When more than 70 women came together to speak up against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and his predatory web across the industry, a global #MeToo movement took off. The unprecedented force of the movement captured global attention. In no time, it traveled to India. Women from the media and entertainment industry courageously took on their alleged harassers and those who enabled them on several social media platforms.
This also included 15-20 women, mostly journalists, who accused former editor and now BJP MP M.J. Akbar of sexually harassing them or behaving improperly. The women gave vivid details of Akbar’s alleged sustained predatory nature and the difficulty they faced in their interactions with him. Akbar has held powerful positions in multiple news media organizations, including The Telegraph, Asian Age, and India Today.
Among the accusers was journalist Priya Ramani, who narrated her experience from two decades ago when she had met Akbar for a job interview. On October 17, 2017, Ramani, without mentioning Akbar’s name, wrote a letter to a “male boss” in Vogue magazine.
A year later, Ramani revealed in a tweet that the predator she had written about was a celebrated journalist and later, Union minister in BJP’s regime. Her tweet on October 8, 2018 stated:
“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. #ulti”
Within days, he dragged Ramani to court in a criminal defamation case. The former minister of state for external affairs accused Ramani of “wilfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously” defaming him over “completely false, frivolous, unjustifiable, and scandalous grounds”. Akbar sought Ramani’s prosecution under Section 499 (defamation) and punishable under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code. The offence attracts imprisonment of two years or a fine or both.
Akbar, in his defamation suit, cited the names of six persons as witnesses against Ramani The trial
Ramani called this case an attempt to “silence” her and several other women who had finally broken their silence. On February 25, 2019, when Delhi’s Patiala house court granted her bail against a personal bond and surety of Rs 10,000 each, Ramani had declared, “Truth is my only defence”.
The defamation charge was later framed against her on April 10, 2019, to which Ramani pleaded not guilty. Over the course of the next two years, the arguments went on at the Rose Avenue court before an Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate. Ramani was represented by senior advocate Rebecca John.
This recognition from the judiciary of the ethos and purpose of the #MeToo movement feels like a much-needed validation. The Court did not only acquit Ramani, but also acknowledged the cultural reset this movement has brought in. It has recognised that the movement has given a voice to women who have kept their silence for decades due to the lack of formal redressal systems, or the fear of social stigma. The Court acknowledged that the passage of a considerable amount of time between the incident and publication of statements does not make said statements malicious or untrue. Every survivor has the right to speak publicly of the incidents of harassment they have faced.
This judgment of the Court will help pave the way for how accusations of workplace harassment are to be dealt with when it comes to subsequent cases of defamation, as well as help instill confidence in survivors and hopefully further the goal set by the #MeToo movement, to create safer workplaces in India.
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