New Delhi: Priya Ramani enters the hall of Rouse Avenue district court, 20 minutes before the judge was to pronounce his judgment in a case of criminal defamation against her. Journalists, lawyers and her supporters stand outside the court of additional chief metropolitan magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey. There are murmurs among the people present there over the judgment that is about to be delivered.
It’s a case between a powerful politician, M.J. Akbar, and a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment. In return, he filed a case of criminal defamation against her. So what was a case of alleged sexual harassment became one where the victim had to prove her innocence instead of the other way round.
Outside the court complex, camerapersons wait to capture the moment.
Wearing a black and grey long shirt, paired with black leggings and boots, Ramani smiles while greeting, and occasionally hugging the group of people who have come to support her. More than two years after Akbar filed his case, the judge is finally ready to pronounce judgement – after the earlier date of pronouncement, February 10, was changed to February 17.
A few members of her lawyer Rebecca John’s team come and surround Ramani. She walks around the hallway outside the courtroom – perhaps to calm herself down, or perhaps speculating about what might come.
Police officers open and exit the door of the courtroom occasionally. A peon delivers some documents to the court, and more people wait outside in anticipation.
Ramani sits on one side, while the complainant, a former Union minister under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, sits on the other. In one corner, a group of journalists are deliberating on something. “This is not sellable news,” one of them announces. In another corner, a few women who have come to support Ramani, re-familiarise themselves with the details of the case.
Amidst the police and security personnel around, Akbar is nearly invisible. He is wearing a grey coat and trousers, with a white shirt and is looking down into his phone. His sister, Ghazala Akbar, who is his only family member present, sits next to him.
Finally, the door to the courtroom opens. A crowd escorts Akbar inside.
A man and a woman sit near the judge’s chair, on two ordinary chairs, typing on their computers. As anticipation for the judge to arrive goes up, a man offers Akbar a chair but he refuses. Two minutes before 2 pm, the designated time for the verdict, a man from Akbar’s team looks up to the clock. The man sitting near the judge’s chair announces: “Kar rahe hain countdown. (We are doing the countdown.)”
The judge enters. People rise. The judge holds his hands together in the position of pranam, and takes his seat. He quickly marks Akbar’s attendance and asks: “Is Priya Ramani present?” She steps in. A policeman blocks the entrance. Someone from Ramani’s team tells him: “Inhi ka case hai, aane dijiye. (It is her case, please let her enter)”
Just as the door opens and journalists flock in to get a good vantage point, and Akbar and Ramani stand in front of the judge marking their attendance, the judge tells the crowd: “I will announce the judgment today. But I need some time. There are some corrections to be made.”
Everyone in the pale white room, cramped by the presence of some 50 journalists, is made to leave.
Outside the courtroom again, a big television screen displays the name of the case and its status in bold letters: IN PROGRESS.
Priya Ramani’s friend tells her, “We are going to sit this one out…”
Ramani stands close to the courtroom’s door. Akbar has chosen to pick the same spot he was sitting at earlier. He uses his phone and doesn’t talk much.
At 2:30 pm, 30 minutes after the judge had sent everybody out, a police officer comes to the door and says that the judgment will take some more time. “Please step back from the gate and don’t make noise.”
Ten minutes later, another police officer comes and requests people to follow social distancing norms. “There are cameras everywhere. My name will come up if rules are broken,” he says warmly.
A friend of Ramani’s tells her partner, Samar Halarnkar, “We are here for you no matter how much time it takes.”
At 2:47 pm, the judge finally calls everybody inside. Ramani, standing next to the gate, enters before Akbar does. Both then stand behind glass panels and bow their heads on two opposite sides of the room, hardly a few meters away.
Behind the judge, a gold coloured emblem with the words, “Satyamev Jayate” is fixed on the room’s wooden panel.
As the judge starts reading his verdict, Ramani looks around. Akbar, however, looks down. The process of pronouncing the judgment lasts for just over ten minutes. But before it ends, the judge makes a few important observations on sexual harassment, its effect on the survivors, and the social stigma attached to it.
He reads: “The victims of sexual abuse do not even speak a word about the abuse for many years because sometimes she herself has no idea that she is a victim of abuse. The victim may keep believing that she is at fault and the victim may live with that shame for years or for decades. Most women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it or against it for a simple reason: “the shame” or the social stigma attached with the sexual harassment and abuse.”
Observing that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser”, the judge also said that a woman has the right to put her grievance before any platform of her choice – even after decades. In the 91-page verdict, the court observed that a person’s “right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity”.
In the final act of pronouncement, when the judge says he is acquitting Ramani, a hushed “phew” sound reverberates the room. Akbar leaves the courtroom immediately, while Ramani signs the required papers.
Her smile, though hidden by the white mask she is wearing, peeps through her eyes. She comes out of the courtroom and announces, “This was not about me. This was about what women worldwide face at their workplaces. My victory belongs to everyone who spoke out during the #MeToo movement.”
Her lawyer, Rebecca John, who was not inside the courtroom during the verdict, enters. Cheers and claps greet her. Her team of young lawyers give her a standing ovation.
Strange as it may sound, it was the victim who was in the dock. And today’s court judgment only proved her innocence. A symbolic fight has been won – at least for now.