This article is written by Ms. Somya Jain from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies. The article exclusively deals with the case of MJ Akbar Vs. Priya Ramani and delves into the intricacies of the judgment.
With the advancement in time, the world has undergone pervasive development in various aspects. But suppression of women by the patriarchal society remains unchanged. The social stigmas that are anchored with the reputation of women are deep-rooted within the society and cannot be easily eliminated. Initiatives were made, both by the legislators and the judiciary, to comprehend the predicament at hand which resulted in the implementation of various laws and precedents. Time and again, the judicial conscience has been evoked in the court and justice has been imparted on that account.
There are several cases where women have emerged with more strength and power, expressing their views and incidents that shook their lives. In the wake of the MeToo movement, many females came out of their shells only to share about the affliction of their suffering when they underwent sexual misconduct by the male counterparts of the society. In addition to this, Indian courts have considered the plight of women at large and established various interpretations of the existing laws, thereby widening the scope of justice. Such judicial activism is the need of the hour and should be observed more frequently by the judiciary when there is any prevalence of lacunae in the legislation.
The background of the case of MJ Akbar v. Priya Ramani
One of the most recent cases which manifested the conundrum faced by women while working has been observed in the case of Mobashar Jawed Akbar v. Priya Ramani (2021).
In the present case, the most critical question which was dealt with by the court pertains to whether the right to reputation can be protected at the cost of the right to life and dignity of women. The court under this judgment established a precedent, enabling women to raise their voices against sexual harassment faced by them even if it surpasses a decade. They are provided with the freedom to approach any platform while seeking redressal for the same. The order further recognizes the paucity of redressal mechanisms in India.
The complainant, MJ Akbar who is a politician, a member of parliament in Rajya Sabha, and an Indian journalist, averred that the accused namely Priya Ramani, a journalist by profession, has defamed and damaged the complainant’s reputation by way of tweets and articles which were published both in the print media as well as on the online platform. It was alleged by the complainant that the accused had made false, derogatory, and malicious imputations against him with the sole ulterior motive to malign his reputation and political standing, in furtherance of her vested interest and underlying agenda.
The accused, on the other hand, contended that the complainant was not a man of a stellar reputation as several acts of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct were committed by him. Further, she explained her plight by highlighting the incident of sexual harassment that she underwent while giving a “so-called” job interview to the complainant. The case which was initially demonstrated as a mere criminal defamation case was now regarded more for sexual harassment under the garb of the MeToo movement. In the light of recent developments in the MeToo movement, this case caught the eyes of the entire public as well as the media.
Contentions of the parties
On behalf of the complainant
The complainant, represented by Advocate Geeta Luthra, largely averred that the accused had made frivolous and defamatory claims about him to sabotage his reputation. Further, he contended that there was a hidden interest behind such acts of the accused. According to the complainant, Priya published various articles and tweets on some of the most prestigious platforms like Vogue, Twitter, Livemint, etc which gravely affected his impeccable reputation in society at large. Another contention posed by the complainant was that the accused failed to discharge the burden of proof regarding the preponderance of probabilities.
To be covered under the exception of Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code that defines the concept of defamation, the requirement states that the accused should discharge the burden of proving the existence of circumstances that would render the case under one of the exceptions for defamation. It was also averred by the complainant that the accused has attempted to turn the entire case without discharging the burden of proof. Further, as opposed to the pleading by the accused, no such good intentions were present behind publishing the said articles. Therefore, the entire case has been falsely presented by the accused and the significant issue in the case has been purposefully shrouded by the accused.
On behalf of the accused
The accused, represented by Advocate Rebecca John, contended that the entire proceedings were based on truth and good faith representing the larger public interest. The accused pleaded that her case falls within exceptions 1, 9, and 3 of Section 499 of IPC. While enumerating the incident that the accused faced, she contended that 25 years ago the complainant, acting like a “sexual predator”, harassed her while interviewing her in a hotel room. She was devastated but because of improper redressal mechanisms could not reach the proper authorities until the MeToo movement came into the limelight. The accused denied the stellar reputation of the complainant by highlighting his indulgence in sexual offences before the incident encountered by her. Further, considering the position of power that the complainant holds, it became impossible for the victims to come forward against the offences committed by him. The fear of losing one’s job and the underlying stigma of the society had a larger impact on the minds of the victims which forced them to remain under the shed for decades now. The entire defence of the accused was based on the fact that she did it for the public good and had no vested interest in the same thereby, covering the offence under the exceptions of Section 499 of IPC.
After considering every aspect of the case, the court was of the view that the accused should be acquitted on the ground that no such defamatory statement was proved and that the statements were made for the larger interest of the society. Some of the observations made by the court are:
- The court accepted the contention raised by the accused that the complainant cannot be seen as a man of stellar reputation. It was observed that despite how well respected some persons in the society are, they could surely show extreme cruelty against their female counterparts. Further, the court noted that it cannot be ignored that the person who is in a position of power fosters impunity in the minds of the abusers who expect no consequences for the offence committed by him.
- The court considered the lack of a proper mechanism to be the reason for women to not raise their voices against such offenses. When the said incident of sexual harassment took place, there was systematic abuse of the workplace due to a lack of a mechanism to redress the grievance of sexual harassment. Even if there was a preponderance of proper redressal mechanisms, the underlying social stigmas and prejudices prevalent in the society would discourage them to approach justice.
- The court recognized that the women should be granted greater freedom to express themselves regarding their grievances in the said matter at any platform of their choice. The judgment noted the developments in terms of the MeToo movement whereby women raised their voices on various online social platforms. The court interpreted the term “any platform” to include the courts and also the media platforms.
- The court further held that the right to raise a voice on any platform can be done at any time even if it is after decades. The court, taking an empathetic approach, explained that the victims suffer through great turmoil due to the stereotypical portrait of women in society. The conventional notion often takes a toll on the development of female counterparts which holds them back from expressing themselves. Therefore, it becomes necessary to contemplate the present situation and widen the scope of legal protection which is barred by the limitation period.
- The court observed that the rights of women to life and dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution of India cannot be undermined on the pretext of a criminal complaint of defamation. While referring to Indian mythology, the court upheld the purity of women being threatened by such acts of the abusers. Thus, the court considered the need to pave the way for their rights to be practised without any interference. The court further held that the draconian criminal defamation should not be used as a weapon against the rights of women.
Highlighting the loopholes in redressal mechanisms in India
The case highlighted the loopholes in the redressal mechanisms in India. It has been observed that before the establishment of the Vishakha guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH), there was no such vigorous law that would protect the rights of women in cases of sexual harassment at workplace. It was only after the above laws came into force that cogent legislation was instituted. But it was only a matter of time when the loopholes under the said legislation emerged. Some of them are:
- Firstly, according to Section 14 of the Act, the women can be penalized if they are unable to prove their claim and the Internal Committee proves adverse findings against them.
- It cannot be argued that the POSH Act has been framed in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines, but it has largely undermined the interest of women as well as the noble intention behind such laws. According to the Act, a limitation period of six months has been laid down which is unreasonable and pretentious in its essence.
- Further, not all institutions have been mandated to establish internal committees. This attribute creates ambiguity in the application of law thereby endangering the rights of women at the workplace.
The fact cannot be denied that even after stringent punishments have been added for the offenders of sexual offenses, the law has failed to create a safe working environment for women as the cases of sexual harassment at the workplace have only been rising in recent times.
Sexual abuse and harassment and its implication on the victim
Sexual harassment is the manifestation of sex-based discrimination and is a growing concern for the entire world. Women from all across the globe have suffered from sexual abuse of all kinds. One of the most recent types of a sexual offence is sexual harassment at the workplace. Such an environment creates an insecure and hostile work environment, which discourages women’s participation in work, thereby adversely affecting their social and economic empowerment and the goal of inclusive growth.
As per the Economic Survey Report of the year 2020-2021 which was presented in the Parliament, the pan Indian workforce participation rate of females in the production age of 15 to 59 years was merely 26.5% in the year 2018-2019 as compared to 80.3% of male participation. This report establishes that one of the essential reasons for the reduction in the female workforce is the unsafe work environment. Such offences not only constitute the underlying vulnerabilities but also foster a sense of fear of losing out in the minds of the victims. This calls for strict actions to be undertaken to curb the commission of such offences.
The voice of the women – pre and post the MeToo movement
For a long time, women have been suppressed and conditioned to remain silent on the offences committed against them. This has normalized the ‘rape culture’ in India that jolts the nation time and again. This monotony was broken when in 2018, the MeToo movement came into existence. The movement encouraged women to come forward and voice their experiences on a single platform. This has enabled them to break the deep-rooted stigma prevalent for a very long time and come out as powerful human beings in solidarity.
During this period, women named many accused in powerful positions, forcing them to be accountable to the public at large. It cannot be denied that under the garb of power upheld by them, offences like these are committed without the fear of getting caught. The cultural notions of a man overpowering women have taken a toll on the empowerment of women. But movements such as this make them strong enough to fight rudimentary taboos.
The MeToo movement has forced many companies to establish Internal Committees for tackling sexual offences at the workplace. Further, the court has been judicially more active in interpreting the laws and delving into the intricacies of the same. Thus, a robust system should be created to enhance the safety of the environment for female counterparts.
Eliminating the vulnerabilities of female journalists as an afterthought of the Priya Ramani case
The case highlighted the plight of females especially those who are employed. It delves into the vulnerabilities that are faced by them in their day to day lives. Not only are they molested, but are also suppressed by society because of the underlying social stigmas.
Recognizing the legitimacy of informal platforms for free speech
The case of Priya Ramani has been widely interpreted and a more inclusive approach has been undertaken by the courts. In the present case, the court upheld that any platform could be used by women to express their grievances and to share their incidents irrespective of time-barred limitations. Considering the plight that females undergo with regards to the sexual offences and the underlying taboos and stigma which further prohibits them to voice their opinions, should be perused while dealing with the expression of such opinions on informal platforms.
MeToo has been one such movement providing mob justice without actually taking to the formal proceedings of the court. Even though such movements are unaccounted for, they created self-empowerment and solidarity among the women. Of course, the creation of these informal platforms for women to freely express their opinions should be in consonance and harmony with law, as many a time women tend to misuse the power granted to them for protecting their interests. No doubt that such movements create a large impact on the society but it needs to be supervised under the perusal of the courts.
The draconian criminal defamation law in India and why it needs reform
The draconian criminal defamation law in India has implicated in forming negative charges against the victim. In the present case, Priya Ramani who was the victim of a sexual predator was in turn accused of committing criminal defamation against such predator. The law of criminal defamation has been time and again misused when a true and plausible expression is published against the perpetrator. One of the most common arguments put forward in such cases is that the “victim” is trying to defame him and destroy his stellar reputation with no credible grounds. Women often find themselves trapped in this vicious circle of perpetrators who have an impression that they will escape the sanction defined under the law.
The court in the above case held that 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 of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed under Article 21 and right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law as guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution. There have been various debates regarding the constitutionality of defamation law as being violative of Article 19 of the Constitution.
In the case of Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of defamation laws by balancing the right of an individual’s “reputation” under Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) with another’s right to speech under Article 19. But this case does not delve into the question as to how far can the defamation law be practised. If the law is practised in such a manner as to hinder the right to expression, what action would be undertaken for the same is a matter of grave concern for society. Thereby, it becomes necessary for the courts to set a limit to the usage of this law pursuant to the right to free speech and expression to avoid unnecessary harassment of the victim.
The rhetorical judgment given in the case of MJ Akbar v. Priya Ramani is to be construed and perused by the courts at large. This case has expanded the scope of justice to be imparted to the women in sexual harassment incidents. In the wake of the MeToo movement not only judicial activism has taken an upper pedestal but it has also created an environment of awareness in society. It has encouraged female counterparts to freely express their opinions without any fear of social stigmas being imposed on them. Considering the loopholes in the present legislative structure, the courts and the legislators should take up the responsibility to enhance the laws more comprehensively providing every opportunity for women to express themselves and get the redressal for the same be it at any platform.
- Priya Ramani’s Acquittal, Female Solidarity and the Rise of a #MeToo Judicial Conscience (thewire.in)
- Why Priya Ramani Was Acquitted in Defamation Case – And What Happens Next for #MeToo And MJ Akbar (thequint.com)
- M J Akbar defamation case: Verdict builds on Vishaka ruling, gives new legal shield to women | India News,The Indian Express
- M J Akbar plea against acquittal of Priya Ramani: High Court says will call for trial court records – The Economic Times (indiatimes.com)
- Right to reputation vs woman’s right to dignity — what court said in Akbar-Ramani verdict (theprint.in)
- Why Laws Are Not Enough to Deal With Sexual Harassment | Economic and Political Weekly (epw.in)
- Has Sexual Harassment at Work Decreased Since #MeToo? (hbr.org)
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