Through a landmark verdict Ravindra Kumar Pandey, judge of a Delhi trial court, has struck yet another blow for the empowerment of women. High-handed or predatory behaviour by people in higher positions towards their underlings is an endemic phenomenon in Indian offices. Women, being in a male dominated society, are particularly vulnerable not only to bullying, but also to predatory advances by lecherous bosses. Sadly enough, the legal system in India did not give any statutory protection to sexually harassed women well into the 1990s. Till 1997 sexual harassment was dealt with under the Indian Penal Code, and it had been only in that year the Supreme Court of India focused its attention on harassment of women in work places and created a set of guidelines to mitigate this heinous practice, termed as the Vishaka guidelines. These guidelines had remained operative till as late as 2013 when the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was enacted to specifically make such actions cognizable and criminal offences. During that period the ‘MeToo’ movement, which persuaded women who had been sexually harassed by their bosses, to make public their experiences, broke out worldwide and percolated to India. In 2018, a journalist named Priya Ramani, motivated by the movement, levelled allegations of misconduct against MJ Akbar, editor of a newspaper, during a job interview 20 years ago.
Akbar, who by then had become politically powerful enough to become a Union Minister, resigned after the allegations, and sued Ramani, accusing her of seeking to tarnish his reputation. However, the proceedings of the court in course of the trial shifted from Akbar’s right to reputation and, bolstered by evidence of other witnesses, became a recording of past misconduct by the editor. Correctly enough the court did not dwell on the merits of the sexual harassment allegations, since it was not the subject of the trial, and concentrated on the issue of Akbar’s right to reputation. The learned judge ruled that “the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman”, and acquitted Ramani of accusations of criminal defamation, asserting that the preponderance of probabilities favoured her rather than her accuser. Simultaneously, he gave another boost to women empowerment by ruling that a woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades, thereby eroding the plaintiff’s emphasis on the fact that Ramani’s accusations against him were made after two decades. It may be noted that undue delay in speaking out or filing a formal complaint is often used against women to discredit their allegations, and this judgment would be a telling precedent for future litigations, and become yet another tool in the armoury of women in warding off predators.