The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) welcomes the judgment of the Court of Shri Ravinder Kumar Pandey, ACMM of New Delhi acquitting Priya Ramani and applauds Priya Ramani’scourageousness in fighting the vicious legal battle waged by M.J. Akbar forcriminal defamation. Priya Ramani supposedlyposted three defamatory posts, one article and two tweets in which she had written about her experience of being sexually harassed by M. J. Akbar when she had gone for an interview with him in his hotel in Mumbai in 1998. The judgment is not only a victory for Priya Ramani but also for all the women who spoke and continue to speak out against sexual harassers. The judgment also vindicates our faith in the ability of the judiciary to be sensitive to the experiences of working women who can so often be subject to the humiliation and abuse of sexual harassment. The fact that M. J. Akbar was a doyen of journalism and was a powerful and influential Minister didn’t cut any ice with the judge who said that despite persons being well respected in the society, “they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to females”.
Priya Ramani had stated that she had been sexually harassed by M. J. Akbar’s conduct through speech and gestures. This underlined the fact that sexual harassment need not have elements of physical abuse. Infact, the judgement paves the way for women to believe that they can file complaints against the abusers, irrespective of their social and political standing. It is a good deterrent to men who think that they can intimidate and stop women from filing complaints.
M. J. Akbar had contended that Priya Ramani had made “false, derogatory and malicious imputations” against him in order to defame him with the “sole ulterior motive of maligning his reputation and his political standing”. He also stated that the tweets and article referred to an incident more than twenty years ago. He further argued that he was a man of stellar reputation.Ramani had contended that she had not made a complaint at the time of the incident because no mechanism to redress sexual harassment existed at that time and because of the powerful social position of M. J. Akbar and his status.
The judge realised that the testimony of accused Priya Ramani was corroborated by the testimony of the witness Niloufer Venkatraman who Priya Ramani had confided in after the incident. The testimony was also credible and true and Ramani had published the article and tweeted in good faith and for the protection of other women’s interest in general re sexual harassment at the workplace. It is pertinent to mention that “truth” is a valid alternate defense to the offence of criminal defamation as is a statement made for the “good of the public”. A statement made in good faith and with honesty is also a valid defense. Based on the statement of Priya Ramani and Gazala Wahab, the court held that Mr. Akbar was not a man with a stellar reputation. The court took into consideration how sexual harassment and abuse is committed privately and prior to the Vishakha guidelines and legislation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, there was no mechanism to address the pervasive abuse at the workplace. It held that often people do not complain about Sexual Harassment because of the social stigma attached to it. Finally, the court held that a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sex abuse by filing a criminal complaint of defamation against her because the right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the Right to Life guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 21 and the Right to Equality and Equal Protection before Law guaranteed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. It held that a woman has the right to put forth her grievances at any platform of her choice, even after decades of the occurrence of the incident.
AIDWA recognizes that justice for women is still a far cry in our deeply patriarchal society and this judgment is a small step forward and hopes that it will enable more and more women to bring forth their complaints of sexual harassment.