A Delhi court on Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the defamation case filed by former Union minister MJ Akbar, Bar and Bench reported. Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in India in 2018.
Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, while reading out the judgement said that a woman has the right to “put her grievance even after decades”, also noting that the Vishakha guidelines were not relevant at the time of the alleged incident. During the hearing, the court observed that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser”, reported Bar and Bench.
The court also said that Ramani’s revelations were made in the “interest of anti-sexual harassment at workplace” and that it took into consideration “systematic abuse at workplace”. The order held that sexual abuse takes away dignity and self-confidence, according to Live Law. “Right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity,” the order said.
“The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims,” the order read. “The victims of the sexual abuse not even speak a word about abuse for many years because sometimes she herself [may] have no idea that she is a victim of abuse.”
The court also highlighted that Article 21 of the Constitution protected the right of equality before law.
‘I was accused just for speaking up’: Ramani
“This matter has been about women, it hasn’t been about me,” Ramani said, while speaking to reporters after the verdict. “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.”
Speaking specifically on the impact of the judgement on the #MeToo movement, Ramani said that the verdict will encourage more women to speak up and it will make “powerful men think twice before they take victims to court”.
“Don’t forget I was the accused in this case and I was accused just for speaking up.”
Ramani’s counsel Rebecca John said that the case was at once about reputation, sexual harassment and truth which was said in public interest. “I think in one sense, the fact that it [the sexual harassment revelation] was made on the #MeToo platform and Priya [Ramani] repeatedly said that it gave me the courage to come out and speak because other women were speaking...I think this judgement validates that,” John said.
Following the allegations in 2018, Akbar resigned from the Union Council of Ministers and filed a defamation case against her. On February 10, the earlier scheduled date for the verdict, Pandey had adjourned the matter till Wednesday, as he received the written submissions late.
Senior advocate Geeta Luthra argued for Akbar, while Ramani was represented by lawyer Rebecca John. Throughout the proceedings, John had maintained that the journalist spoke about her experience for the public good. During the last hearing on January 27, Ramani had told the court that a person accused of sexual harassment cannot be of high reputation.
Meanwhile, Akbar’s counsel claimed that Ramani’s allegations were defamatory, and lowered his reputation. He has also said that Ramani didn’t produce any evidence to prove her story.
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. 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, 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. He was replaced by Pandey.