Amid landmark verdict in Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar case, incremental gains for survivors of sexual harassment

In light of the euphoria surrounding Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar, and what many are hailing as a landmark judgment, it is perhaps important to take stock of exactly what the verdict in favour of Ramani has achieved.

Yajnaseni Chakraborty February 18, 2021 20:56:21 IST
Amid landmark verdict in Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar case, incremental gains for survivors of sexual harassment

Priya Ramani with her lawyer Rebecca John. ANI

Tarun Tejpal’s name came up most recently in the public domain on 6 January this year, when the Goa Police filed a supplementary chargesheet against him. In August 2019, the Mumbai Police said they were likely to close the rape case against actor Alok Nath owing to lack of evidence. Also in 2019, composer-singer Anu Malik was reinstated as a judge on the TV reality show Indian Idol, from which he had been suspended in 2018 following accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women. (Malik later stepped down from the role amid sustained criticism.)

There is, of course, a common thread running through these apparently disjointed instances. All three men have, at various times, been accused of sexual misconduct, and at least two of them have taken, or tried to take, recourse to the defamation defence. In light of the euphoria surrounding Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar, and what many are hailing as a landmark judgment, it is perhaps important to take stock of exactly what the verdict in favour of Ramani has achieved.

And what it has not.

First and foremost, Ramani’s is not an isolated instance. In 1996, singer Alisha Chinai was possibly the first woman to publicly accuse Anu Malik of sexual molestation, filing a case against him and demanding over Rs 20 lakh as compensation. In a now familiar pattern, Malik filed a defamation case against Chinai, in his turn demanding Rs 2 crore in damages. Chinai eventually won the legal battle in what was described as an ‘unprecedented landmark verdict’, and a restraining order was passed against Malik.

Well, that landmark didn’t last very long, did it? One hopes the Ramani landmark proves more durable, seeing as her victory is identical to the one that Chinai scored, just about two decades ago. As of now, several experts are of the opinion that Ramani’s acquittal in the defamation suit that Akbar filed against her will encourage more women to come forward and level accusations against men in apparent positions of power, without fear of legal reprisal.

Sadly, that is perhaps the best option we can hope for at present, legally speaking. None of the three men mentioned at the beginning of this piece have actually been convicted or punished for their alleged misdemeanours. Tejpal — booked under numerous sections of the IPC, including those related to rape, in November 2013 — is still awaiting a verdict and has been out on bail since May 2014, though the Goa Police named 155 witnesses in its 2014 chargesheet. In January, the Supreme Court extended the time for completing trial proceedings against the Tehelka magazine founder until 31 March. He, of course, has denied the charge of sexually assaulting a former woman colleague inside an elevator of a five-star hotel in Goa.

Alok Nath’s film career took a nosedive following an allegation of rape from a leading TV writer-producer of the ‘90s, and accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women, including Renuka Shahane, Sandhya Mridul, Navneet Nishan. Predictably, in October 2018, Nath and his wife Ashu Nath sued the writer-producer for defamation, asking for a written apology and Re 1 as token compensation. Two days later, the woman filed a complaint against Nath in Mumbai’s Oshiwara police station. As we have already seen, the fate of that complaint seems doomed, while the status of his defamation suit is not known as of now.

In April 2019, producer Imran Khan, who worked with both Nath and the woman in the 1990s, said his film Main Bhi had been boycotted by distributors because it features Nath in a prominent role. Asked if Nath behaved inappropriately on sets, the producer told a leading publication that the actor’s behaviour varied depending on whether or not he was inebriated, adding, “I don’t remember any untoward situation, he was always a gem of a person.”

When Anu Malik was brought back as a judge on Indian Idol, his reinstatement provoked outrage in various quarters, including the entertainment industry. But the series of allegations against him, and the landmark legal defeat of 1996, seem to have faded from public discourse.

As this piece is being written, news is out that the Supreme Court has said that the “possibility of a conspiracy” against former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, accused of sexual harassment by a female junior colleague, cannot be ruled out. This statement came as the court closed a suo motu inquiry instituted into the allegations, which had initially also been dismissed as a conspiracy by a bench presided over by Gogoi himself.

The point of all these examples is that no matter how groundbreaking the Ramani verdict seems, the matter of trying Akbar for sexual misconduct remains unresolved. There are two interesting sections in the Indian Penal Code — 376 (2) (f) and 376 (2) (k). The first deals with a person in position of authority over women, committing rape, and the second with rape by person in position of control. Tejpal, for instance, has been booked under both. To the best of my knowledge, the other men mentioned in this piece have not. The verdict that Ramani has been handed down, while certainly laudable, has come from a defensive position, not an offensive one.

Therefore, the question of whether these men are the sexual predators they are alleged to be, remains open. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2019 shows that on an average, 88 rapes are committed every day in India, but the conviction rate is as low as 27.8 percent. This means only about 28 out of 100 accused are convicted, that too when actual rape has occurred. Given this backdrop, convictions for ‘mere’ sexual molestation seem like a luxury, and we ought not to be surprised when the NCRB data says that crimes against women increased from 58.8 percent in 2018 to 62.4 percent in 2019.

Nonetheless, the very fact that the #MeToo movement came to India, thanks in huge measure to social media, has opened floodgates which may not close easily, unlike in the 1990s. In this context, two statements in particular made by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey in Ramani’s favour ought to nurture hope:

a. 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 woman 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 woman 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.

b. The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.

Yajnaseni Chakraborty is a veteran journalist, freelance writer and translator, with two published works to her credit. She lives and works in Kolkata.

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