Shame & Social Stigma Prevent Women From Speaking Up: Delhi Court In Priya Ramani's Acquittal [Read Judgment]
In a comprehensive judgment by the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Shri Ravindra Kumar Pandey, while acquitting Journalist Priya Ramani in the Defamation suit against MJ Akbar observed, “The 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 to life and dignity of woman.” It was further said that the series of happenings and the testimony of the accused and witnesses clearly proof that the complainant cannot be called a man of “stellar reputation” as submitted.
The verdict stands out in terms of sensitizing gender discrimination and sexual harassment at workplace, placing reliance on several legislative frameworks and legal precedents.
It was the case of the complainant, Mobashar Jawed Akbar, erstwhile Minister of State for External Affairs and a Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha, that the accused Priya Ramani, Senior Journalist had made disparaging remarks against him by way of tweets, articles etc. published as well as distributed at her behest, in print media as well as on the online platforms such as VOGUE Magazine, Twitter, Firstpost etc. This was done solely for the purpose of tarnishing his image and political standing. Further, the defamatory statements so made were related to an incident that took place 20 years ago and no statutory action was then taken which implies that the entire narration/allegations made by the accused are nothing but ‘figment of her own imagination’. To substantiate the same, the complainant relied on one of the Tweets made by the accused that said, “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.” Preceding to this she had written a letter published in VOGUE INDIA, titled “Dear Male Boss” wherein an entire incident alleging sexual misconduct against MJ Akbar was made. This was followed by a series of other tweets, seconding the allegations made by Ramani, by several other women whose testimonies were recorded by the Court during the Trial.
Ms. Rebecca John, Learned Senior Counsel, representing the accused, submitted that the complainant had sexually harassed Ramani while she was called for an interview to The Oberoi, Mumbai in 1993. It was further averred that the statements made were in absolute “good faith” and “public interest”
“My tweets were not malicious, I spoke the truth. This is a false case filed to create a chilling effect among all the women who had spoken out about their experiences about sexual harassment at the hands of Mr Akbar. It's an attempt to intimidate us and me by deliberately targeting me, Akbar, seeks to divert attention away from the serious allegations of sexual misconduct against him and the public outrage that had followed”, deposed Ramani in Court.
Senior Counsel Ms. Geeta Luthra while defending Mr. Akbar maintained that he is a man of repute having held key ministerial positions with the government and the allegations made by Ramani are nothing but scandalous remarks without any substantial backing, only to blemish the image held by him over several years.
It is to be noted that the charges of harassment were not proved against MJ Akbar and the present suit for defamation was instituted as a consequence in 2018.
Findings of the Court
- Court accepted the defence and contention of the accused regarding publication of document and also accepted that she conducted reasonable enquiry before such publication.
- Court accepted testimony of the accused and the possibility of defence that she disclosed the truth regarding the incident of Sexual harassment against her, which was further corroborated by defence witness, Niloufer Venkatraman.
- Court accepted the contention that the complainant is not a man of ‘Stellar Reputation’ on the basis of the testimony of Ghazala Wahab, who narrated a similar experience with the complainant.
- Court took into consideration the systematic abuse of power at workplace due to lack of grievance redressal mechanism at the time of incident against the accused and witness, Ghazala Wahab.
Notable Excerpts from the Decision
- The victims of sexual abuse not even speak a word about abuse for many years because sometimes she herself have no idea that she is a victim of abuse. The victim may keep believing that she is at fault and may live with shame for years or for decades.
- Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it or against it for a simple reason, “The Shame” or the social stigma attached with the sexual harassment and abuse.
- The 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 to life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under Article 21 and Right to equality before law and equal protection of law as guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution.
- The woman has a Right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice after decades.
- 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. Reference is further drawn to “Balyamiki Ramayana” and “Aranaya Kand of Ramcharitmanas”
- The Indian women are capable, pave the way for them to excel, they only require freedom and equality.
- The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as a road lock for their advancement in the society, if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them.
- As per the Economic Survey Report the year 2020-21 presented in the Parliament, the pan Indian work force participation rate of female in the production age (15 to 59 year was 26.5% in the year 2018-19 as compared to 80.3% for male). It is suggested in the said report that in order to incentive more woman to join work force, apart from the investment in the institutional support and other areas, safe work environment needs to be made.
- Indian Parliament has enacted various laws for protection of women, such as, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013, Muslim Women (Protection of Right on Marriage) Act, 2019.
- Various Schemes like Ujwala Yojna, Jandhan Yojna are other positive steps of the Government of India to empower women at grass root level.
Legal Provisions applied by the Court
- Section 6 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872: Relevancy of facts forming part of same transaction
- Section 9 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872: Facts necessary to explain or introduce relevant facts
- Section 499 IPC, 1860: Defamation
- Section 500 IPC, 1860: Punishment for Defamation
International Commitments against prevention of Sexual Harassment as cited by the Court
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
- ILO (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966
- United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979
- ILO Indigenous and Tribal People Convention, 1989 (No. 169)
- ILO Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention, 2011(No.189)
- ILO Resolution on Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Employment, 71st Session, 1985
- UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1933
- The Beijing Platform of Action
- ILO HIV and AIDS Recommendation, 2010 (No.200)
Indian Legislative frameworks against prevention of Sexual Harassment as referred
- Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013
- Constitution of India; Article 14, 15, 19(1), 21, 51, 253
Case Title: Mobashar Jawed Akbar v. Priya Ramani, Complaint Case No. 05 of 2019