Another Victory for Me Too Movement: MJ Akbar Vs. Priya Ramani

This Blog is authored by Raj Bhojani , pursuing 4th year BBA.LLB from Alliance University , during his internship with NitiNyaya Law Offices

What is Me Too Movement?

In 2006, Tarana Burke, an American activist started the ‘Me too’ movement. This movement mainly focused on bringing awareness about women being sexually harassed at the workplace. Eleven years later, this movement started getting global recognition. Like any other country, a lot of women in India came out and talked about how they were sexually harassed at the workplace.

What is the case about?

In 2017, Priya Ramani, an Indian journalist, wrote an article in Vogue about how powerful male bosses sexually harassed women at the workplace. This was in support of the American ‘Me too’ movement. In her article, she also talked about how she was sexually harassed in 1993 by her boss during her interview. Subsequently, in 2018 she tweeted saying that the unnamed person was MJ Akbar, who was an Indian journalist and union minister.

Soon after MJ Akbar had to resign from the union cabinet and he filed a criminal case of defamation in his personal capacity against Priya Ramani in 2018 under section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 denying all the allegations made by Priya Ramani. Priya Ramani was summoned by the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate in January 2019 after examining the complainant and the witnesses. She pleaded not guilty before the court and was given bail. In October 2020 Judge Pahuja opined that the case should be transferred because the case was not against any MP or MLA for which special courts are established. However, an order was passed refusing to transfer the case. Soon after that, in October 2020, a total of 200 judicial officers including Justice Pahuja was transferred and Justice Pandey took over the case. The judge also asked both the parties if there was any room for the settlement of the case but Priya Ramani said that there was no scope of the settlement. During the trial, Ramani’s council submitted various tweets and testimonies of 14 witnesses who had alleged that they were sexually harassed by MJ Akbar. After recording all the evidence, Justice Pandey gave a 90-page judgment on 17 February 2021. Justice Ravindra Kumar Pandey while pronouncing the judgment acquitted Priya Ramani in the defamation case. 

Key Takeaways from the judgment: 

  1. The judge opined that most of the time the act of sexual harassment and sexual abuse takes place privately and in closed rooms and sometimes even the victim is not sure if what is happening is right or wrong.
  2. The Court also took into consideration that the Vishaka Guidelines for Workplace Harassment came in 1997 and the government had passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013. The victims did not have any remedy in place. Further, keeping in mind the social stigma the victims might not have lodged any complaint. The court held that women have the right to put their grievance of sexual abuse even after decades.  
  3. Women cannot be punished for raising their voice against sexual abuse behind the curtain of filing criminal defamation cases. This is because the right to live with dignity under Article 21 and equal protection under Article 14 of the constitution outweighs the right to reputation of an individual. 
  4. The victims of sexual abuse and harassment do not speak a single word for so many years because in a lot of cases the victims do not know that they are victims of sexual abuse. There is a high possibility that the victims might live in shame that they are at fault and may live with that shame for years. 
  5. The court also opined that it is a very shameful incident of crime against women in our country where epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana talk about respect and dignity of women. 

Author’s Views.

On the 17th of February, the judgment given by the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate saw a big victory in a small courtroom for the Me Too Movement. One of the crucial points in the judgment was about the social stigma in sexual harassment cases. Keeping in mind the culture and society of India there are very few women speaking about sexual abuse. One of the disadvantages for them is that cases of sexual abuse or harassment take place privately and there is a heavy burden of proof on the victims to prove that they have been sexually abused. Nonetheless, the legal system is now gradually changing. In cases of rape and dowry, it is presumed that the accused has committed the offense if there is prima facie evidence against the accused and the burden of proof is on the accused. Though the judgment given by Justice Pandey is not binding on all the courts, it will act as a persuasive precedent for other courts that filing one should not file criminal defamation cases against women who are sexually abused. The judgment given by the Delhi Metropolitan Court is definitely a big victory for the Me Too Movement and it is likely that more women would come out about it if they have been sexually abused. Unlike Ramani’s case now all the women have a remedy under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 under which they can file complaints if they have been sexually abused.

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