The Delhi High Court on Thursday agreed to examine former Union minister MJ Akbar’s appeal against a trial court order acquitting journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case, PTI reported.

Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in India in 2018, after which Akbar resigned from the Union Council of Ministers and filed a defamation case against the journalist.

In February, a metropolitan magistrate court in Delhi had acquitted Ramani in the defamation case. In his order, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey had observed that a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse.

“The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” the court’s order stated. The court had also accepted Ramani’s contention that Akbar was not a man of a “stellar reputation”.

Akbar had challenged Ramani’s acquittal in the Delhi High Court in March.

In his plea, Akbar submitted that the trial court had decided the defamation case on the basis of “surmises and conjecture”, PTI reported.

“Trial Court has erred in considering the instant case as a complaint for sexual harassment when it was in fact a complaint for defamation,” Akbar submitted in his plea.

The former Union minister has also argued that the trial court’s observation that he was not a man of “stellar reputation” spoke “volumes about the non-application of mind, while passing the impugned judgment, rendering the same as bad in law and on facts”.

What did the court order say while acquitting Ramani?

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey had said that women who have suffered sexual abuse may not speak about it for years, believing that they are at fault. He said that most of the women do not speak up about sexual abuse for one reason, “the shame” or the social stigma attached to it.

The court’s order stated:

“The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex­abuse 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 woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.”  

A timeline of the case from October 2018

Ramani had first made the allegations about an incident of sexual harassment by an acclaimed newspaper editor in an article in Vogue India in 2017. She identified Akbar as that editor during the #MeToo movement in October 2018.

The Patiala House Court summoned Ramani as an accused in January 2019 after Akbar filed the defamation case against her. In February 2019, she was granted bail on a personal bond of Rs 10,000.

In May 2019, Akbar denied meeting Ramani in a hotel room where she alleged he had sexually harassed her. He also dismissed all the information that Ramani provided about the meeting.

Ramani told the Delhi court in September 2020 that she deserved to be acquitted as she shared her experience in good faith and encouraged other women to speak out against sexual harassment. Her lawyer Rebecca John, while submitting the final arguments in the case, said that Ramani had proved her allegations against Akbar with solid evidence, which were also confirmed by multiple women.

In November 2020, Ramani and Akbar had rejected the court’s proposal for mutual settlement in the case. On November 18, the Delhi High Court had transferred Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who presided over the case.

After her acquittal in February, Ramani had said she felt vindicated on behalf of all the women who spoke out against sexual harassment. “Sexual harassment has got the attention it deserves,” she had said. “This matter has been about women, it hasn’t been about me. I happened to represent all the women who spoke up...the women who spoke up before me and the women who spoke up after me.”