A Journey From Twitter To Bar: Priya Ramani vs. M.J Akbar

A Journey From Twitter To Bar: Priya Ramani vs. M.J Akbar

The beginning of the case 

In the wave of #metoo movement to the case led by one of the most powerful lawyers Rebecca John. In 2018,  Priya Ramani had made allegations of sexual misconduct against Akbar in the wake of the #metoo movement. According to the former journalist, in December 1993, Akbar sexually harassed her when she was called to Mumbai hotel for a job interview.

The allegations against Akbar had forced him to resign from the Union Cabinet on October 17, 2018. M.J Akbar before resigning has Union Minister had filed a complaint against Ramani on October 17, 2018, allegedly of defamation. Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra was appearing for the former Union minister M.J Akbar.[1]

Read: Sexual Harassment in online workplace

The mid way

While  Priya Ramani pleaded truth, good faith, public interest, and public good as her defenses in the defamation trial, Akbar denied the meeting at the hotel.[2]

Priya Ramani inter alia contended that given the volume of sexual harassment disclosures by multiple women on social media, there was no evidence of M.J Akbar’s “stellar reputation” which was claimed to have been tarnished by her.

Akbar stood on allegations made by him that “stink of bad faith” and nothing but malicious and fabricated non-events.

Without any due care and caution, social media trials could not be subjected after three decades, in absence of any complaint to authority or any court. Akbar also argued that Ramani had failed to discharge the onus of proving the defense pleaded by her.

The applicability of defense of the truth as laid down in Neelkanta Kamlasanan vs. Achuthan Vasu Devan & Ors is applicable which provides that when the truth is set up as a defense, it must extend to the entire matter published and it is not sufficient that only a portion of the statement is proved to be true.

Defamation

Section 499 of the Indian penal code defines defamation as “whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representation, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person is said except in the certain exception to defame that person.

Exception in defamation

  1. Imputation of truth which public good requires to be made or published.—It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person if it is for the public good that the imputation should be made or published. Whether or not it is for the public good is a question of fact.
  2. It is not defamation to express in a good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of a public servant in the discharge of his public functions, or respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct and no further.
  3. Conduct of any person touching any public question. It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.
  4. Publication of reports of proceedings of Courts. It is not defamation to publish a substantially true report of the proceedings of a Court of Justice, or of the result of any such proceedings.
  5. Merits of a case decided in Court or conduct of witnesses and others concerned It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the merits of any case, civil or criminal, which has been decided by a Court of Justice, or respecting the conduct of any person as a party, witness or agent, in any such case, or respecting the character of such person, as far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.[3]
  6. Merits of public performance it is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion respecting the merits of any performance which its author has submitted to the judgment of the public, or respecting the character of the author so far as his character appears in such performance, and no further.
  7. It is not defamation in a person having over another any authority, either conferred by law or arising out of a lawful contract made with that other, to pass in good faith any censure on the conduct of that other in matters to which such lawful authority relates.
  8. It, not defamation to prefer in good faith an accusation against any person to any of those who have lawful authority over that person with respect to the subject matter of accusation.
  9. It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation is made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or any other person, or for the public good.
  10. It is not defamation to convey a caution, in good faith, to one person against another, provided that such caution is intended for the good of the person to whom it is conveyed, or of some person in whom that person is interested, or for the public good.

Sexual Harassment Act, 2013

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is a legislative act in India that seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work.[4] The guidelines of this Act were led down infamous landmark case Vishaka and others v. the State of Rajasthan

The SC in the Vishaka case laid down the definition of sexual harassment-

  1. Physical  contact and advances;
  2. A  demand or request for sexual favors;
  3. Sexually  colored remarks;
  4. Showing  pornography;
  5. Any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where the victim has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim’s employment or work whether she is drawing a salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem.[5]

It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment.

Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.

Thus, sexual harassment need not involve physical contact. Any act that creates a hostile work environment – be it by virtue of cracking lewd jokes, verbal abuse, circulating lewd rumors, etc. counts as sexual harassment.[6]

The creation of a hostile work environment through unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature may consist not of a single act but of a pattern of behavior comprising many such acts.

Thus, it is important that the victim report such behavior as soon as possible and not wait for it to become worse. In some cases, the psychological stigma of reporting the conduct of a co-worker might require a great deal of courage on the part of the victim and they may report such acts after a long period of time.

The guidelines suggest that the complaint mechanism should ensure time-bound treatment of complaints, but they do not suggest that a report can only be made within a short period of time since the incident occurred.[7]

Often, the police refuse to lodge FIRs for sexual harassment cases, especially where the harassment occurred some time ago.

On the Verdict Day  

On 17 February 2021, Delhi High Court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation complaint filed against M.J Akbar for making sexual misconduct allegation against him.

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey dismissed the complaint filed by Akbar saying that no charges were proved against Priya Ramani. The judge also cited this Firstpost report which spoke to the women who survived sexual harassment by Akbar in his newsrooms.[8]

The court also observed that ‘even the man of social status can be harasser’ in addition to it the court also added that, women have right to put forth her grievances before any platform of her choice, even after decades. The 91-page verdict also states that “Right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of the right to dignity”.

Read: The Genesis and the Proliferation of Public Interest Litigation in India

Reference to Ramayana and Mahabharata

The Delhi High Court in its judgment also made reference to two mega epics that is Ramayana and Mahabharata which were written around themes to respect women.

 The Ramayana –

Balyamiki Ramayan, the reference of great respect is found, when Prince Laxman was asked to describe Princesses Sita, he answered that he remembers only her feet as he had never looked beyond that”.

In the “Aranya Kand of Ramcharitmanas”, a reference to the noble tradition of protecting, respecting, and promoting the dignity of women is found, and it refers to noble ‘Jatayu’ (the mythical bird) when witnessed the crime of abduction of princes ‘Sita’, he came swiftly to protect princesses Sita and consequently his wings were cut down by Ravan, the abductor of the Sita.

The noble word ‘ Jatayu’ though was wounded and was dying, but he lived long enough to pass the information of abduction of princesses Sita to Prince Ram and Prince Laxman. [9]

The Mahabharta-

In “Sabha Parv of Mahabharta”, the appeal of queen Dropati for justice to the Kuru Raj Sabha and questioned the legality of her treatment of being dragged by Duhashana into dice hall. 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.[10]

Some important statements made by Delhi High Court

  1. Judge Pandey noted in the order that “society must understand the impact of sexual abuse and harassment on its victim”.
  2. The court takes into 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 the accused Priya Ramani and witness Ghazala Wahab prior to the issuance of Vishaka Guidelines by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India 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.
  3. Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it or against it for the simple reasons of “The Shame” or the social stigma attached with the sexual harassment and abuse.
  4. The sexual abuse, if committed against a woman, takes away her dignity and her self-confidence. The attack on the character of a sex abuser or offender by a sex abuse victim is the reaction of self-defense after the mental trauma suffered by the victim regarding the shame attached with the crime committed against her. The 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 as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution. The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.
  5. The Indian women are capable, pave the way for them to excel, they only require freedom and equality. The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as a road lock for their advancement in society, if the equal opportunity and social protection be given to them. As per the economic survey report of the year 2020-2021, the pan Indian works force participation rate of females in the production age was 26.5% in the year 2018 as compared to male 80.3%. it suggested that a safe work environment needs to be made- the court noted in its 91-page verdict. [11]

 

-Shreya Patel

(Member, The Legal State)

– Edited by Drishti Meena

(Editor)

  1. https://www.firstpost.com/india/priya-ramani-acquitted-in-mj-akbar-defamation-case-judge-cites-fp-report-in-91-page-verdict-read-full-text-9315581.html
  2. https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/delhi-court-acquits-priya-ramani-in-mj-akbar-defamation-case
  3. https/mages.assettype.com/barandbench/2021-02/ff0331e2-a6c3-4dc1-a2bb-d92e7caef792/MJ_Akbar_v_Priya_Ramani.pdf
  4. sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013
  5. https/Vishaka_Guidelines#cite_note-3
  6. FP Staff (23 February 2011). “Sexual harassment and Vishaka guidelines: All you need to know”. Firstpost. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  7. TNN 7 May 2013, 11.04 AM IST (7 May 2013).“Most harassment cases go unreported – Times Of India”. Articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  8. https://www.firstpost.com/india/priya-ramani-acquitted-in-mj-akbar-defamation-case-judge-cites-fp-report-in-91-page-verdict-read-full-text-9315581.html
  9. Supra note 3
  10. Supra note 3
  11. Supra note 3

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