Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment and Rape
In a watershed moment for Indian women and the future of the #MeToo movement in India, a Delhi court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani who was tried for criminal defamation for outing former union-minister M J Akbar as a sexual predator. When numerous sexual predators were outed during the peak of #MeToo in India in 2018, Priya Ramani’s voice was one among the many voices, and her accusations against Akbar started a domino effect where numerous other women started detailing how they had been sexually harassed by Akbar.
Ramani had shared a 2017 Vogue article where she wrote of the time she was sexually assaulted by an editor she worked under in 1993. The next day, she confirmed the editor in question to be Akbar. This resulted in numerous women detailing similar instances of workplace sexual harassment and rape while they worked for Akbar. Among them were journalists Ghazala Wahab and Pallavi Gogoi. Ghazala Wahab also appeared as a witness for Ramani in the case.
In response to this, on October 15, 2018 – two days before Akbar resigned from his position as Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs – Akbar, claiming the allegations were untrue, filed a case of criminal defamation against Ramani.
Ramani’s lawyer, Senior Advocate Rebecca John said that Akbar was only bringing these charges against Ramani – who, while the first, was only one of several women to levy these accusations against him – because he likely believed her to be an easy target to silence, and intended to silence other women by making an example out of her prosecution. Nearly sixteen women had made similar and graver accusations against Akbar, but only Ramani was prosecuted for criminal defamation. Had the court convicted Ramani today, it would penalise women for speaking truth to power and that would force more women into silence, it would tell them that speaking truth to power comes with a hefty price tag.
Criminal defamation has long been used by sexual predators to silence those who speak up about abuse. Akbar, with his political power, wealth, and army of lawyers was using this arcane law as a means to silence the accusations against him. Very few countries have done away with criminal defamation laws and this trend of criminalising speech remains prevalent in most parts of the world, despite the massive scope for misuse and abuse. India’s defamation laws favour protecting the right to reputation over free speech and this has often been weaponised by the powerful to do everything from silencing critics to quashing allegations of impropriety and sexual assault.
Legal remedies against defamation are essential, but they must be civil remedies. Criminalising defamation is not only a threat to free speech, but it will also continue to silence sexual assault survivors from outing their abusers for the fear of prosecution. Criminal defamation laws are extremely susceptible to misuse by the wealthy, powerful, and those with legal might at their disposal. M J Akbar’s suit was frivolous and without merit, and ultimately Ramani won, but as long as abusers have criminal defamation laws to turn to, the threat of prosecution will always loom over other women who detail their abuse and identify their abusers publicly. It will force several women, especially those without economic, caste, and class privilege, into silence.
Further, delivering the verdict, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Panday said, ‘[A] woman has the right to put her grievance [forth] even after decades.’ Women who speak about sexual harassment and assault are often dismissed saying their accusations must be untrue if they came out with them years or decades later. But the very fact that Priya Ramani was prosecuted tells us why women might take so long to come forward, or perhaps, never come forward at all. We regularly fail women who speak out about sexual abuse; socially, legally, and in every other way, which often deters women from pursuing legal remedies at the time, especially when their abuser is someone of immense power and privilege.
Ramani was disbelieved by many, too. She was accused of fabricating her allegations because she waited 25 years to speak about it. When the incident took place, Ramani was a journalist who worked under Akbar, in a time before any robust guidelines for workplace harassment came into being, the monumental difference in power between the two and the fact that Akbar could endanger her employment often finds little mention among those who question her 25-year wait. The fact that Akbar brought a bogus charge of criminal defamation against Ramani, the first of sixteen women to accuse him of sexual abuse, speaks volumes about why women often choose against speaking about the sexual abuse and violence they have suffered.
The judge further noted: the right to reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity. This verdict is a landmark judgment that does a world of good for sexual abuse survivors and helps strengthen the #MeToo movement, but we must still remember that as long as criminal defamation laws exist, the likes of M J Akbar will always employ it to strong arm victims into silence. In view of the judgement, in our post #MeToo worlds, it is time to do away with this arcane, archaic law that is nothing more than a tool of intimidation for the powerful.
Truth is an absolute defence to defamation, Ramani spoke her truth and inspired several others to do so, too, yet she had to go through a long, arduous trial. The exploitation of the criminal justice system – in this case by use of a dated law – by those in power continues unfettered, but Priya Ramani prevailed today, and with that, truth and justice too.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India