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Friday, February 26, 2021

Priya Ramani, Rebecca John deserve our gratitude. History has been made

Courage of those who spoke up, commitment of lawyers and women’s movement mark this moment.

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
Updated: February 19, 2021 9:12:07 am
Priya Ramani and Rebecca John (Express Photo)

It is possible that Rupan Deol Bajaj woke up with a smile on her face this morning. That the smile stayed as she drank her morning tea and read about the verdict in the defamation case filed by M J Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani.

Perhaps, Bhanwari Devi too heard of the verdict. It’s possible that she thought back all those years ago to her own life, and the sexual assault on her that led to a major movement — an aandolan — across the country which forever changed the way workplaces for women are conceptualised.

It’s possible that the woman, whom we know only as Miss X, who fought a long and protracted legal battle against her superior in a case that came to be known as Apparel Export Promotion Council vs AK Chopra, and was eventually vindicated 11 years later, is also happy today as she reads news of the verdict.

And, perhaps, all those women, young and old, anonymous and known, who created lists of perpetrators and predators in the #MeToo campaign, are also feeling a sense of victory, a sense that somewhere, the issue they’ve been trying to draw attention to has been heard, attended to.

Perhaps, those of you who are not familiar with the women’s movement are wondering who these women are. Let me recap their histories briefly.

In 1988, Rupan Deol Bajaj, then a senior government officer, was slapped on her bottom by KPS Gill, then Director General of Police, seen as the “hero” for quelling militancy in Punjab, at an official dinner. Dismissed by almost everyone as a “trivial” incident, Bajaj said she “could not forget the humiliation”. She fought a court battle for 17 long years, at great cost to herself. Eventually she won.

In the same year, a woman known as Miss X filed a complaint with her employers, the Apparel Export Promotion Council, about a senior manager, who attempted to molest her on a number of occasions in the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi. Thrown out of his job by the employers, the man filed cases in the courts, was reinstated and after a tortuous decade, was finally once again terminated.

Bhanwari Devi was not so lucky at the courts. But her case triggered the movement, the aandolan, that eventually led to the filing of the Vishakha petition, the framing of the Vishakha Guidelines by the Supreme Court and eventually to the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace) Act 2013.

And the more recent #MeToo movement needs little explanation. Echoed in different parts of the world where high-profile men were publicly shamed and stripped of their status, the movement allowed women to speak out as never before.

Today Priya Ramani can claim this proud history of women’s battles and victories, even as hundreds of thousands of similar cases remain unaddressed because women are still afraid to speak out.

In a cursory search on the net for cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, I found the following story from Human Rights Watch. In 2016, 11 workers from a garment factory in southern India wrote this letter to their union.

“We don’t have anyone who would listen to us… We have to bear unbearable abuses at work from… ‘Do you come here to pluck your pubic hair?’ We are tired of hearing these kinds of abuses… We have come here to the city from another place to earn money. We too have self-respect and dignity… We cannot put our names down because we are scared and want to live and work… We want justice… is it our fault that we are poor?’’

Self-respect, dignity, a conducive and enabling work environment, is this too much to ask for? This is what Priya Ramani was seeking when she went for a job interview with MJ Akbar and he invited her to his room in the hotel. An invitation to a bedroom, a bed, a sofa — what do these have to do with a job interview?

And it was for exposing this, her truth, to which Ramani stayed steadfast throughout the court proceedings, that Akbar, a powerful man, sued her for damaging his “stellar” reputation.

But this is also why the judgment is so significant. Its recognition of the principle of public good, its emphatic endorsement of the right of women to respect and dignity, its understanding of women’s reluctance to speak, and the question of delay, its assertion that “a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sex-abuse on the pretext of a criminal complaint of defamation, as the right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 21 and Right of Equality before the law and equal protection of the law as guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution.”

There is much to celebrate here and much that provides hope for the future and for all those women whose silence fills every space where women work. But there are other things, too.

First, the courage of those who have spoken, often at considerable cost to themselves. Then, the presence among us of lawyers, young, old, of different genders, who have a commitment and a stake in protecting our rights. And who are willing, despite intimidation and threats, to do so. Further, the presence of a women’s movement — an ongoing aandolan — that has made it possible to speak, that has fought for laws, that provided evidence of a supportive community and more. All of this and more marks this moment.

As Rupan Deol Bajaj said when I spoke to her earlier today: “When I fought, it was me alone, today it’s #metoo.”

Priya Ramani, Rebecca John and all those other women and men who have fought this battle deserve our gratitude and respect today. Will this case go on appeal? Perhaps. But whether it does or not, there’s little doubt that history has been made.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 19, 2021 under the title ‘Her right to dignity’. The writer is director, Zubaan publishers.

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