February 17 will be remembered as a day of reckoning for the #MeToo movement as a Delhi court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani of defamation charges filed by Rajya Sabha MP and former cabinet Minister MJ Akbar. Ramani was one of the many accusers who had come forward and spoken about the many misdeeds of MJ Akbar and alleged instances of sexual harassment.
The Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey acquitted Ramani of charges of defamation levelled against her by MJ Akbar while agreeing to the contention that MJ Akbar is “not a man of stellar reputation”.
While MJ Akbar quit from his ministership in 2018, he chose Ramani, among all accusers, to file a case of criminal defamation against her and thus began this trial where women appeared as witnesses in support of Ramani, retelling stories of alleged sexual harassment by MJ Akbar.
In the course of this trial, the judge hearing the case for the longest time, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja was transferred in November 2020 and ACMM Ravindra Kumar Pandey started hearing the case. Judge Pandey offered both parties an option of settlement, “The dispute between the two parties is compoundable in nature. You are senior lawyers and have settled disputes over the years. Is there a possibility of a settlement? I don’t know much about the case. I don’t know the level of the dispute.”
However, Ramani’s counsel told the court that the chances of compromise are bleak, as the facts of the case were peculiar in nature and that his client, Ms. Ramani stands by her statement and allegations. During the trial, Ramani was represented by Senior Advocate Rebecca John.
The complainant, MJ Akbar, stated that the following defamatory remarks were made by Ramani: “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator, maybe they’ll share’, ‘ the media’s biggest sexual predator’. ‘ How many more stories do you need to hear?’, ‘Am glad # M.J Akbar won’t be in the workplace any more but Akbar represents countless men who believe they can say and do whatever they want to women without any consequences’. ‘You’re an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer’.
MJ Akbar further averred that by not taking any action against him at that time clearly belies the sanctity of the allegation made by her, which evidently goes on to prove that those defamatory articles were only a figment of her imagination, and were only intended to malign him.
John argued that the MeToo Movement provided a platform to the women sexually harassed to break their silence and in 1993-94 when she faced sexual harassment at the hands of MJ Akbar, she did not have any legal remedies. During the trial, as many as 12 women’s tweets were presented before the court alleging sexual harassment by MJ Akbar. John argued that this demolishes MJ Akbar’s claim of having a stellar reputation. She further argued that MJ Akbar selectively targeted accused Priya Ramani to create chilling effect against other victims of his sexual violence/harassment.
Ramani took the defence that publication of article and tweet were made for public good regarding the true incident of her sexual harassment of December 1993, at Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai when complainant M.J Akbar called Ramani for interview at 07.00 PM in his bed room of the hotel and sexually harassed her. Ramani contended that she made publication in good faith for protection for other women’s interest in general regarding sexual harassment at workplace.
The court’s findings
The court accepted Ramani’s contention that complainant is not a man of stellar reputation basis testimonies of defence witnesses. Basis these testimonies, the court observed, “It cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse committed in the close doors or privately. Sometimes the victim herself does not understand what is happening to them or what is happening to them is wrong.”
The court held that Despite how well respected some persons are in society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females. The court took into consideration systematic abuse at the workplace due to lack of the mechanism to redress the grievance of sexual harassment when these incidents took place which was before the Vishaka guidelines issued by Supreme Court or The Sexual Harassment of women at workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 or the option to not lodge complaint owing to the social stigma.
The court pointed out that an abusive person can also be a well respected person of the society. About the victims of abuse, the court said, “The victims of the sexual abuse not even speak a word about abuse for many years because sometimes she herself have no idea that she is a victim of abuse. The victim may keep believing that she is at fault and victim may live with that shame for years or for decades.”
The court recognised that such sexual abuse takes away the woman’s dignity and her self confidence and attacking the abuser’s character is an act of self defence after the mental trauma suffered due to the shame attached with the crime:
“The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the Sex-abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before law and equal protection of law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution.”
The court clarified, “The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.”
“It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as “Mahabarata” and “Ramayana” were written around the theme of respect for women,” said the court in its order.
In its endeavour to shatter the glass ceiling the court remarked, “The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as a road lock for their advancement in the society, if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them”.
The court thus held Ramani not guilty of defaming MJ Akbar, thus acquitting her of charges of defamation.