -- the victim -- having to stand in court as the accused.

"It feels amazing... I feel vindicated on behalf of all the women who have ever spoken up against sexual harassment in the workplace," she said.

#PriyaRamani was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter in India with many hailing it as a major victory that will inspire other victims to come forward.

Ramani's lawyer Rebecca John told AFP after Wednesday's judgement that it was an "incredibly gratifying moment".

"The fact that a woman was being dragged to a criminal court in defamation proceedings to silence her and other women from coming out and speaking the truth was in itself a very important reason for me to take up the matter," John said.

The court order said: "The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims."


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