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Analysing the recent judgement in the case of M.J. Akbar v. Priya Ramani
Seventeen years back, in 1993 an incident happened which eventually concluded with a defamation case. In 2017, Me Too Movement gained prevalence. It was a social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment towards women and it empowered and encouraged a lot of women to reveal the extent of problems with sexual harassment and assault by showing how many people have experienced the same. Gaining strength from this movement, Priya Ramani a journalist, writer and editor wrote an article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world” on 12 October 2017 without naming the complainant and on 08 October 2018 she named MJ Akbar in her tweets connecting him to her previous article. This was followed by a series of tweets and articles by Priya Ramani, which eventually led to filing of a defamation case against her by MJ Akbar.
Legal Provision :
Section 499, Indian Penal Code.
Any person who by spoken or written words, signs or visible gestures creates or publishes any imputation on any person with an intention to harm the reputation of that person. The person making such imputation should have the knowledge or a reason to believe that such imputation will ruin the reputation of the person. However there are many exceptions to this such as
- Truth for public good.
- Fair criticism of a Public Servant.
- Fair comment on public conduct of any person.
- Publishing a true report of proceedings of a court.
- Comment on cases.
- Literary criticism.
- Censure by one in authority.
- Complaint to Authority.
- Imputation for protection of interests.
After careful and thorough analysis of all the witnesses and documents the court came to the conclusion that the offence of Defamation punishable under section 500 is not proved against Priya Ramani and she is acquitted for the same.
Analysis of the Judgement :
- The Me Too part.
This is an irony of our criminal system that a victim was acquitted. At the time the incident of sexual harassment happened there was no mechanism to redress sexual-harassment at workplace, but the court took consideration of the systematic abuse at the workplace due to lack of machanism to redress the grievance of sexual harassment at the time of the incident of sexual harassment against the accused Priya Ramani and witness Gazala Wahab prior to the issuance of Vishaka Guidelines.. To quote from the judgement “It cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual-harassment and sexual abuse is committed in the close doors or privately. Sometimes the victim herself does 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 females………. The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims. The society should understand that an abusive person is just like rest of the other person and he too has family and friends. He can also be well respected person of the society. The victims of the sexual-abuse not even speak a word about abuse for many years because sometimes she herself have no idea that she is a victim of abuse”
The court after examining the article and tweet by Priya Ramani was of the considerate view that its contents are defamatory in nature but the court accepted the defence of ‘truth’ by the accused, that the incident of 1993 truly happened, hence publishing and telling it to the world would not amount to defamation. The court also accepted that the complainant is not a man of stellar reputation based on the testimony of Ghazala Wahab who was also allegedly sexually abused by MJ Akbar. The Court said “The attack on the character of sex-abuser or offender by sex abuse victim, is the reaction of self defence after the mental trauma suffered by the victim regarding the shame attached with the crime committed against her. The women 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 women as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before law and equal protection of 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 notorious bail provision.
Priya Ramani even after getting acquitted was directed by the court to furnish bail bonds and surety bonds for a sum of Rs. 10,000 each. It is another irony of our criminal system that even after getting acquitted a person has to furnish bail bonds with sureties. To sum it up in a few words, the provision demands every acquitted person to remain in custody of the court till the state makes up its mind about an appeal. This section poses a problem as it does not let a person to be released even after he/she is found innocent unless they furnish a bail bond, with sureties. Adv. Ajay Verma, a prison activist in an interview with The Hindu said that Section 437A needs a rethinking as even after suggestions from the Law Commission, this provision is still adding to overcrowding as a person remains in jail even after acquittal.
- The irrelevant reasoning.
A judgement is not written only for the benefit of the parties. It is also written for the benefit of the legal profession, other judges and appellate Courts. The best judgements are those which clearly state the legal principles on which they are based. Reasons are the rational explanation to the conclusion in a judgement.
The work of writing judgements is in a sense the work of the miniaturist in law. He works with limited and definite facts and with limited and definite authorities and legal rules. Everything is directed to the particular result and everything not directly relevant should be excluded. Many times it has been seen that courts use irrelevant and completely unnecessary things which are in no way related to the conclusion. Use of mythological tales is one such prevalent practice. In the present judgement the court goes on to say that “It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening the country where mega epics such as “Mahabarata” and “Ramayana” were written ……”. Use of such things are of no benefit either to the victim or the accused. The only thing it can achieve is make the judgement lengthy or more appealing to the people neither of which is desired.
Even though the legal issues involved in the case were related to defamation, the judgement delivered by the court is a ray of hope for all those victims of sexual harassment who did not speak up due to societal barriers. To sum it up in court’s words “women cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex-abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation”
Author: Navdeep, Law Centre-II, Faculty of Law, DU.
 Mobashar Jawed Akbar v. Priya Ramani, Complaint case no: 05/2019
 Soibam Rocky Singh, “Inconsistencies in bail system”, The Hindu, Feb 25, 2019.
 The Right Hon. Lord Wright of Durley, ‘Legal Essays and Addresses.’ Cambridge University Press.