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After a trial that spanned over two years, a Delhi Court today acquitted Priya Ramani over a criminal defamation case filed by MJ Akbar.
Priya Ramani had penned an open letter in Vogue in 2017 recounting the horrific circumstances MJ Akbar subjected her to. Over twenty women had come forward since with their #MeToo incidents at the hands of the former Union minister and journalist.
The trial was initiated by MJ Akbar when he filed a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani for sharing her account of being sexually harassed by him. Akbar alleged that this was ‘a figment of her imagination, fabricated non-events and false accusations’ aimed at tarnishing his ‘stellar reputation’. The trial began from May 2019 and the final verdict was supposed to be declared on 1st of February 2021 but was deferred to today, 17th February.
In the open letter, Priya Ramani had exclaimed “we will get you all one day”, ‘you all’ being the Harvey Weinsteins and MJ Akbars of the world. This acquittal is a significant step towards that, towards making the workplace safer for women.
When the order was pronounced by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, he mentioned that “right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right of dignity”. This judgement demolished the argument against the MeToo movement claiming it affects the reputation of perpetrators. A person’s safety cannot be relegated to a secondary position with regard to the harasser’s reputation and ego. And MJ Akbar is not a man of “stellar reputation”, the Court declared in the judgement.
Article 21 of the Fundamental Rights promises every citizen a right to life and dignity. As the court observed, incidents of sexual abuse take away the dignity and self-confidence of the survivors. Sexual assault deprives a human being of their very inalienable human rights, including dignity, and snatches away the agency of a human being. Drawing a parallel between such a grave criminal offence and tarnishment one’s reputation is a form of violence in itself. It relegates the survivors to second-class citizenship. Reputation, on the other hand, particularly of men like MJ Akbar, is constructed on the basis of the wide cultural capital they hold, the corrosion of which can never be prioritised at the cost of the inalienable human rights of survivors.
This statement, as part of the landmark judgement, institutionalised the right to safety and the right of being heard of survivors of sexual harassment. The sway men with huge social capital have over the survivor’s lives and the fear they instill in their victims found challenged by today’s verdict.
A woman can speak up even after decades
The court observed that a woman can share her story even after decades. A person has every right to put forward her experience of sexual harassment and name the perpetrator at any time she finds the impetus, safe space or opportunity to. “The woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse”.
Power status of a perpetrator of higher capital
It demolished the defences of men like MJ Akbar, of immense social, financial and/ or political capital to exploit and silence survivors.It observed that “a man of social status can be a sexual harasser”.
Multiple survivors’ testimony valid
MJ Akbar’s claim of having his “stellar reputation” hampered by Priya Ramani’s publication of her #MeToo experience is baseless given Ghazala Wahab’s testimony. The person with numerous allegations of sexual harassment and rape levelled against him did have a “stellar” reputation to begin with, which could be tarnished by Priya Ramani.
Right to Dignity over Right to Reputation
The judgement further observed how sexual abuse severely harms the survivor by taking away their dignity and self-confidence. Cry over tarnished reputation does not hold ground against the basic human right to dignity of the survivors. As the judgment proclaimed, “right to reputation can’t be protected at the cost of the right to dignity”.
Survivors to be believed
This insitutionalised the feminist practice of believing survivors of gender-based violence. It set a precedent that would give survivors the safe space to share their experiences without fear of backlash from the powerful, male employers.
Structural inequalities inherent in workplaces to be taken to task
The court took into account the culture of structural inequalities inherent in workplaces and the systemic abuse of the women in the hierarchy. It further observed the absence of implementation of Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment at workplace issued by the Supreme court in 1977.
A woman has a right to air her grievances on any platform of her choice
It stressed on the right of the survivor as enshrined in the Article 21 of the Fundamental Rights. “The woman has a right to air her grievances on any platform of her choice”. This is a very significant achievement of the struggles of feminists towards making survivors’ #MeToo accounts more accessible to the public.
Recognition of stigma
The judgement recognised the stigma associated with sexual assault and the fear of character assassination that inhibits survivors from sharing their truths.
To give voice to survivors of abuse ‘behind closed doors’
Survivors not speaking up due to stigma; when such abuse and violence tend to happen behind closed doors and therein rise society’s tendencies to disregard the accounts of survivors. This needs to be taken into account.
Focus on mental health of survivor
It said “society must understand the impact of sexual abuse and harassment on its victims” and on the survivor’s mental health.
It reiterated the right of the survivors to come out with their truth at whichever time or in whichever platform conducive to the survivor. A woman cannot be punished for her demand for right to life and dignity, and justice, and for raising her voice against sexual abuse.
This landmark judgment sets a precedent in our independent judiciary that recognises the trials and tribulations our society and men with social capital subject survivors to.
Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, abusers who benefit from structural inequalities, created an environment of disbelief towards survivors. From heckling them for proof that cannot possibly exist, given the nature of the crime, to accusing them of vindictiveness and attempting to tarnish reputations of the perpetrators, those who benefit from the status quo left no stones unturned to malign and character assassinate the survivors, after abusing and violating them.
The court’s verdict on upholding the validity of the survivor’s account irrespective of when the complaints have been published is a huge victory for the feminist movement. The accusations levelled against survivors of fabrication and mala fide intentions, if shared after the passage of some time, have been proved nonjusticiable. It is absolutely the decision of the survivor as to when she wants to share her truth.
The judgement today takes into account how these incidents of sexual abuse happen behind closed doors. This opens the way for further consideration of various other laws and judgements that go beyond the scope of the workplace and that needs to be looked into for the interest of curbing gendered violence in society, for example the need for criminalisation of marital rape. These times do not and cannot have proof and witnesses but that does not deligitimise the trauma the survivors are subjected to and their right to equality and justice.
This judgement sets a precedent of believing the survivors and not men in a position of power who exploit their authority to abuse. This legitimises the Me Too movement from a legal perspective, as well, so now survivors have to worry a little less about legal repercussions in the form of criminal defamation. Today’s acquittal is a step forward in the right direction, giving us hope that, in Priya Ramani’s words, strong women will “get you all one day”.
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An undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional
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