How Priyadharshni Rahul fought against dowry demands, studied law and became a Supreme Court lawyer

After her 11-year legal battle, Advocate Priyadharshni Rahul highlights the importance of women standing up for themselves.
Priyadharshni Rahul
Priyadharshni Rahul

Hailing from Chennai, 37-year-old Priyadharshni Rahul (Priya) garnered many accolades since her early youth. She led the Republic Day parade in Delhi as the All-India Best Cadet by National Cadet Corps, was selected by the Government of India to be the Youth Ambassador of India to the UK, and won the Duke of Edinburgh awards (International Silver) for social service, to name a few.

Life took an unexpected turn when she was engaged to a civil servant, who made unreasonable dowry demands a few months prior to tying the knot.

She realised that all these accolades meant nothing if she did not take charge of her life and do something about the injustice she was subjected to.

“All this NCC, Scouts and Guides, Duke of Edinburgh, what do I do with all these things? I have almost 350 certificates and an entire rack of awards, medals. What is the point if these cannot become my life saving skills and torchbearers at my time of need?”

Priyadharshni during her National Cadet Corps days
Priyadharshni during her National Cadet Corps days

What followed was a legal battle that fuelled her interest to pursue law and become a practicing Supreme Court lawyer.

Priya's ordeal began in 2011, when she was engaged to a then aspiring civil servant.

"Dowry as a concept is completely different until it slaps you brutally on your face. It challenges your self-respect, your confidence, your belief of “equality” and, in fact, your very existence. That moment so strongly pushed me to a belief that women empowerment, women's rights and protection is merely on paper when she can be humiliated merely on her paying capacity to marry a groom,” she says.

Priya's parents told her to forget it as a bad dream and step forward in life. But she felt the need to stand up for herself.

"It was undoubtedly a very challenging and a painful moment that I didn’t want to be slipped in the pages of history as just another incident of harassment to women. I felt henceforth no man should take women so lightly on the basis of her incapability to pay dowry, and I couldn’t let go this incident unanswered," she added.

When Priya decided to file a case against the man, her parents were at first apprehensive of the embarrassment it would lead to.

“I said the embarrassment is already done, and I want to prove my innocence legally and on the record. After 10 years, when I look at myself, I wouldn’t want to stand as a voiceless dowry victim. I would want to be a dowry survivor who has faced the situation with grit and made a successful life for myself. I'm not going to be silent, because this is unacceptable.

It's very important that you decide what your self-respect is. The problem with women is that we think that the other person has to respect us, but we need to define what is our degree of respect. Until you decide that degree of respect, you can't expect the other person to respect you, that's not going to happen. The only reason I did this was to restore my dignity in my own eyes...” she said.

The legal ordeal

When she tried to lodge a complaint against the civil servant, the police dragged their feet over filing the first information report (FIR). Nearly four months later, it was finally registered after the Madras High Court intervened. She took the assistance of Advocate TP Senthil Kumar in Chennai who finally got the FIR registered under relevant sections of Indian Penal Code, the Dowry Prohibition Act, the Information Technology Act and the Tamil Nadu Protection of Women Harassment Act.

After the man was granted bail, Priya fought to challenge it right up till the Supreme Court. She was assisted in the apex court by former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and Senior Advocate Dr MN Krishnamani. He helped her emerge victorious when the bail was cancelled and the man was sent to judicial custody in 2014. The matter continued to be fought on merits thereafter till the apex court. In 2022 the then President of the SCBA and Senior Advocate Vikas Singh took over the case and helped reach the mutual settlement between both parties.

Empowerment through the law

Amidst the legal strife, Priya's fortunes began to change. Seeing her spirit to fight for justice and her conviction to stand for the truth, Supreme Court lawyer Rahul Bhandari helped her understand the procedures of the apex court, as she wasn’t a lawyer then. Over time, they went from being acquaintances to friends and eventually life partners, now entering the tenth year of their marriage this year. They have two children.

"I had no idea about the law back then and legal terminologies used in court were confusing. This prompted me to study law in 2012, which I ultimately finished in 2017. After getting married to Rahul in 2015, he took over my case and was handling it all for me. I began practice in 2019 alongside my husband.”

Priya pursued her legal studies in Andhra Pradesh. She takes up matters ranging from women's rights, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) cases and honour killings to criminal, civil and service matters.

Priyadharshni at the Supreme Court
Priyadharshni at the Supreme Court

Bringing the 11-year legal battle to a close

Priya stuck to her guns and fought the case for eleven long years, during which time she also had caregiving responsibilities towards her children.

Ultimately, the officer offered to settle the matter formally and approached Priya's lawyer the then President of SCBA, Senior Advocate Vikas Singh for the same. As she pondered over the idea of closing the matter once and for all, her husband and lawyers were in complete support of any decision she would make. Singh acted as the intervener between both parties and helped arrive at a mutual settlement.

Looking back at the case, Priya says,

"It's important to know when to stop your fight when you start. I realized that I never wanted this person in my life and did the case. In due course, the person was arrested and suspended...but I was still carrying the baggage, which I no more wanted to. Every time the case came before the court, there were some rotten memories and butterflies in your stomach. But I was always sure of winning this case. Trust me, nothing is more powerful than truth!"

When the apex court eventually passed the settlement order in Priya's favour in December 2022, she decided not to take a penny from the ₹11 lakh compensation paid by the civil servant. Recalling the days when she had to sell her jewellery to pay lawyers' fees in the initial stages of the case, she chose to donate the compensation amount to needy litigants.

Priya gives full credit to the people who fought along with her, trusted her and ensured that the case reached its logical end.

"When women come out and stand for their rights, and particularly for something like dowry demands, it is usually considered as radical feminism, where we're not happy with the male counterpart and want to get rid of them. That's absolutely not what I am. In fact, whatever I am today, at every point in time, it has been the male counterpart who supported me selflessly to ensure that I stand on my own feet. Not just Rahul, every single man around me who trusted me for my fight and for who I am. They always patted me on my back at every step of the way," Priya recounts.

Paying it forward

Priyadharshni Rahul with  Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal at Sansad Ratna Awards
Priyadharshni Rahul with Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal at Sansad Ratna Awards

Priya decided to not let her distasteful experience define her. Even as the case went on, she kept herself busy by associating with various programmes.

She began volunteering with the Sansad Ratna Awards Committee, which is a civil society organization that awards the best-performing parliamentarians. An initiative started by former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, it has been running for the past 14 years. Over the years, she climbed up the ranks to eventually become the first woman Chairperson of the organisation.

She also founded Next Gen Political Leaders (NGPL) to train and develop political leaders across parties on understanding civic responsibility and how to discharge their duties. This initiative is under the mentorship of former Chief Election Commissioner of India TS Krishnamurthy and Members of Parliament (MPs) Supriya Sule and Heena Gavit. As part of the programme, lectures are delivered by MPs, constitutional authorities, former ministers and professors.

During the course of her engagement with NGPL and the Sansad Ratna Awards, Priya had the chance to meet and interact with President of India Droupadi Murmu twice.

Priyadharshni with president
Priyadharshni with president

Priya also reaches out to local schools whenever she travels. She addresses children from Class 9 to 12 on the work being done at NGPL and PreSense e-zine, a monthly publication covering topics like politics, governance, education, social issues, women empowerment etc.

Priya was also awarded the Dr Abdul Kalam Award of Excellence for Nation Building. The Chief Minister of Goa bestowed her as Visionary of the Year Award 2021 by the Public Relations Council of India.

As a lawyer, she is appointed as Assistant Standing Counsel for New Delhi Municipal Council and is a panel lawyer for Repco Bank.

For Priya, life has come full circle, and standing up for herself has paid dividends.

"Today, I stand with my head held high and have gained my respect and dignity in the face of mighty odds. I truly believe that the hurdles one faces should never harness the capabilities one possesses."

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