Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar verdict: Vindication of women who experience workplace sexual harassment

On February 17, 2021, the nation, particularly  the women in the nation, must have heaved  a collective sigh of relief. On that day the verdict on the two-year defamation suit filed  by journalist and former Union Minister MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani  was  passed by the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey of a Delhi  court that acquitted Ramani of defamation charges.

Widely regarded as a landmark verdict, its empowering  tenor  was a strong counter discourse  against the pervasive culture of  stigma, secrecy, shame and silence that lead to blaming and shaming of victims of sexual harassment, especially women.  One of the several highlights of the judgement was its unequivocal statement, “ the right  of reputation cannot be  protected at the cost of the right  of life and dignity of a woman.”

The acquittal verdict was enabled by the courageous testimony of journalist  Priya Ramani  and journalist Ghazala Wahab and brilliantly led by Rebecca John, well known lawyer and senior advocate at the Supreme Court.

Some of the reactions to the judgement, such as those from well-known playback singer  Chinmayi Sripada  (a vibrant face of the # Me too movement in Tamil Nadu)  and that of author, editor and publisher  Urvashi Butalia can be read here and here.

Across the world, sexual harassment at the workplace and sexual abuse are muted. Voices of victims silenced because of connotations of sexuality and abuse perpetrated by men in positions of power. These factors highlight the  need to acknowledge and address systemic or institutionalised  aspect of this complex and complicated issue rather than merely  passing off as an individual issue.

Given this background, in 2016,  the # Me too movement, the well-known international social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment that originated in the US,  has had repercussions in encouraging women across the world  who have been victims,  to speak up and thereby break the silence.  It is premised on  empowering  women  through  fearless, frank and free public disclosure in which the courageous act of one victim encourages other women with similar experiences to speak up and thereby demonstrate strength in numbers.

Two years later, in 2018, the offshoot of the # Me too movement  was tangible in  our country  with actor Tanushree Dutta who spoke about being sexual harassed by her colleague actor Nana Patekar. Dutta was the catalyst, whose unapologetic public stance on her lived experience of sexual  harassment at the workplace, emboldened several women in diverse fields such as  media,  movies and government service to  share  their experiences and thereby emerge from the closet.

NS Nappinnai, Senor Advocate, Supreme Court,  and founder, Cyber saathi,  agrees that the #Me too movement  has  indeed begun to  initiate the much needed conversations to   foster safe, inclusive spaces for women at the workplace.

“What the Supreme Court’s Vishaka Judgment and even the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (POSH) of 2013 could not do, the #MeToo movement did – many changes at workplaces – including implementing the internal complaints committees and ensuring policies for their effective functioning; better awareness of rights of women; encouraging victims to speak up and seek their remedies are just some positive outcomes,” she explains.

The stage was thus set for Priya Ramani to speak up and thereby serve as a catalyst who helped normalise  public conversations about the experience of  sexual harassment of women at the workplace. In 2017, Ramani, in an article for Vogue,  spoke about the sexual harassment she  faced with a “former boss.” Later in a tweet in 2018, she named MJ Akbar as the “former boss” mentioned in her article. Ramani’s revelation spurred a cascade of  twenty revelations  by other women who  had also been sexually harassed by the predatory MJ Akbar while working with him.

Not to be cowed down, Akbar filed a criminal defamation against Priya Ramani. He  accused her  and the other women of tarnishing his “stellar reputation” through their public testimony,  for which he had  hired a  formidable team of 90 lawyers to defend him. The verdict is pathbreaking for several reasons.  Ironically, the defamation suit against Ramani implied attempts of the perpetrator to ‘punish’ the victim and silence her completely.  However, the verdict went beyond a mere refusal to convict  Ramani for criminal defamation.

Most women who speak up about their lived experiences of sexual harassment are often disbelieved; their truth minimised, denied, trivialised or glossed over. They are burdened with having to provide tangible evidence, the presumption that they needed to speak up immediately after the incident and the need to file a criminal case rather than using platforms like social media to voice their stories.

The Ramani verdict is empowering and challenges the status quoism in workplace sexual harassment by taking  on the responsibility  of providing well thought out responses to the needs and  concerns of victims of sexual  harassment by honouring their lived experiences.

The verdict urged society “to understand that sometimes a victim may, for years, not speak  up due to mental trauma” and highlighted that the victim has the right to speak up about the abuse even years after the incident. It also highlighted that sexual abuse often takes place behind closed doors. Therefore, women’s testimonies cannot be dismissed as untrue or defamatory simply because they are unable to provide other witnesses to corroborate their allegations.

Several men of position, power and privilege, when accused of sexual harassment, glibly tend to accuse women of slandering their reputation (non-existent at best!). There have been several voices that accuse the country’s sexual amendment laws of being draconian and a weapon that is used by women to intimidate  and accuse “innocent and respectable” men. Interestingly, men of privilege and power often assume that these laws apply only to “working class  street thugs” like those accused in the Delhi gang rape (2012).

When women professionals seek justice against such “respectable and decent men”, their  supporters spring to their defence, cry foul and accuse the women of slandering hard earned reputations built over the years. Although there is evidence of false sexual assault charges being filed as well, the onus is on the judiciary to create an effective deterrent by punishing those responsible for lodging such cases which only hurt the genuine survivors of these heinous crimes.

However, the Ramani verdict silences these  voices of power and privilege that attempt to selectively arm twist legal provisions and thereby prevent their implementation. It slices the “injured reputation” argument and effectively annuls it by highlighting that sexual abuse and harassment violates the constitutionally recognised rights to dignity (Article 21) and equality (Articles 14 and 15)  and that ( a man’s) the right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right to dignity.

“The verdict is  indeed is a milestone. The expeditious disposal of the case; the manner of appreciation of evidence and of course the finding lend value to the important task of ensuring equal participation of women at workplace – which is what the Vishaka judgment and the POSH Act were about,” says Nappinnai.

What are the implications  of the  verdict? How much and will it radically change things at the ground level?

“It is important to remember that legal processes, especially defamation proceedings, are a double edged sword and hence ought to be wielded with care. Legal proceedings given their propensity to protract for decades do act as effective intimidatory tactics. This is why I believe that the expeditious disposal of this matter is the most important victory. The outcome is contingent on the factual matrix in each case,”  explains NS Nappinnai.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.