Updated: February 18, 2021 8:21:05 am
A Delhi court’s acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case brought against her by former Union minister and editor M J Akbar is an empowering judgment — a landmark in India’s #MeToo movement. In 2018, as women across the country broke a long silence by calling out powerful sexual predators on social media, Ramani, too, had alleged sexual harassment by the editor during a job interview 20-odd years ago. Akbar, who resigned after a spate of allegations, had sued Ramani for speaking up, accusing her of tarnishing his “stellar reputation”. Worldwide, the #MeToo movement attempted to break the asymmetry of patriarchal power that makes sexual harassment invisible, and silences and discredits women’s voices. It is, therefore, heartening that Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey has given primacy to Ramani’s word. The court also acknowledged that 20 years ago, neither Ramani nor one of the witnesses who was also a journalist reporting to Akbar, had the protection offered by the Vishakha guidelines or the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. The order affirms the spirit of those guidelines by upholding the right to a violence-free, safe workplace. It pointed out that a woman’s right to speak up about her violations was not restricted by the passage of time. And 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 as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution”.
Across the world, the #MeToo movement resulted not only in a re-evaluation of toxic patriarchal cultures but also resulted in convictions of powerful men like film producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Bill Cosby and gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. In India, it has been much harder to call impunity to account. In the entertainment industry, women have faced a backlash for speaking up, while men accused of grievous abuse have been reinstated. The allegations against a former chief justice of India were disposed of with a flagrant lack of due process. The allegations against Akbar were backed up by accounts of no less than 20 journalists. And yet, it was a woman who had to stand trial, who was the accused.
In her defence, Ramani cited truth and public good. Indeed, the matter of MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani was not only about two individuals. In standing up to defend herself, even if it meant submitting to a long-drawn legal process, Ramani was also defending the right of other women to speak up against powerful men, to refuse to be intimidated into silence. That she was backed up by other women, who spoke their truth and lent weight to hers, is an affirmation of the power of solidarity. Their spirited, fearless fight — and the wisdom of the court, in times when the judiciary has not always been so hearteningly resolute in upholding individual rights and drawing the line — enables countless more women to call their violators to account.
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