Not So ‘Stellar’ After All: Court Acquits Ramani in MJ Akbar Case

Ramani was acquitted in the defamation case by MJ Akbar over the sexual harassment allegations levelled against him.

5 min read

A Delhi trial court, on Wednesday, 17 February, acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the criminal defamation case by former Union Minister MJ Akbar, over the sexual harassment allegations levelled against him during the #MeToo movement.

The Rouse Avenue Court held the content of Ramani’s article for the Vogue magazine, that referred to Akbar, as defamatory and rejected her claims that only a few paragraphs referred to Akbar.

However, the court also took into consideration the systematic abuse at workplace, and said that “women can’t be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse by complaints claiming defamation.”

Pronouncing the verdict, Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey said that “the Indian Constitution allows a woman to put forward her grievance before any forum, and at any time, even after decades.”

Giving importance to dignity over reputation, the order reads:

“The right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before law and equal protection of law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution.”

Ramani was asked to furnish bail bonds and surety bonds for sum of Rs 10,000 each, in terms of Section 437­A of the CrPC.

‘Reputed Men Can Be Harassers’: Court

While pronouncing the verdict in Ramani’s favour, the court took cognisance of the lack of mechanisms to raise sexual harassment at workplace at the time referred to by her.

“It cannot be ignored that most times sexual harassment is considered in closed doors. Sometimes victims are themselves unaware of their assault. The court takes cognisance of the lack of mechanisms to raise sexual harassment at workplace at the time referred to by Ramani and Wahab,” he said.

The judge further pointed out that it needs to be understand by the society that perpetrators of sexual harassment can be among ‘normal’ people and even among reputed individuals.

“The time has come for our society to understand sexual harassment and it's impact on that victim. Society needs to understand that perpetrators of sexual harassment can also be a normal person with family and friends, he can also be a person of reputation. Most of the women who suffer abuse can't often speak up due to stigma and the attack on her character,” he said.

The court further accepted Ramani’s contention that Akbar was “not a man of stellar reputation”, and cited the Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas to highlight the importance given to dignity of woman in our culture.

Speaking about women’s participation in the workforce, the court said:

“The glass ceiling will not prevent the Indian women from their advancement in society if equal opportunities are given to them.”

What Were MJ Akbar’s Claims?

Akbar had claimed that an article on sexual harassment by Ramani, written for Vogue in 2017 amid the #MeToo movement, and a subsequent tweet about him in 2018, had caused damage to his “stellar reputation.”

Akbar’s legal team had claimed that Ramani’s article ‘per se’ was defamatory as there was no basis for it. This claim was based on an interpretation of the Vogue article that viewed the entire piece as referring to Akbar, and not just a few paragraphs, as was claimed by Ramani in her defence.

Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Akbar, had argued that he has had a “long and illustrious career” and had exhibited documents before the court to prove his “impeccable reputation.”

“Akbar’s stellar reputation was tarnished and harmed. He didn’t do anything but the news that called him a sexual predator continued to spread.”
Geeta Luthra, Senior Advocate, representing MJ Akbar

Luthra had also included statements made by Akbar’s character witnesses Veenu Sandal, Jyotika Basu and Tapan Chakki.

What Was Ramani’s Defence?

Senior Advocate Rebecca John, appearing for Ramani, had argued that because of the numerous allegations against Akbar, including those made public before Ramani’s tweet on 8 October, 2018, and facts known about his extra-marital affairs with junior colleagues long before that, he could not claim to have suffered damage to his reputation because of Ramani’s statements.

John, through the course of the hearings, pointed out that Ramani had pleaded “truth” as her defence, “made in good faith, in public interest, and for public good.”

“The imputation is the truth. You cannot look at defamation in isolation and shut your eyes to the rest of the world and pretend nothing is happening. Truth is painful, truth is bitter.”
Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, representing Priya Ramani

John had also read Akbar’s statements made in the pre-summoning stage as well as during the cross-examination to assert that there were inconsistencies in Akbar’s response to the allegations in Ramani’s story.

Most importantly, John had refuted Akbar’s claims of the entire Vogue article being about him, by pointing out:

  • After the first four paragraphs, the article refers to how that “boss” was part of the “species” of male bosses who preyed on subordinates.
  • Ramani’s contentious tweet from October 2018 (in which she named Akbar) clearly said that she “began” her piece with Akbar’s story. “In English language, that does not mean the whole piece,” John pointed out.

Trial Lasted Almost Two Years

Trial in the case began at the Rouse Avenue Court complex on 4 May, 2019.

The trial was underway for almost two years, and was closely tied to the legacy of the discourse-altering #MeToo movement.

In November 2020, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who had been hearing the case, was transferred out of the Rouse Avenue Court, according to a Delhi High Court order.

Owing to this development, the final arguments in the case were made all over again.

Court documents show that Ramani’s lawyers submitted their written arguments on 3 February, while Akbar’s lawyers submitted theirs on 6 February – a day after the deadline, and on a weekend.

Earlier, the court was set to pronounce its verdict on 10 February but Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey had said that he needed more time to prepare the judgment, as he had received the written submissions for the case late.

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