NEW DELHI — A junior minister in India has filed a criminal defamation complaint against a woman who publicly accused him on social media of sexual misconduct, in a case that has highlighted setbacks facing India’s nascent #MeToo movement.
In a 41-page letter to Delhi’s chief metropolitan magistrate, Mobashar Jawed Akbar, minister of state for external affairs, accused journalist Priya Ramani of “willfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously defaming the Complainant [Akbar], on wholly and completely false, frivolous, unjustifiable and scandalous grounds.”
The letter could result in criminal charges against Ramani and become the first major hurdle for India’s #MeToo movement, which has taken off this month. Dozens of women have called out misconduct, assault and harassment in the workplace, naming men in media, entertainment, sports, public relations and other sectors.
In a statement, Ramani said she was “deeply disappointed” with Akbar’s decision to take legal action against her. “By instituting a case of criminal defamation against me, Mr. Akbar has made his stand clear: rather than engage with the serious allegations that many women have made against him, he seeks to silence them through intimidation and harassment.”
As a result of India’s #MeToo movement, some accused men have been forced to resign from prominent positions, and companies have instituted new measures to make women feel safe in their workplaces. But several accused men have publicly denied allegations or lashed out at women for speaking up.
India’s delayed #MeToo campaign spilled out on social media after actress Tanushree Dutta revived a decade-old allegation against actor Nana Patekar in television interviews last month.
Since then, women have put their names to accusations against powerful men and used social media to give details about abuses. They also have often cited their failed efforts to get justice through regular channels.
Many women accusing men on social media say they made previous attempts to report sexual misconduct. But they say that their concerns were repeatedly dismissed or trivialized by colleagues and that “due process” in India has broken down. With police officers, courts and beyond, women have found their complaints of workplace sexual harassment are not taken seriously. Female activists now hope to strengthen an existing Indian law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, which has been poorly implemented since it was enacted in 2013.
Although India’s #MeToo movement has drawn inspiration from the United States’, it differs in key ways. Unlike the allegations against high-powered film producer Harvey Weinstein, which were investigated and reported by established news organizations, the accusations in India have erupted on social media, with women using their Twitter handles or Facebook pages to share their stories.
And unlike in the United States, where First Amendment rights strongly protect free speech, defamation laws in India allow the criminal prosecution of women who are unable to prove public allegations against their abusers, with a maximum jail term of two years.
The complaints by alleged abusers could derail a movement that some say is still only scratching the surface of India’s deep-rooted misogyny and violence toward women. They could intimidate women still deciding whether to publicly accuse men of misconduct, harassment or rape.
“We can’t lose this battle. If we lose this battle, we’re losing the war,” said Sandhya Menon, one of the female journalists leading the movement.
Ramani first accused Akbar of misconduct in a 2017 Vogue article in which she described an unnamed man making unwanted advances toward her in a hotel room. Last Monday, she reposted the article while naming Akbar.
Her accusation prompted a torrent of allegations against the minister and former newspaper editor by female journalists who used to work with him in his newsrooms. By Sunday, when Akbar returned from an official visit to Nigeria, he was facing a barrage of allegations from 14 women. Some only hinted at experiences of misconduct, while others, such as Ghazala Wahab, now executive editor of Force magazine, gave detailed accounts of Akbar’s alleged misbehavior.
“Sometimes, he would walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips; and every time I would push him away and escape from his room,” Wahab wrote on the Wire, a news website.
The allegations against Akbar even seemed to divide the ranks of India’s government, which is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and usually stays on message. “Men who are in positions of power often do this,” Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, told television news channel India Today.
Akbar’s current complaint names only Ramani, although in a statement on Sunday, the minister also lashed out at others who accused him. “The allegations of misconduct made against me are false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice,” the statement said.
Some activists argue that the defamation cases could provide an opportunity for women to prove their allegations in court. “Defamation suits are not always taken in a negative manner because [they give] people opportunities to prove that what was said was true,” said Indira Jaising, a lawyer who has argued many women’s rights cases.
Menon, one of the journalists at the forefront of the movement, said that after the initial shock of Akbar’s defamation complaint had passed, female activists and their supporters have gained new momentum — and new impetus to organize themselves.
Over the past week, lists of lawyers willing to work on sexual harassment cases pro bono have circulated on social media, and new allegations against men have emerged on social media.