Priya Ramani’s acquittal in the MJ Akbar defamation case has come as a ray of hope in the fight against sexual harassment at workplaces.
“Women cannot be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse... right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of right to dignity.” — this verdict by the Delhi Metropolitan Court in the MJ Akbar versus Priya Ramani defamation case has brought a glimmer of hope and cheer amid the all-pervasive despondency among women and their supporters who have been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement in the country.
The #MeToo movement took the world by storm in October 2017 – with millions of survivors of sexual harassment at workplace taking to social media to highlight their experiences. Many women in India, mostly from the media and entertainment business, as well as others able to access social media in English, started using the hashtag to publicise their accounts of abuse.
The most publicised and prominent allegations were against former editor and then a minister in the BJP government at the centre MJ Akbar when, in October 2018, at least 20 women accused him of sexual misconduct over several years during his career in the media. He denied the allegations, resigned as a minister and then went on to file a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, the first journalist to write about his abusive conduct. The case was clearly filed to intimidate Ramani and other women who spoke out against him but she and her lawyer Rebecca John stood steadfastly in the Court and their moment of triumph came when Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey made a significant observation in his order that the passage of time will not be held against a woman for speaking about the violations of her rights. Ramani had spoken out 20 years after the incident happened.
The judge also observed that it can’t be ignored that most times sexual harassment is committed behind closed doors, while most of the women who suffer abuse cannot often speak up due to stigma and attack on their character.
The verdict appeared as a whiff of fresh air, with women expressing hope that in addition to giving them the courage to speak up, it will also dissuade powerful men from filing false cases against women who do speak up.
The verdict may have led to initial euphoria but the complexities within cannot be ignored and what is most disheartening to note is that instead of the perpetrator being held accountable in a court of law for all the accusations of sexual harassment he faced, it was the victim who was put on trial.
This case, however, is the tip of the iceberg regarding the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, with John herself pointing out that because it was led on social media, the #MeToo movement in India excluded women from the informal sector, where 95 per cent of them work. Women’s rights activists in India have been raising these issues long before the #MeToo movement came to the fore, leading to formulation of policies and laws to safeguard women from sexual abuse at the workplace but these remain largely ignored by employers and poorly enforced by the government.
The Supreme Court had laid down the Vishaka guidelines in 1997 following the case of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan mandating that employers take specific steps to protect female employees from sexual harassment in the workplace and to provide procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of such crimes. The guidelines, however, failed to explicitly address sexual harassment of women in the informal sector.
The Parliament then enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, popularly known as the POSH Act, which expanded the definition of sexual harassment at work and its scope of application to include physical contact and advances, or a demand or request for sexual favour.
Following the #MeToo movement, the government formed a committee of a group of ministers in October 2018 to study and review the POSH Act, which was reconstituted in July 2019 under the Union Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, with the recommendations finalised in January 2020, though these are yet to be made public.