The landmark judgement pronounced by a Delhi Court in the matter of Mr. Mobashar Jawed Akbar vs. Ms. Priya Ramani has gained a particular significance, not only because it comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, but also because it seeks to fill the systemic gaps in the Indian laws against sexual harassment. In its verdict, the Court categorically observed that the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of a woman. Further, it also noted that the delay in speaking out or filing a formal complaint cannot be used against victims to discredit their allegations. In light of this, thus, the Court also recognized victims’ right to use public platforms to share their experiences and speak about workplace harassment freely, without the fear of backlash from the accused. In this post, we will go through the cause of action and the rationale of the Court which ultimately led it to make the observations which hold significant implications for the future of victims of sexual harassment in India.
In 2018, when the second wave of #MeToo movement shook up India, Ms. Ramani published an article and certain tweets, accusing Mr. Akbar of making sexual advances towards her during a job interview in 1993. At the time of these publications, Mr. Akbar was serving as the Minister of State for External Affairs, and he was previously considered a veteran journalist. Following the publications, a number of other women journalists also recounted instances of sexual misconduct perpetrated on them by Mr. Akbar. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Akbar moved a Delhi Court with a defamation complaint under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code only against Ms. Ramani. The complaint went on to list the instances where Ramani’s allegations were made public through social media and digital media. Further, it termed the allegations levelled against Mr. Akbar as false and frivolous and claimed that such statements have caused irreparable damage to his reputation and social standing.
After the Court took cognizance of the matter, Mr. Akbar testified before the bench that since he chose to seek justice in his personal capacity, he had resigned from his post as Minister of State. The Court further recorded the statements of Mr. Akbar’s colleagues who vouched for his ‘untainted credentials’ and ‘professionalism’. Conversely, Ms. Ramani pleaded not guilty and it was argued that the allegations made by Ms. Ramani through her article and twitter account stood validated by the combined experience of multiple journalists who had levelled similar accusations against Mr. Akbar. Moreover, one of the journalists, Ghazala Wahab also came before the Court to submit her testimony against Mr. Akbar. Finally, on 17 February, 2021, the Court pronounced its final verdict which acquitted Ms. Ramani of all the charges levelled against her under Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
B. Arguments Advanced
One of the major contentions proffered by Mr. Akbar to the Court highlighted that the controversial publications have allegedly come out in relation to an incident which occurred more than two-decades back and the accused herself acceded that the complainant, Mr. Akbar, did not do anything physically. Further, that the accused, Ms. Ramani had herself refrained from lodging any complaint to any lawful authority, which collectively reflects that the publications were only made with an intention to malign the reputation of complainant. Further, Mr. Akbar also challenged the admissibility of the evidence and defenses taken up by Ms. Ramani and submitted that he was a man of stellar reputation which has got tarnished extensively because of the publications, and thus Ms. Ramani was liable to be convicted for the offence of defamation.
In response to this, Ms. Ramani had taken the defense that publication of articles and tweets were for public good since they were based on true incidents. Further, her expressions have raised the concern and question of sexual harassment of women in general at workplace. Amidst the proceedings, the Counsel for Ms. Ramani argued that the #MeToo movement has afforded a platform to many women in India including Ms. Ramani. She also pointed out that prior to the Vishaka Guidelines that came in 1997, there was a void in the law which could not even be filled by Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code. She also took the defense that her publications were made in good faith for the protection of other women’s interest against sexual harassment at their workplace. Further, she submitted that Mr. Akbar was not a man of stellar or impeccable reputation since there were many other victims who have come out with similar accusations against Mr. Akbar and thus, her tweets and article did not have the effect of defaming him.
C. Judgment and Its Rationale
On February 17, the Court finally pronounced its judgment on the issue. In its initial observations, the Court declared that after the perusal of contents, the impugned publications were found defamatory in nature. However, the Court pointed out, that the settled position of law allows the accused in defamation cases to take alternate defenses and that they have to only establish the test of pre-ponderance of probability in their defense. Thus, the law does not require them to prove their defense beyond reasonable doubt.
Relying on this observation, the Court acknowledged the argument submitted by Ms. Ramani that there was no mechanism at the time of incident in 1993 to redress sexual-harassment at workplace committed against her by Mr. Akbar. Further, Mr. Akbar had also acquired considerably powerful social position and status which hindered her from filing any criminal complaint. Moreover, the Court further accepted that the submission made by other witnesses were enough to show that the complainant was not a man of stellar reputation. And thus, it observed that despite the respect some people enjoy in the society, they are capable of showing cruelty in their personal lives.
The Court also acknowledged that previously, victims have been prevented from lodging a complaint against incidents of sexual-harassment majorly because there was an absence of laws and legal mechanisms such as the Vishaka Guidelines and the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace ( Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 that could grant them access to justice by proper means. Further, victims also get discouraged because of the social stigma attached to the sexual-harassment of women. Hence, the Court distinctly observed,
“…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 to life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution.”
Further, and importantly, the Court also observed that the women have a right to put their grievance on any platform of their choice, even decades after the incident. With these observations, the Court disposed of a two-year long legal battle by acquitting Ms. Ramani of all the allegations made against her.
The verdict has been proclaimed as a well-deserved victory for all the victims of sexual harassment that took to social media during the #MeToo movement and voiced out their experiences fearlessly against powerful men. Indeed, the observations of the Court have not only vindicated Ms. Ramani but also paved a way for every victim of sexual harassment to confidently step forward and call out the perpetrator, by any reasonable means possible, in future. However, it must also be noted that the judgment acceded that the contents of the publications were defamatory in nature. Further, it has also been opined that the verdict is convoluted in its reasoning as the logic given by the court does not explain how the exceptions claimed by Ms. Ramani stood justified. Hence, it can be said that although the verdict rightly claimed that the right to life and dignity of a woman cannot be undermined by the right to reputation, yet without any specific justification for acknowledging all the defenses of the accused, it can be argued that judgment leaves a huge gap in its reasoning. Nevertheless, it appears that the judgment will have a significant impact on Indian society in future, and that for now, it reflects an incremental step towards strengthening our laws around sexual-harassment against women.
- Rutuja Shinde, What the outcome of MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani defamation case means for #MeToo movement in India, Firstpost (February 18, 2021).
- Madhavi Menon, MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani: Reading between the lines of the Ramayana tales cited by the judge, Scroll.in (February 21, 2021)
- Priya Ramani Vs M.J. Akbar: Ahead of Verdict, a Recap of the #MeToo Case That Shook India, The Wire (February 17, 2021).
- Anchal Bhatheja, Priya Ramani Case: Judgment Reassures and Consoles Victims of Sexual Harassment, The Leaflet (February 20, 2021).
- Vakasha Sachdev, Why the Court Acquitted Priya Ramani – And What Happens Next, The Quint (February 18, 2021).
- Swarna Rajagopalan, After the landmark #MeToo case, will women finally speak up?, Live Mint (February 19, 2021).
- Anoo Bhuyan and Shreya Khaitan, 8 Years On, Poor Compliance With Sexual Harassment Law, IndiaSpend (February 22, 2021)
- Anushri Menon, Priya Ramani’s Acquittal, Female Solidarity and the Rise of a #MeToo Judicial Conscience, The Wire (February 21, 2021)
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