For Everyone Who Screamed #Metoo: Celebrating Priya Ramani's Acquittal
Oshin Gupta, 1st Year LLM, Nirma University
On February 17, 2021, a Delhi Court presided over by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, Rouse Avenue Court, New Delhi, acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in MJ Akbar's defamation case, marking a watershed moment in the Indian #MeToo movement. This is a win for all women in tech who face sexual abuse and sexism, and not just Priya Ramani. Men with significant power and authority over women in the workplace who seek to keep the status quo are often the defendants in high-profile cases. The accused's typical legal tactic in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and the high-profile victims of the movement was to file lawsuits in the courts, including for slander and libel, against the complainants in order to restrain and discourage them from speaking out against incidents of sexual assault in their workplaces, whether old or new. Priya Ramani's acquittal on criminal defamation charges brought by former editor and senior journalist MJ Akbar is unquestionably a triumph in India's fight against workplace sexual abuse. Priya Ramani was one of the women who spoke out against Akbar during the rise of #MeToo in India, and her allegations against him began a chain reaction in which numerous other women detailed how Akbar had sexually abused them.
Facts of the Case
When allegations of sexual abuse in the film industry in Hollywood erupted on the global stage, Priya Ramani wrote an "Open Letter to an unidentified "male boss" in the October 2017 issue of Vogue, foretelling, "We'll get you all one day." She outlined a stressful job interview in a hotel room, as well as offensive conduct and unwanted advances from a senior editor recruiting for the upcoming Asian Age. Just as #MeToo echoed in the Indian media industry, she called him out in a tweet a year later, in October 2018. In retaliation, on October 15, 2018, two days before resigning as Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, Akbar filed a criminal defamation case U/S 499, and 500 of the Indian Penal Code against Ramani, alleging the allegations were untrue. Several other women soon followed Ramani's tweet, describing similar incidents of workplace sexual abuse and rape while working for Akbar. It is worth noting that only Ramani was charged by Akbar, most likely because he thought she would be an easy target to suppress and intended to use her indictment to silence other women. The #MeToo campaign was born out of desperation, filling in the holes created by the law's inability to protect women from sexual abuse at work.
MJ Akbar's Claim
Akbar said that Ramani's article about sexual harassment for Vogue in 2017 during the #MeToo campaign, as well as a subsequent tweet about him in 2018, had harmed his 'stellar reputation.' Ramani's article was 'per se' defamatory, according to Akbar's lawyers, since there was no justification for the same. Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, defending Akbar, said that he has had a 'long and illustrious career' and submitted documents to the Court to prove his 'impeccable reputation'. It was also said that 'Akbar's illustrious name had been sullied. He did nothing, but the rumours that he was a sexual predator continued to circulate' and that this was claimed to criminal defamation U/S 499 and 500 of the IPC.
Luthra challenged Ramani's silence about the incident, which allegedly occurred in December 1993. It was also argued that, rather than using social media, Ramani had other choices for filing a complaint against Akbar, both at the time of the alleged incident and so now. The defamation lawsuit was based on Ramani's vogue article being interpreted as referring to Akbar throughout the piece, not just the beginning; this would certainly be defamatory since the rest of the article contains references to the behavior of those implicated in the #MeToo campaign, including Harvey Weinstein. According to Luthra, Ramani failed to note in her article that it does not apply to Akbar in its entirety.
'Truth is my defense' was the defense and the statement that Ramani stood by until the very end of the case.
Throughout the proceedings, Senior Advocate Rebecca John, who was representing Ramani, pointed out that Ramani had pleaded 'truth' as her defense, which she had made 'in good faith, in the public interest, and for the public good.' Even though Ramani's statement had harmed Akbar's credibility, John argued that Ramani's statement falls within the highlighted exceptions U/S 499 of the IPC:
- First Exception: It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it is for the public good, that the imputation should be made or published. Whether or not it is for the public good is a question of fact.
- Third Exception: It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion, respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.
- Ninth Exception: It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.
Ramani's defense relied heavily on Gazala Wahab's testimony. Around 20 women came forward to share their experiences of being abused by Akbar. There was no proof of Akbar's 'stellar reputation,' John said. John's claims were driven by the fact that there were other complaints against Akbar prior to Ramani's tweet, and the truth regarding his extramarital affairs with junior colleagues were established long before Ramani's allegations, so Akbar was not in a position to say that Ramani's comments had harmed his stellar reputation.
John also brought up Akbar's statement, in which he confessed to having had a consensual relationship with journalist Pallavi Gogoi, who later accused Akbar of sexual harassment and rape. Akbar's wife responded with a statement claiming that she and several others were informed of the affair and that it was consensual rather than coerced. According to Akbar, it was incorrect to admit Gogoi's claim as she was not working under duress. However, John pointed out that there was a significant age and power gap between Pallavi Gogoi and MJ Akbar and that she was her subordinate, making his so-called 'stellar reputation' stand out.
In response to Akbar's argument that the entire vogue article was about him, John stated:
- The article mentions how that 'boss' was part of a 'species' of male bosses who feasted on subordinates after the first four pages.
- Ramani's tumultuous October 2018 tweet states unequivocally that she 'began' her piece with her Akbar story. 'In English, that does not mean the whole piece,' she clarified.
According to Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, women who have been sexually abused can't talk about it for years. He claims that the majority of women who do not report sexual assault do so for one reason: "shame" or the social stigma associated with sexual harassment.
"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 in Indian Constitution under Article 21 and right of equality before the law and equal protection of the 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."
The Court took into consideration systematic abuse at the workplace because of the lack of a proper grievance redressal system for a sexual harassment complaint. It also accepted Ramani's contention that Akbar was not a man of a "stellar reputation". It quoted the 2020-'21 Economic Survey Report, which stated that women would progress in society if they operate in a safe environment.
The Court cited that
"It cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse are committed in the close doors or privately. Sometimes the victims themselves do not understand what is happening to them or what is happening to them is wrong. Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives could show extreme cruelty to the females."
The Court also found sexual assault cases "shameful," adding that India is a country where epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana are based on the theme of female respect.
Paving Way Ahead
This decision in Priya Ramani's case has sparked a really-needed debate in India about anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), especially retaliatory defamation lawsuits, have become a weapon for silence and suppression, as well as a chilling effect on the public. Such vehement litigation is an affront to the universal right to freedom of speech and expression. For this and other reasons, this case was a tremendous victory. This defamation suit brought by a powerful individual like MJ Akbar might have threatened, silenced, and scared Priya Ramani. She, on the other hand, fought valiantly and stood her ground. Her case's strong acknowledgment by the Court should be applauded. She may have simply been drained from a strong adversary's hectoring, the financial strain of legal fees, and the fear of stigma and public opinion. Instead, the ruling solidified Priya Ramani's status as a symbol of hope for women all over the world.
It is indeed a great victory, but we cannot ignore the fact that SLAPPs have been used as a tool to misuse the process of law, to suppress those who speak against the perpetrators. We need more attention to such increasing threats to women across the world to protect them against such defamation cases. Despite the fact that Ramani did not file a formal complaint in Court but instead used the famous #MeToo solution, Akbar's case was clearly a retaliatory and intimidating lawsuit in response. Though SLAPP cases have been on the rise recently, such as against independent journalists and media outlets who have revealed egregious activities by powerful corporations, Indian law has yet to properly understand this term.
Priya Ramani's victory, in this case, is more than just a victory; it is a strong endorsement of the #MeToo movement. It was a win for those who were silenced by the accused for speaking out about the injustice they had witnessed. In the present case, criminal defamation was chosen probably because MJ Akbar was under the impression that he would win the case, the minimum punishment for which is two years of imprisonment. India's defamation laws emphasize protecting one's credibility over free expression, and the powerful have often used them to censor opponents and ignore claims of impropriety and sexual harassment. Nonetheless, Ramani's case is an absolute defense against defamation because she spoke her truth and encouraged everyone else to do the same, despite having to go through a lengthy, arduous trial. The abuse of the criminal justice system by those in power – in this case, by the use of an out-of-date statute – continues unabated, but Priya Ramani triumphed today, and with her, truth and justice.
The article's overall structure is vital. Some structural errors with regard to sentence framing were present and should be rephrased. The manuscript has arguments and basic facts, and their implications have been stated. The content is perfectly written to fit into the author's viewpoint. The language used in the article is satisfactory. Inconsistencies with regards to tense were present. Punctuational errors can be seen in some parts of the article. There are no significant citation errors; the overall referencing is good, with flawless referred cases.
 ‘Section 499’ of the Indian Penal Code, India Code, available at https://www.indiacode.nic.in/show-data?actid=AC_CEN_5_23_00037_186045_1523266765688§ionId=46287§ionno=499&orderno=563  Mobashar Jawed Akbar v. Priya Ramani, available at: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/52182353/  Ibid  Ayomi Sharma, ‘The Judgment in Priya Ramani’s Case Could Have Been More Progressive’, Feminism in India (1 March 2021), available at https://feminisminindia.com/2021/03/01/priya-ramani-mj-akbar-judgment-slapp/  ‘Court’s Verdict on MJ Akbar’s Defamation Case Against Priya Ramani is Empowering For Women: Ghazala Wahab’, Outlook India (18 February 2021), available at https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-delhi-courts-verdict-aqcuitting-priya-ramani-is-empowering-for-women-ghazala-wahab/374658  Supra 4