V for Vindication, Victory

19 Feb,2021


By Ranjona Banerji


Why were women in the media so overjoyed with the acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani in the case for criminal defamation filed by MJ Akbar, journalist turned politician? As many somewhat bemused people outside the media had asked, Ramani was the victim here, how was she acquitted? And what about the culprit? What was the punishment for him?

And that’s the crux of this case. It wasn’t about punishment. It was about vindication. A famous, very famous journalist, much respected and admired as an editor for some ground-breaking work. But for decades there had been whispers about his behaviour with female colleagues, especially young female colleagues. Many of these went on to become stars in their own right. Priya Ramani is one of them.

When she tweeted in 2018, then the man she had referred to in an article about sexual misconduct she had faced in 2017 was MJ Akbar, the famous man was furious. Within a few days, he filed a case of criminal defamation against her, claiming his reputation had been damaged.

So in a neat twist of sexist history, the victim had to be acquitted and the culprit lost his case. But as the judge in the case, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey of Rouse Avenue Court, ruled, the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of a woman. “The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against sexual abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation,” the judgment read. Further, that a woman has the right to put up her grievance after decades on the platform of her choice. “Time has come for our society to understand that sometimes a victim may for years not speak up due to the mental trauma”: the judgment said.

Here, laid in clear terms, is the reason for the celebration. The ploy used by Akbar was wrong in intention and in result. The judgment answers all those questions people had raised in defence of Akbar (and of many men in similar circumstances): why after so long, why in an article and on a social media platform and so on.





A potted history:

What were we looking at here? The Me Too movement swept across the world in 2017. It started with allegations of sexual assault and abuse by a number of actresses against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It then moved to academia. And in India, allegations of workplace sexual abuse exploded in the worlds of glamour and the media. As far as the venerable media was concerned, this was an eyeopener for many, sadly for insiders as well as those without.

Sexual abuse had been ignored for generations in the mainstream media, as women who had broken the glass ceilings, felt it was wiser to shut up and put up with whatever was dished out in order to stay in line with the men. That this should be the norm within the media, where people were lectured, informed, advised day and night on what to do when faced with sexual harassment and abuse. That this should be the norm in spite of the Vishakha judgment of1997, which set out the fundamental rights of working women.

In 2013, we had been “shocked” by the assault allegations against Tarun Tejpal by Neha Dixit and the evident pain and trauma of the victim and the sheer brazen attitude of the perpetrator. In that case, lest we forget, Tejpal had in a long-winded letter admitted to the assault. Later he changed his story and the harassment of his victim began. He has his lawyers have used every legal trick to prolong the case.

The celebration:

The Me Too movement much as it brought many woman together also created many divisions. Many feminists felt that younger women were being unfair and had exacting standards from their male colleagues. Many were horrified that they had done nothing. Others felt that their colleagues and friends were being unfairly targeted.

This one judgment however tells us that if we work together, we have a better chance of justice. Lawyer Rebecca John and her team worked hard with Ramani. But it was Ramani herself, her steadfast courage in the face of the wrath of a powerful man, that inspires us. Ramani’s colleagues, Ghazala Wahab and Niloufer Venkatraman who were witnesses and spoke of their own trauma and those who were ready to be witnesses, can also claim victory.

“I feel vindicated to have my truth accepted in a court of law,” said Ramani after the acquittal.

Akbar, say reports, left in a huff.

Sometimes though huffing and puffing is just bravado gone wrong.

Congratulations to everyone and to all the women who spoke out, who have suffered. Sometimes, there is huge justice even in an acquittal.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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