Why is the Priya Ramani Vs MJ Akbar verdict a milestone?

The case is not a definitive victory for the #MeToo movement. But it can in future prevent anyone accused of sexual harassment of filing a defamation case unless that person is confident of victory

Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @arunbothra
Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @arunbothra

Smita Singh

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey of a Delhi court gave the verdict on 17 February - “the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman” and acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the criminal defamation case filed by former Union Minister MJ Akbar over the ‘MeToo’ sexual harassment allegation. The women of this country gave a collective a sigh of relief. So, why is it considered a milestone judgement?

Because with this verdict the court has now laid down a precedent for women to speak up against sexual harassment and that’s huge. The time elapsed since the alleged incident or the platform on which the woman chooses to speak up remains irrelevant.

Speaking about the verdict, Ramani said, “I feel amazing, I feel vindicated to have my truth accepted in a court of law.”

She further went on to say, “My victory will encourage more women to speak up and make powerful men think twice before taking victims to court.”

Other landmark observations

But what won the case for Ramani and her Lawyer Rebecca John had two solid testaments by Journalist Ghazala Wahab who narrated her own experience of alleged sexual harassment by Akbar and Ramani’s friend Niloufer Venkataraman took the stand and testified that Ramani was disturbed after her 1994 meeting with Akbar, the day the alleged sexual harassment took place.

After which the court went on to pronounce that Akbar “is not a man of stellar reputation”, on the basis of Ramani and Wahab’s testimony, observing: “Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females.”

What is significant that the court also took into consideration “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”.

The court went on to pronounce, “The society must understand the impact of sexual abuse and harassment on its victims”, pointing to the fact the absence of Vishakha guidelines at the relevant time.

How it began

Ramani had written an article for Vogue India in 2017 in which she had mentioned about an incident of sexual harassment she had faced from a “former boss”. Then in 2018, she named Akbar, in a tweet as the former boss referred to in her piece. He was at the time a minister in the government. After her tweet, there was a flood of accusations from almost 20 other women who narrated their own accounts of harassment while working under Akbar.

He then went onto file a criminal defamation case in October 2018. Most people in Ramani’s position would have cowed down when faced with the galaxy of lawyers that Akbar had marshalled against her. But kudos to her, she chose to fight despite limited resources and the considerable toll it took on her time, reputation and energy.

Well good for her and us, because finally India knows there’s truth when women accuse men of sexual harassment at workplace. And we need to believe them.

Other cases that come to mind

Who can forget the Rupan Deol Bajaj and KPS Gill case of 1988? Bajaj, a senior government officer, was slapped on her bottom by none-other than KPS Gill, then Director General of Police. Bajaj went onto fight a court battle for 17 long years and eventually won. Then there was a Miss X who had filed a complaint with the Apparel Export Promotion Council, who was her employers, about a senior manager. He had attempted to molest her on a number of occasions in the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi. The man filed cases in the courts against his termination, was reinstated but it was only after a decade that he was finally thrown out. And not to forget Bhanwari Devi even though she was not so lucky fighting her cases in courts, her case started the movement that led to the filing of the Vishaka petition, and then the framing of the Vishaka Guidelines by the Supreme Court. Yes, Ramani’s case will be remembered in the same breath as these cases.

Will this verdict change anything?

The case is not a definitive victory for the #MeToo movement let’s be clear on that. As this case verdict was from a lower court, it is unlikely to set a definitive precedent in other cases of sexual harassment. But it can in the future for sure prevent anyone accused of sexual harassment of filing a defamation case unless that person is absolutely confident of victory. It is also unlikely to lead to formulating any fresh guidelines regarding sexual harassment at workplace unlike the Vishaka verdict. Vishaka verdict had led to the formulation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

But the real repercussions of this verdict will be visible in years to come. But how that shapes up in the future depends on us. We need to remember that society is much kinder to men and would rather believe them. Also, let’s not forget that by saying #MeToo is not enough for women to get justice. Look back and you’ll notice the quiet return of accused men to workplaces without facing any legal or social actions for the allegations made against them. All predatory men, powerful and otherwise, who were called out still roam freely, they are bidding their time, shamed and angry. These men believe they did not do anything wrong, it was just that they were caught in the act. And the accountability for their actions still lies with those who they had preyed upon. So, women are still venerable.

What actually needs to change is society’s gaze towards predators and survivors for this momentum to sustain. Don’t you think it’s time to take a stand and support the brave and resilient women like Priya Ramani behind India’s #MeToo movement and what it has achieved so far.

The judgement should not be mistaken as a victory that will radically change things on the ground for other women in the workplace. Women need to fight on.

Views expressed are personal

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