In a landmark judgement, a Delhi trial court ruled that a woman cannot be punished for speaking against sexual abuse just because the predator has filed a case of defamation. The right to reputation, the court said, cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of women. They also had a right to speak up even after decades. The verdict gives a new protection to women as it builds on the famed Vishaka judgment, writes RAMESH MENON.
THIS was a case which all of India was watching. Iconic author and editor and former minister MJ Akbar had filed a defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani, who had alleged that he was guilty of sexually harassing women while he was editor of numerous publications. Soon after, numerous women came out using social media as a platform to talk about their painful experiences with sexual abuse and harassment for the first time. Nearly 20 women named Akbar and most were his former media colleagues.
Akbar was Minister of State for External Affairs when the #MeToo movement took India by storm. He was forced to resign. The case took over two years, three judges, and a 91-page judgement to finally culminate in Ramani’s acquittal.
Akbar did not file any defamation case against any of them but chose to go after Ramani. It was probably because she was among the first who lit the charge against Akbar. In 2017, in an article in Vogue magazine, Ramani had referred to a former boss who sexually harassed female colleagues, without naming him. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum in India, she disclosed in another article that the predator she had referred to was Akbar. Soon after, in October 2018, many others had the courage to call him out.
VOLLEY OF ACCOUNTS
Journalist Ghazala Wahab recalled that when she was sexually harassed by Akbar in the nineties, none of her seniors supported her. She also chose not to tell her parents, fearing they would stop her from working. In a post, Ghazala said: “Akbar ran his hands from my breast to my hips.”
Women journalists were the most ardent supporters of Ramani as she found herself tangled in a criminal defamation case and facing a sentence of up to two years. The testimony of Wahab, a key defence witness, was the most significant in the acquittal. Her account of her time in The Asian Age was published on The Wire in 2018. It detailed the flirtatious “office culture.” She wrote, “Every time he called me in his cabin, I died a thousand times. I would enter his room, with the door slightly open and with my hand on the doorknob. This amused him.”
Ghazala wrote on Twitter: “A day to remember that #MeToo is not a movement. It’s a consciousness about demanding and expecting safe workplaces, whether at home or outside. Women who can must always stand up for themselves and for those who are unable to stand for themselves.”
Pallavi Gogoi, who is now a journalist in the United States, accused Akbar of raping her over two decades ago in an article in The Washington Post. She had joined The Asian Age when she was just 22 when Akbar was the editor. She was enamoured with the brilliant editor, mesmerised by his writing, and felt she was learning from the best. At 23, Pallavi was made Op-Ed editor. She says when she once went to into his room to show him the page layout and headlines, he lunged to kiss her. She emerged from the room red-faced, confused, ashamed and destroyed.
Akbar did not file any defamation case against any of those who levelled charges against him except Ramani. It was probably because she was among the first who lit the charge. In 2017, in an article in Vogue magazine, Ramani had referred to a former boss who sexually harassed female colleagues, without naming him. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum in India, she disclosed in another article that the predator she had referred to was Akbar. Soon after, in October 2018, many others had the courage to call him out.
After more such encounters, Akbar called her to his hotel room, ripped off her clothes and raped her, she said. Akbar however said he was in a consensual relationship with her. Pallavi retorted, “He feels he is entitled to make up his own version of truth today just like he felt entitled to our bodies then.”
Ruth David, a journalist based in the United Kingdom, said Akbar called her to his office, stood behind her offering to massage her, and attempted to kiss her.
Majilie de Puy Kamp, a journalist based in the United States, said she was sexually harassed while she was an intern working with Abkar. She wrote on Twitter: “Akbar shoved his 55-year-old tongue down my 18-year-old throat.” This happened on her last day in the office when she went to thank him. When confronted by her father, Akbar in an email wrote: “These are issues which are so prone to misunderstanding, that there is no point debating them. My profoundest apologies if there was anything inappropriate.”
Journalist Kanika Gahlaut said when she worked for Akbar between 1995-97, she was told by co-workers that he had a “glad eye” and “did it to everyone”.
Suparana Sharma, the resident editor of The Asian Age, was on the newspaper’s launch team and worked there from 1993 to 1996. She described multiple incidents of inappropriate behaviour from Akbar and the reasons for her silence. The Indian Express reported that she had tears in her eyes when the judgment was read out.
A journalist who had joined as a trainee at The Telegraph in 1982 recalls that Akbar was known to have an eye for interns and women in general. However, these trainees were young, and Akbar had provided these girls and boys with a huge opportunity. He reportedly exploited their innocence often, by making uncomfortable advances.
According to an article published in Scroll, there was a pattern to the employees he picked. He hired youngsters, particularly young girls, and instilled in them a sense of fear. This means he held a sense of power over them. Furthermore, he eliminated any newsroom leaders who could potentially challenge his authority.
It should have been Akbar in the dock being tried for sexual harassment and not Ramani defending herself from charges of defamation. However, many saw it as a victory for Ramani. She also felt that though she was a victim who had to stand up in court as an accused, sexual harassment got the attention it deserved.
This pattern was reportedly observed more frequently while he was working at The Asian Age. A journalist was reported speaking about the disparities between the young women and the editor which made it difficult for anyone to speak out.
Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist who worked at The Asian Age, remembers the newsroom had a team of young women no older than 22 or 23 years. Their lack of experience was accounted for through explanations that women were better workers and good at editing.
These are some of the around 20 women who came out in the open about how they were harassed by Akbar, in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Akbar used the defense that Ramani had said that he “didn’t do anything” to tell the court that she had tarnished his image. But the court did not buy it and instead said physical harassment need not have taken place. In Ramani’s case, Akbar had called her to his hotel room on the pretext of a job interview. He sat on his bed sipping a drink and instead of asking professional questions, he asked personal ones. He offered her a drink which she refused. On being asked to sit next to him, she walked out of the “interview”.
Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra questioned Ramani’s delay in speaking up about the incident as it was alleged to have happened in December 1993. The court reminded her that Priya could not have taken recourse to the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment decades ago. Nor even the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. She also did not have Section 354A to fall back on which made sexual harassment a criminal offence. Even today, despite these legal protections, women fear speaking up due to social stigma, the court said.
Significantly, the court said a victim could complain even several years after the incident. Delay is often used by the lawyers of sexual predators to argue that the accuser had motives and fabricated it years later.
Akbar’s lawyers underlined that he was an author of many books and a reputed editor.
The court said that just because someone had a high social standing a woman alleging sexual harassment cannot be punished in the name of defamation. It went on to add that the court had relied on numerous statements to arrive at the conclusion that Akbar “did not have a stellar reputation”.
The court also said, “Right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity.”
Senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John argued on behalf of Ramani that her tweets and the article published in Vogue were making truthful statements. She also argued that the experiences of multiple women that had come out against him with similar accusations validated Ramani’s allegations.
Akbar had filed the criminal defamation suit in October 2018 at the Patiala House Court in New Delhi. He sought relief under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The case argued that the “scandalous allegations” made by Ramani had damaged Akbar’s reputation socially, professionally, and personally.
Akbar dismissed the claims as “false and fabricated” and even suggested that Ramani’s accusations may have had a political angle. He said, “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge.”
Ramani was granted bail in February 2019 and the case went on. In May that year, Akbar denied meeting Ramani in the hotel room and in November, both parties rejected the court’s proposal for a mutual settlement.
In January this year, Luthra argued it is unjustifiable for Ramani to claim that she had no legal recourse at the time of the incident as the Indian Penal Code has existed since 1860. She said her story was imaginary, while her not-guilty pleas were vague. Luthra argued that the allegations were levied only after he became a minister and that a country governed by the rule of law can’t be allowed to accept a social media trial.
Luthra concluded her rebuttal with the argument that the reputation Akbar had built over 50 years was irreparably ruined by Ramani’s allegations and hence she should be punished
Senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John argued on behalf of Ramani that her tweets and the article in Vogue were making truthful statements. She also argued that the experiences of multiple women that had come out against him with similar accusations validated Ramani’s allegations.
It was also argued that the witnesses produced by Akbar were unreliable and that Ramani was only a “small part of a large movement”, referring to MeToo, in which women all over the world came out against sexual harassment by their male bosses and co-workers.
JUDGEMENT CREATES HOPE AND CONFIDENCE
Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey’s judgement should end up creating better workspaces for women in India as he made it clear that the prevention of sexual harassment is a woman’s right. While dismissing the defamation suit, he said it was shameful that crime and violence against women were happening in a country where epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written around the theme of respect for women.
Akbar’s legal team indicated that he intends to appeal the ruling.
The responses on social media to Ramani’s acquittal were largely celebratory, lauding the judgement for upholding a woman’s right to speak out against abusers. Priya said she felt “vindicated” and that more women will feel encouraged to speak up. Rebecca John said, “This is, probably, the most important case of my career.”
Television journalist Nidhi Razdan Tweeted: “A huge shout out to Priya Ramani and to her incredible lawyer Rebecca John. This was a very, very tough fight against a powerful man. This is a landmark judgment ruling for sexual harassment fights in the country.”
Solidarity for women and the #MeToo movement was widespread with many notable Twitter users supporting Ramani, including journalist Rana Ayyub. Supreme Court advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan said Akbar should be “made to pay”.
Outliers amidst the praise contended on Twitter that the accusations against Akbar had no empirical evidence and so set a dangerous precedent. Apparently, they have missed the reality that 20 other women accused Akbar of sexual misconduct.
Moreover, it is not Akbar who was on trial. The victim of the alleged misconduct, Priya Ramani, was the defendant in this case, and therein lies a problem. However, it was also an opportunity, for the court has made it clear that a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse on the pretext of a defamation complaint. To reiterate: the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 21 and Right of Equality an Equal Protection of Law.
Ramani’s victory only defends her right to speak out. Akbar, with a host of allegations against him, never faced any charges. Journalist Smitha Nair pointed out this contradiction, which highlights just how far the country still has to go.
FALL FROM GRACE
Akbar’s fall from grace has been huge. Forty-four years ago, when I was a journalism student at Poona University, we adored him as he was such a good writer and made journalism look like an exciting career. He had joined The Times of India as a trainee in 1971 and then onwards there was no looking back as his trajectory as a journalist just skyrocketed. I was a trainee like him seven years later and felt good sitting in the same training room in the iconic Times of India building at Victoria Terminus.
He was one of the youngest editors in India. As the editor of Sunday, an Ananda Bazar publication, he blazed a new trail and made it one of the best-selling news magazines. He then started The Telegraph, which became the brightest looking newspaper in India.
Burning with ambition, he entered politics joining the Congress and worked closely with the late Arjun Singh in 1991, who was Minister for Human Resources. He subsequently helped in policy-planning in education and assisted in formulating the National Literacy Mission. However, he quit politics and returned to journalism a year later.
In January this year, Luthra argued it is unjustifiable for Ramani to claim that she had no legal recourse at the time of the incident as the Indian Penal Code has existed since 1860. She said her story was imaginary, while her not-guilty pleas were vague. Luthra argued that the allegations were levied only after he became a minister and that a country governed by the rule of law cannot be allowed to accept a social media trial.
In 1994, he established The Asian Age. It was India’s first newspaper that would not center around international affairs but would be circulated internationally. The Asian Age soon launched editions in Delhi, Bombay [now Mumbai] and London, and by 2008 had risen to national and international prominence, along with its collaboration with the Deccan Chronicle.
In 2014, he returned to politics. Akbar was appointed as the national spokesperson for the BJP during the 2014 general election under Narendra Modi. Then he became a cabinet minister.
Ironically, Akbar’s conduct was relegated to the background as Ramani, the victim, was made to defend herself. While the court can be praised for upholding the law and delivering a judgement that is a step in the right direction, the very fact that it was not Akbar on trial puts the condition of women in the country into a context that must make us sit up and think.
Hopefully, this judgement will serve only as a starting point for greater change to come.
But it should have been Akbar in the dock being tried for sexual harassment and not Ramani defending herself from charges of defamation. However, many saw it as a victory for Ramani. She also felt that though she was a victim who had to stand up in court as an accused, sexual harassment got the attention it deserved. “I feel vindicated on behalf of all the women who have ever spoken up about sexual harassment in the workplace,” she said after her acquittal.
Hopefully, this landmark judgment will encourage others to stand up and fight sexual harassment in the workplace.
(Ramesh Menon is an author of six books, documentary filmmaker, educator and editor-in-chief of The Leaflet. Research inputs from Saikeerti, Manya Saini, Siddharth Ganguly and Anjali Jain who are from the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune. They are presently interning at The Leaflet.)