New Delhi: Acquitting journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case filed against her by former Union minister M.J. Akbar, a Delhi court Wednesday asserted that “the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman”.
In doing so, the court has now laid down a precedent for women to speak up against sexual harassment — irrespective of the time elapsed since the alleged incident or the platform on which the woman chooses to speak up.
Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey asserted that a “woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as 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”.
The court also said a woman has “a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades”.
The court applied ‘preponderance of probabilities’ as the standard of proof for Ramani’s defence. Preponderance of probabilities is a legal principle on the standard of proof that the parties to a case need to fulfil, and required the judge to persuade himself to just lean on one side as opposed to the other.
The degree of proof needed is lower in case of preponderance of probabilities, as compared to beyond reasonable doubt, which is the standard of proof for the prosecution in criminal cases.
The court, therefore, accepted the “possibility” of Ramani’s allegations, and noted: “The Court accepts the contention of the accused and the possibility of defence of the accused that she disclosed the truth regarding the incident of sexual harassment against her at the Oberoi Hotel, Bombay in December, 1993 on the basis of testimony of accused DW1 and its corroboration by the testimony of DW2 Niloufer Venkatraman.”
‘Not a man of stellar reputation’
During the hearing, journalist Ghazala Wahab and Ramani’s friend Niloufer Venkataraman took the stand in her defence. While Wahab shared her own experience of alleged sexual harassment by Akbar, Vekatraman testified that Ramani was disturbed after her 1994 meeting with Akbar, the day the alleged sexual harassment took place.
The court went on to accept the contention 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.”
The court 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”.
It noted that the alleged incident occurred prior to the issuance of Vishaka Guidelines by Supreme Court in 1997, and enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013.
The court also referred to ancient texts and observed: “It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ were written around the theme of respect for women.”
Can Akbar face criminal case now?
India has a limitation period for the time within which complaints about certain criminal offences can be taken cognisance of. This is what may pose a challenge for any fresh criminal action to be brought against Akbar, specifically over Ramani’s allegations.
Former judge and Supreme Court advocate Bharat Chugh explained: “It is open for a victim to file a criminal complaint alleging sexual harassment and outraging/insulting the modesty of a woman (Sections 354, 509 of the IPC). In old cases, the only challenge is overcoming what we call the ‘bar of limitation’.”
He added: “The general position of law is: For an offence punishable with a maximum punishment of 3 years or less (which these offences are), the complaint has to be filed within 3 years of the crime/incident. This sometimes poses a challenge.”
However, he asserted, “this is not an insurmountable barrier”, saying the court does have the power to “to condone delay in filing of a criminal complaint”. This, he said, can be done if the court “is satisfied that, in a given case, the delay has been ‘properly explained’ or if it is necessary to do so in the ends of justice”.
“In cases of sexual harassment/sexual assaults, courts are generally liberal in granting of condonation of delay. Courts do understand that it is not easy for a woman to gather courage and file a criminal complaint, especially in cases of serious power imbalances or where the accused is an influential person,” Chugh added.
‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world’
In an article for Vogue India in 2017, Ramani had detailed the ways of her former boss, whom she termed a “sexual predator”. The article, titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world”, did not mention her boss by name. It, however, detailed an account of this former boss engaging in inappropriate behaviour during a job interview in a hotel room around 20 years ago.
It was only after a year, in October 2018, that Ramani revealed his name in a tweet — at the height of the #MeToo movement. “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator — maybe they’ll share,” her tweet said.
In the next few days, Akbar resigned from the Union Cabinet, after over 20 women accused him of sexual harassment, assault, and even rape, in one case. Akbar responded by filing a criminal defamation suit against Ramani.
During the trial, Akbar, represented by senior advocate Geeta Luthra, claimed he was harmed by words such as “predator” used by Ramani, and that such false claims caused irreparable damage to his reputation.
Ramani, represented by senior advocate Rebecca John, maintained that her allegations against Akbar were her truth, and that she had disclosed her allegations against Akbar in “good faith”, in public interest and for public good. She had also asserted that “no human being accused of sexual harassment can be a person of high reputation”.
While Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code defines defamation, it also endorses truth as a defence, saying: “It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it be for the public good that the imputation should be made or published.”
As for Akbar, his witnesses attested to him being a “man of good character”. This included former colleagues of Akbar like Joyeeta Basu, the editor of Sunday Guardian, and Veenu Sandal, a tarot card reader.