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Thursday, April 22, 2021

#MeToo: Delhi court acquits Priya Ramani in criminal defamation case filed by MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar had filed the suit against Ramani on October 15, 2018, for allegedly defaming him by accusing him of sexual misconduct decades ago when he was a journalist.

Written by Anand Mohan J | New Delhi |
Updated: February 18, 2021 1:42:56 am
M J Akbar, M J Akbar #metoo case, priya ramani, priya ramani mj akbar case, mj akbar case sexual assault case, india #metoo movement, Delhi high court, india news, indian expressMJ Akbar and Priya Ramani. (File)

Underlining that a “woman cannot be punished for raising voice against 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” and that she has the “right to put her grievance” on “any platform of her choice… even after decades”, a Delhi court Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case filed by MJ Akbar, former Minister of State for External Affairs.

Ramani had levelled allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against Akbar who sued her and resigned from the Union Council of Ministers after several women made similar allegations in October 2018. This was around the time the MeToo campaign against sexual harassment had gained momentum in the country.

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, in his judgment acquitting Ramani, said the court accepted “the contention of the accused and the possibility of defence of the accused that she disclosed the truth regarding the incident of sexual­ harassment against her at the Oberoi Hotel, Bombay in December, 1993 on the basis of testimony of accused DW1 (Defence Witness Ramani) and its corroboration by the testimony of DW2 Niloufer Venkatraman.”

The court also accepted the “contention of the accused that complainant (Akbar) is not a man of stellar reputation on the basis of testimony of accused DW1 and testimony of DW3 Ghazala Wahab”.

Both Ramani and Akbar were present in the courtroom.

Stating that “it cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual­ harassment and sexual abuse” are committed behind closed doors or privately, ACMM Pandey said sometimes the victims themselves do not understand what is happening is wrong. “Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females,” he said.

Akbar’s lawyers headed by senior advocate Geeta Luthra had argued that Ramani had not disclosed the incident despite available legal mechanisms and that she only did it to “jump into the MeToo bandwagon”.

On this issue, the court took “consideration of the systematic abuse at the workplace due to lack of the mechanism to redress the grievance of sexual ­harassment at the time of the incident of sexual­ harassment” against Ramani and witness Wahab prior to the issuance of Vishaka guidelines by the Supreme Court and enactment of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 “or their option to not lodge the complaint of sexual harassment due to the social stigma attached with the sexual ­harassment of women”.

“The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” it said.

Pronouncing the verdict, the court said Ramani’s Vogue article’s “contents are defamatory in nature and article find no mention regarding the clarification and marking distinction that particular portion of the article pertains to the complainant and other portion pertains to other male bosses in general”.

Ramani’s lawyer, senior advocate Rebecca John, had argued that the Vogue article’s introduction was “not the whole piece” and “the rest of the article was about the behaviour of male bosses and allegations against Harvey Weinstein”. This contention was rejected by the court.

But then ACMM Pandey spoke at length on the stigmatisation of sexual harassment victims at the workplace.

“The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual­ harassment and its implications on victims. The society should understand that an abusive person is just like rest of the other person and he too has family and friends. He can also be well respected person of the society. 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 said.

“Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it or against it for simple reason ‘The Shame’ or the social stigma attached with the sexual harassment and abuse. The sexual abuse, if committed against woman, takes away her dignity and her self-confidence. The attack on the character of sex abuser or offender by sex abuse victim, is the reaction of self-defence after the mental trauma suffered by the victim regarding the shame attached with the crime committed against her,” it said.

On the court’s findings, John told The Indian Express later: “On account of the fact that Ramani pleaded some exceptions to defamation, came to the court and testified, coupled with the statement of Ghazala and Niloufer, the court has accepted that exceptions stand proved on the test of preponderability… while the court said in isolation it may be defamatory because the statute allows you to take these exceptions, and prove them by coming to the witness stand, and stand a cross-examination, the court said it believes Priya Ramani.”

Following the verdict, Ramani told reporters: “This battle has been about women, not about me. I just happened to represent all the women who spoke up, the women who spoke up before me and the ones who spoke up after me. I thought this was a very apt judgement. My victory will definitely encourage more women to speak up and it will also make powerful men think twice before they take victims to court. Don’t forget that I was the accused in this case. I was accused just for speaking up.”

The judgment also highlights this: “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.”

ACMM Pandey also borrowed examples from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and said: “It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ were written around the theme of respect for women.”

Citing the story of Jatayu coming to the aid of Sita in Ramayana and Draupadi’s appeal for justice and her treatment by Dushasana in Mahabharata, ACMM Pandey said: “The subtlety of the questions, asked in a situation of intense personal trauma, is indicative of her cerebral power and her ability of sharp and logical analysis. The Indian women are capable, pave the way for them to excel, they only require the freedom and equality. The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as road lock for their advancement in the society, if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them.”

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