Written by Madhu Mehra
The significance of the verdict in MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani case is understandable when one considers the dismal outcomes of sexual harassment complaints against men in high office.
Yet, unlike most such cases, Ramani was not seeking legal redress for old wrongs against Akbar. On the contrary, she was battling charges of criminal defamation for social media disclosures of sexual harassment. She was singled out, although her account was one of many against Akbar.
Even as the verdict in the Akbar vs Ramani case is a moment to celebrate, there is still concern about criminal defamation being weaponized against victims who speak out. Ramani was acquitted because her actions fell within the exceptions in law. Her disclosures were held to be defamatory, but not offensive, as they were true and served the public good. So while Ramani was courageous to stand her ground, she passed the legal test because of sufficient evidence that established the veracity of her statements.
Producing convincing evidence for sexual harassment is tough, particularly when decades have lapsed between the harassment and the complaint. In this case however, social media disclosures by other journalists, one of who testified in Ramani’s defense, established a systemic pattern of conduct by Akbar towards young female recruits. The task of establishing that Ramani was indeed interviewed in a hotel room by Akbar on an evening in 1993, remained. In a fortuitous turn of events, a longtime friend who was privy to her ordeal at the interview, messaged Ramani on reading her social media disclosure. These messages predated the legal action by Akbar, thus offering invaluable corroboration that the interview took place in a hotel in 1993.
How did the disclosures serve the public good? It was clear that prior to the Vishakha judgment (1997), neither a vocabulary nor avenue for complaining of sexual harassment existed. Acknowledging past wrongs and systemic discrimination against women in what might be considered the country’s most reputed newsrooms must be part of the societal resolve to combatting sexual harassment and therefore, a public good.
If these were the terms of Ramani’s acquittal, then the court’s observation that a “woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades” does not stand alone. This right is in fact, contingent on the availability of clinching evidence. Anything short of that risks not just criminal charges being made, but the fact that the charges will lead to the women being convicted. While the offence of criminal defamation remains available, women will need to weigh their capacity to soldier through criminal proceedings, before airing their grievances in the public domain. The constitutionality of criminal defamation was unsuccessfully challenged in 2016 and so it remains available, and can be weaponized against women who go public when redress mechanisms fail to deliver, or simply don’t exist. The Ramani verdict in this context, is more a moment of relief than one of exhilaration.
Two observations in the Akbar verdict speak strongly to the sexual harassment discourse, and are thus deserving of attention. The first, that: “the society should understand that the abusive person is just like the rest of the other person (sic) and that he too has family and friends. He can also be well respected person of society.” For too long, the veracity of sexual harassment complaints have had to compete against the professional laurels of the accused, the appeal of an attractive wife and happy marriage, and of blameless conduct with other women, and so on. These are not the touchstones on which sexual harassment charges are to be defended. The observations of the court on this should hopefully, put a lid on such extraneous defense.
The second observation, is that “the ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women …. if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them. As per Economic Survey Report of the year 2020-2021, presented in the Parliament, the pan Indian workforce participation rate of females in the production age (15-59 years) was 26.5% in the year 2018-19 as compared to 80.3% for males. It is suggested in the said report that ‘in order to incentive (sic) more women to join the workforce, apart from the investment in the institutional support and other areas, safe work environment needs to be made.”
In addition to bleak employment opportunities, the fact that women in India must grapple with poorly enforced sexual harassment protections must deeply concern us. In July 2018, the Lok Sabha was reportedly informed that only 2164 complaints of sexual harassment had been registered country wide from 2015. It is in this context that the #MeToo is situated. In the absence of state oversight and enforcement, it is the collective outrage by women that nudges institutional compliance and attracts state attention. Soon after Akbar’s resignation from ministerial office, the government appointed a Group of Ministers to recommend measures to strengthen implementation of the sexual harassment law, though neither a report nor announcement of any action emerged from this process. An online SHe-box was created by the Ministry of Women and Child Development for channeling complaints to relevant authorities, which neither assures timely redress nor displays data on the complaints received and disposed. Twenty-three years after the Vishakha guidelines and seven years after the enactment of the law against sexual harassment, many women continue to battle odds. Their response is to find succor through public disclosures and solidarity with other victims, while the people responsible for enforcing the law, for the most part, have yet to heed the letter and spirit of the law.
Madhu Mehra is a lawyer, who heads the research and training initiatives at Partners for Law in Development, a legal resource group in Delhi.