Journalist Priya Ramani acquitted in defamation case
A Delhi court on Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case filed by former Union minister MJ Akbar after she accused him of sexual misbehaviour during a work interview in December 1993, and emphasised in its judgment that the right to protect one’s reputation cannot be at the cost of a woman’s right to dignity.
The court pointed out that even a person of high social standing can be a sexual harasser, and that a woman cannot be punished for raising instances of abuse.
“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,” additional chief metropolitan magistrate (ACMM) Ravindra Pandey said.
“The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” the judgment stated.
Shortly after the verdict, delivered at Delhi’s Rouse Avenue court, Ramani said it would “encourage more women to speak up”. Her lawyer Rebecca John said that the “path-breaking judgment” had upheld that “no truth is exempted from the purview of defamation; it has to be made for public good and in public interest.”
Akbar’s lawyers said that they would comment only after studying the judgment.
In October 2018, Ramani shared an article on Twitter which she had written in 2017 in Vogue India magazine following allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein made by several women as part of the Me Too movement in the United States. The article did not name MJ Akbar -- it described her experience of an interview with a newspaper editor for a reporter’s position -- but the Tweet did.
Akbar, who was a minister in the BJP-led cabinet at the time resigned shortly after a host of women, besides Ramani, made allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against him in the wake of the Me Too movement.
He, however, filed a criminal defamation suit under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), arguing that the incident was not as she described it in her article. He also said that a tweet by Ramani describing him as a “predator” had caused irreparable damage to his reputation.
Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra argued that Ramani’s statements on Twitter were “per se defamatory” and questioned her decision to speak up several years after the purported incident. Luthra also pointed out during the course of the hearing—which spanned three years and saw two routine transfers of the ACMM—that Ramani had no evidence in the form of CCTV footage or phone records to back her claim.
But the court, in its verdict, recognised that no legal remedies were available to Ramani when she was sexually harassed — the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment, the Sexual Harassment of the Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act and Section 354 A which made sexual harassment a criminal offence, only came up in the subsequent years— and that many women opt not to complain even now due to the fear of stigma.
“Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it for the simple reason of the shame or stigma attached with the sexual harassment. The sexual abuse, if committed against woman, takes away her dignity and her self confidence,” ACMM Dubey said.
“The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as a road block for their advancement in the society, if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them,” the judgment stated.
The judge accepted the argument put forward by John that the complainant MJ Akbar was not a man of stellar reputation on the basis of the testimonies put forward by Ramani and her witnesses, journalists Ghazala Wahab and Niloufer Venkatraman. Wahab had also levelled charges of sexual harassment against Akbar.
“The court said I believe Priya Ramani, and I believe her truth… Not every truth is exempted from the purview of defamation. It has to be made for public good and in public interest. Given that sexual harassment at the workplace is one such truth, it was a defence we took and which the court upheld,” John said.
“This is an exceedingly significant judgment because it upholds the dignity of women and finds that it is no less than the reputation of men in claims of defamation on account of accusations of sexual harassment or assault. The judgment also recognises that safety at the workplace is an extremely important feature for any woman to grow in her career, and that it is part of the fundamental right to life and livelihood,” advocate Mrunalini Deshmukh said.
“However, as much as we must hail the victory as upholding women’s dignity and their safety at the workplace, it also puts a lot of responsibility on women to ensure that the law is followed and not abused,” she said.
The case was first heard by ACMM Samar Vishal who was replaced by Vishal Pahuja in 2019. In a routine transfer late last year, Ravindra Pandey took over as ACMM of this court, which has been designated to fast-track cases against members of parliament and legislators.