After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained

The trial has been underway at the Rouse Avenue Court for almost two years.

Updated
Law
9 min read
A Delhi court is set to pronounce its order in the criminal defamation case (Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code) brought on against journalist Priya Ramani by former Union Minister MJ Akbar on Wednesday, 16 February.
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The verdict in the defamation case brought on against journalist Priya Ramani by former Union Minister MJ Akbar will be announced on Wednesday, 17 February.

The trial has been underway at the Rouse Avenue Court for almost two years, and is closely tied to the legacy of the discourse-altering #MeToo movement.

Akbar claims that an article by Priya Ramani, written for Vogue in 2017 amid the #MeToo movement, and a subsequent tweet about him in 2018 when the movement was sweeping India, caused damage to his “stellar reputation”. Ramani has contested these claims and pleaded truth as her defence.

After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained

  1. 1. #MeToo and the Genesis of the MJ Akbar-Priya Ramani Case

    The #MeToo movement, as we now perceive it, began with the outpouring of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in the United States in 2017. It subsequently took India by storm as well, with many professionals calling out their abusers on public platforms. Thus, the curtain was lifted and many popular figures found their deeds revealed for the public view.

    In a 2017 article about sexual predators at workplace, written for the Vogue, Priya Ramani had described her ordeal of having been sexually harassed by a former boss during her job interview for his publication.

    In the opening paragraphs of the article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World”, Ramani described her former boss as “one of my professional heroes” and said:

    “Everyone said you had transformed Indian journalism and I wanted to be on your team. So, we set a time you could interview me at the plush south Mumbai hotel where you always stayed.”   

    She then went on to describe how the man had behaved inappropriately and had made her feel uncomfortable through the course of the interview.

    “It was more date, less interview. You offered me a drink from the mini bar (I refused, you drank vodka), we sat on a small table for two that overlooked the Queen's Necklace (how romantic!) and you sang me old Hindi songs after inquiring after my musical preferences. You thought you were irresistible.

    The bed, a scary interview accompaniment, was already turned down for the night. Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I'm fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again.”

    However, it is important to note, as has been emphasised by Ramani’s counsel, that the entire article does not pertain to Ramani’s alleged experience with the ‘male boss’; only the first part (four paragraphs) does.

    A year after the publication of the Vogue article, when the #MeToo movement finally caught on in India, Ramani alleged on social media that the former boss had, in fact, been MJ Akbar.

    Ramani’s allegations, as was established by and by, date back to the time when Akbar was an editor at The Asian Age. Ramani worked with the newspaper from January to October in 1994.

    Following the tweet, Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani, asserting that her allegations were false and that it had cost him his “stellar reputation”.

    Akbar had also, in the next few days, stepped down as a minister in the central government, after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment, assault, and even rape, in one case.

    Expand
  2. 2. A Timeline of Events Pertaining to the Case

    The events pertaining to the MJ Akbar-Priya Ramani case have so far panned out as thus:

    After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
    After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
    After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
    • January 1994: Priya Ramani joins The Asian Age, following the allegedly problematic interview with MJ Akbar.
    • October 1994: Priya Ramani quits her job at The Asian Age.
    • October 2017: Priya Ramani’s article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World” published in vogue.in.
    • 6 October 2018: Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement in India, journalist Ghazala Wahab tweets “I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar”. Author Shunali Khullar Shroff and Prerna Singh Bhindra echo Wahab’s sentiment over the next two days.
    • 8 October 2018: Priya Ramani names MJ Akbar in a tweet, stating that the former boss mentioned in the beginning of her Vogue article from 2017 had in fact been him.
    • 15 October 2018: MJ Akbar files a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani.
    • 17 October 2018: MJ Akbar resigns as a Union Minister of State.
    • 12 December 2018: The Editors Guild of India suspends former Union Minister MJ Akbar and journalist Tarun Tejpal based on the allegations of sexual misconduct against the two.
    • 29 January 2019: Magistrate in Delhi’s Patiala House Court issues summons to Priya Ramani.
    • 25 February 2019: Delhi’s Patiala House Court grants bail to Priya Ramani asking her to furnish a personal bond and surety of Rs 10,000 each.
    • 4 May 2019: Trial begins at the Rouse Avenue Court complex.
    • 18 November 2020: Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who had been hearing the criminal defamation case, gets transferred out of the Rouse Avenue Court. ACMM Ravindra Kumar Pandey replaces him as the judge of the case and the final arguments in the Akbar-Ramani are required to be made afresh.
    • 1 February 2021: Delhi’s Rouse Avenue Court reserves judgment in the case.
    • 17 February 2021: The court is slated to pronounce its order, following adjournment on 10 Feb owing to delay in receiving written submissions.
    Expand
  3. 3. What Has MJ Akbar Claimed?

    “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

    Primarily, MJ Akbar has contended that Priya Ramani’s allegations are fictitious, and that they have cost him his “stellar reputation”. This was claimed to amount to criminal defamation under the Indian Penal Code (defined in Section 499, charging provision in Section 500).

    A person found guilty of criminal defamation can face a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both.

    Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Akbar, has said that he had a “long and illustrious career” and exhibited documents before the court to prove the “impeccable reputation" of MJ Akbar. She also included statements made by Akbar’s character witnesses Veenu Sandal, Jyotika Basu and Tapan Chakki.

    Further, Luthra has pointed out some inaccuracies in other tweets by Ramani (such as one where, relying on media reports at the time, she had said that Akbar had resigned even before he had done so), and that Ramani had referred to Akbar as "media’s biggest sexual predator".

    “Ramani showed extreme carelessness. It’s very easy to go to the public domain and tarnish someone’s reputation. Look at the expression used! Look at the responsibility or the lack of it in calling someone a predator, without any basis.”
    Geeta Luthra, Senior Advocate, representing MJ Akbar

    Further, Luthra, through the course of the hearings, claimed that Ramani had alternate ways of lodging the complaint against Akbar, both at the time of the alleged incident and now, rather than going on social media.

    Akbar’s legal team has claimed that Ramani’s article is ‘per se’ defamatory as there is no basis for it. This claim is based on an interpretation of Ramani’s Vogue article that views the entire piece as referring to Akbar, not just the beginning – this would undoubtedly be defamatory as the rest of the article includes references to actions of others accused in the #MeToo movement, including Harvey Weinstein.

    “She didn't mention in her article that it doesn't refer to Akbar in its entirety,” Luthra argued.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Is Priya Ramani’s Defence?

    “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 

    “Truth is my defence,” Priya Ramani had said on 25 February, after a Delhi court had granted her bail. This is the statement she stood by until the very end.

    Senior Advocate Rebecca John, appearing for Ramani, 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”.

    She argued that even if Akbar’s reputation had suffered as a result of what Ramani had said, Ramani’s statements fell within the following exceptions under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code:

    • Exception 1: It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it is made or published for public good.
    • Exception 9: It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.
    • Exception 3: 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.

    Ghazala Wahab, one of the other women who had accused Akbar of not just sexual harassment, but sexual assault, took the stand as a defence witness. This was part of a key gambit by Ramani’s defence team to argue that Ramani’s article and tweet had not in fact damaged Akbar’s reputation.

    Citing Wahab’s testimony and a Firstpost article – which MJ Akbar himself exhibited and which carried allegations against Akbar by fourteen women – Rebecca John suggested that there was no evidence really of Akbar’s "stellar reputation".

    “‘Reputation’, ‘good reputation’ and ‘stellar reputation’ is central to their (MJ Akbar’s) case... I have contested all of this is false.”   
    Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, representing Priya Ramani 

    John was basically arguing 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.

    Rebecca John 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 about the interview in Ramani’s story.

    “Earlier he had said he doesn’t remember, later he denied those facts.”
    Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, representing Priya Ramani  

    John also pointed out that Akbar, in his statements, had admitted that he was in a consensual relationship with journalist Pallavi Gogoi – who had also accused Akbar of sexually harassment and rape. Akbar’s wife had issued a statement when Gogoi’s allegations had first come out which noted that she and many others were aware of the affair and that it was consensual, not forced.

    Akbar had said that Gogoi was not working under duress. However, John pointed out before the court that there was a substantial age and power difference between Pallavi Gogoi and MJ Akbar, and that she was her subordinate.

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

    1. After the first four paragraphs, the article refers to how that “boss” was part of the “species” of male bosses who preyed on subordinates.
    2. Ramani’s contentious tweet from October 2018 (in which she named Akbar) clearly says that she “began” her piece with her Akbar story. “In English language, that does not mean the whole piece,” John explained.
    Expand
  5. 5. Why Is the Case Important?

    There is more to this case than just the possibility of imprisonment for Ramani.

    Not only does it pertain to two public figures – an ex-Union Minister and a senior journalist – but the case could also have serious ramifications of the legacy of the #MeToo movement in India, for the precedent it will set.

    This is because it will become an example of whether a movement like #MeToo can be viewed as a "public good" (as Ramani has argued). This will be key to how allegations by others who were outed during the movement will be treated in the near future and how similar movements further down the line will be viewed.

    Beyond the purely technical legal consequences, within the broader cultural framework of pervasive sexual harassment, it also remains to be seen whether this case will serve as a beacon of hope and encouragement for abuse survivors or as a means of silencing them.

    (The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

    Expand

#MeToo and the Genesis of the MJ Akbar-Priya Ramani Case

The #MeToo movement, as we now perceive it, began with the outpouring of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in the United States in 2017. It subsequently took India by storm as well, with many professionals calling out their abusers on public platforms. Thus, the curtain was lifted and many popular figures found their deeds revealed for the public view.

In a 2017 article about sexual predators at workplace, written for the Vogue, Priya Ramani had described her ordeal of having been sexually harassed by a former boss during her job interview for his publication.

In the opening paragraphs of the article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World”, Ramani described her former boss as “one of my professional heroes” and said:

“Everyone said you had transformed Indian journalism and I wanted to be on your team. So, we set a time you could interview me at the plush south Mumbai hotel where you always stayed.”   

She then went on to describe how the man had behaved inappropriately and had made her feel uncomfortable through the course of the interview.

“It was more date, less interview. You offered me a drink from the mini bar (I refused, you drank vodka), we sat on a small table for two that overlooked the Queen's Necklace (how romantic!) and you sang me old Hindi songs after inquiring after my musical preferences. You thought you were irresistible.

The bed, a scary interview accompaniment, was already turned down for the night. Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I'm fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again.”

However, it is important to note, as has been emphasised by Ramani’s counsel, that the entire article does not pertain to Ramani’s alleged experience with the ‘male boss’; only the first part (four paragraphs) does.

A year after the publication of the Vogue article, when the #MeToo movement finally caught on in India, Ramani alleged on social media that the former boss had, in fact, been MJ Akbar.

Ramani’s allegations, as was established by and by, date back to the time when Akbar was an editor at The Asian Age. Ramani worked with the newspaper from January to October in 1994.

Following the tweet, Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani, asserting that her allegations were false and that it had cost him his “stellar reputation”.

Akbar had also, in the next few days, stepped down as a minister in the central government, after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment, assault, and even rape, in one case.

A Timeline of Events Pertaining to the Case

The events pertaining to the MJ Akbar-Priya Ramani case have so far panned out as thus:

After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
After 2 Years, ‘Akbar vs Ramani’ Verdict Today – Case Explained
  • January 1994: Priya Ramani joins The Asian Age, following the allegedly problematic interview with MJ Akbar.
  • October 1994: Priya Ramani quits her job at The Asian Age.
  • October 2017: Priya Ramani’s article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World” published in vogue.in.
  • 6 October 2018: Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement in India, journalist Ghazala Wahab tweets “I wonder when the floodgates will open about @mjakbar”. Author Shunali Khullar Shroff and Prerna Singh Bhindra echo Wahab’s sentiment over the next two days.
  • 8 October 2018: Priya Ramani names MJ Akbar in a tweet, stating that the former boss mentioned in the beginning of her Vogue article from 2017 had in fact been him.
  • 15 October 2018: MJ Akbar files a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani.
  • 17 October 2018: MJ Akbar resigns as a Union Minister of State.
  • 12 December 2018: The Editors Guild of India suspends former Union Minister MJ Akbar and journalist Tarun Tejpal based on the allegations of sexual misconduct against the two.
  • 29 January 2019: Magistrate in Delhi’s Patiala House Court issues summons to Priya Ramani.
  • 25 February 2019: Delhi’s Patiala House Court grants bail to Priya Ramani asking her to furnish a personal bond and surety of Rs 10,000 each.
  • 4 May 2019: Trial begins at the Rouse Avenue Court complex.
  • 18 November 2020: Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who had been hearing the criminal defamation case, gets transferred out of the Rouse Avenue Court. ACMM Ravindra Kumar Pandey replaces him as the judge of the case and the final arguments in the Akbar-Ramani are required to be made afresh.
  • 1 February 2021: Delhi’s Rouse Avenue Court reserves judgment in the case.
  • 17 February 2021: The court is slated to pronounce its order, following adjournment on 10 Feb owing to delay in receiving written submissions.

What Has MJ Akbar Claimed?

“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

Primarily, MJ Akbar has contended that Priya Ramani’s allegations are fictitious, and that they have cost him his “stellar reputation”. This was claimed to amount to criminal defamation under the Indian Penal Code (defined in Section 499, charging provision in Section 500).

A person found guilty of criminal defamation can face a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both.

Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Akbar, has said that he had a “long and illustrious career” and exhibited documents before the court to prove the “impeccable reputation" of MJ Akbar. She also included statements made by Akbar’s character witnesses Veenu Sandal, Jyotika Basu and Tapan Chakki.

Further, Luthra has pointed out some inaccuracies in other tweets by Ramani (such as one where, relying on media reports at the time, she had said that Akbar had resigned even before he had done so), and that Ramani had referred to Akbar as "media’s biggest sexual predator".

“Ramani showed extreme carelessness. It’s very easy to go to the public domain and tarnish someone’s reputation. Look at the expression used! Look at the responsibility or the lack of it in calling someone a predator, without any basis.”
Geeta Luthra, Senior Advocate, representing MJ Akbar

Further, Luthra, through the course of the hearings, claimed that Ramani had alternate ways of lodging the complaint against Akbar, both at the time of the alleged incident and now, rather than going on social media.

Akbar’s legal team has claimed that Ramani’s article is ‘per se’ defamatory as there is no basis for it. This claim is based on an interpretation of Ramani’s Vogue article that views the entire piece as referring to Akbar, not just the beginning – this would undoubtedly be defamatory as the rest of the article includes references to actions of others accused in the #MeToo movement, including Harvey Weinstein.

“She didn't mention in her article that it doesn't refer to Akbar in its entirety,” Luthra argued.

What Is Priya Ramani’s Defence?

“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 

“Truth is my defence,” Priya Ramani had said on 25 February, after a Delhi court had granted her bail. This is the statement she stood by until the very end.

Senior Advocate Rebecca John, appearing for Ramani, 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”.

She argued that even if Akbar’s reputation had suffered as a result of what Ramani had said, Ramani’s statements fell within the following exceptions under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code:

  • Exception 1: It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it is made or published for public good.
  • Exception 9: It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.
  • Exception 3: 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.

Ghazala Wahab, one of the other women who had accused Akbar of not just sexual harassment, but sexual assault, took the stand as a defence witness. This was part of a key gambit by Ramani’s defence team to argue that Ramani’s article and tweet had not in fact damaged Akbar’s reputation.

Citing Wahab’s testimony and a Firstpost article – which MJ Akbar himself exhibited and which carried allegations against Akbar by fourteen women – Rebecca John suggested that there was no evidence really of Akbar’s "stellar reputation".

“‘Reputation’, ‘good reputation’ and ‘stellar reputation’ is central to their (MJ Akbar’s) case... I have contested all of this is false.”   
Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, representing Priya Ramani 

John was basically arguing 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.

Rebecca John 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 about the interview in Ramani’s story.

“Earlier he had said he doesn’t remember, later he denied those facts.”
Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, representing Priya Ramani  

John also pointed out that Akbar, in his statements, had admitted that he was in a consensual relationship with journalist Pallavi Gogoi – who had also accused Akbar of sexually harassment and rape. Akbar’s wife had issued a statement when Gogoi’s allegations had first come out which noted that she and many others were aware of the affair and that it was consensual, not forced.

Akbar had said that Gogoi was not working under duress. However, John pointed out before the court that there was a substantial age and power difference between Pallavi Gogoi and MJ Akbar, and that she was her subordinate.

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

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

Why Is the Case Important?

There is more to this case than just the possibility of imprisonment for Ramani.

Not only does it pertain to two public figures – an ex-Union Minister and a senior journalist – but the case could also have serious ramifications of the legacy of the #MeToo movement in India, for the precedent it will set.

This is because it will become an example of whether a movement like #MeToo can be viewed as a "public good" (as Ramani has argued). This will be key to how allegations by others who were outed during the movement will be treated in the near future and how similar movements further down the line will be viewed.

Beyond the purely technical legal consequences, within the broader cultural framework of pervasive sexual harassment, it also remains to be seen whether this case will serve as a beacon of hope and encouragement for abuse survivors or as a means of silencing them.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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