MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani: Junior minister tries to exhaust one accuser through legal means, and system might just allow it

MJ Akbar’s criminal defamation complaint against Priya Ramani, who accused him of sexual harassment, is a straightforward attempt at harassment and intimidation. As others have pointed out, his complaint is not on firm footing, and it is somewhat curious that he chose to go after only one of his 14 (and counting) accusers. The strategy seems transparent — exhaust one accuser through legal means and hope it acts as a deterrent to the others.

There’s a rich irony in a former “eminent” journalist using the criminal defamation law to harass and intimidate an opponent to cover up his wrongdoing. After all, this was the basis on which the constitutional validity of sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code was challenged in the Supreme Court — a challenge rejected on the most absurd and pollyannaish reasoning two years ago.

But that is only as far as what Akbar could and has done. What about the other women? Do they have no recourse to law?

 MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani: Junior minister tries to exhaust one accuser through legal means, and system might just allow it

File photo of MJ Akbar. Image Courtesy: Twitter/@mjakbar

As Raya Sarkar reminded us, India’s #MeToo movement probably begins with Bhanwari Devi — a woman from the Kumhar caste, employed as a saathin of the Rajasthan government, who was brutally gangraped for trying to stop child marriages in her village. The fact that she had been hired to do this meant that her case became the cause célèbre for the lack of sexual harassment laws in India. Women’s NGOs had moved the Supreme Court, and eventually, in 1997, it had passed its landmark judgement in the Vishakha versus State of Rajasthan case, laying out directions for all organisations to have mechanisms in place to deal with workplace sexual harassment. Twelve directions were given, covering the gamut from what constitutes “sexual harassment” to how employers must handle complaints that deal with it.

As detailed as these directions were, there was just one problem — there was no way to enforce them. With no penalty for non-compliance with the directions — apart from the lengthy and expensive process of filing contempt petitions in the Supreme Court — there was little legal recourse for women, unless they were prepared to go to the formal court system.

It took the horrific gangrape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012, the protests that followed and censure to get Parliament to eventually pass laws, making sexual harassment (anywhere) a criminal offence and pass the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Had these laws been in place when the women suffered at the hands of Akbar, they could have approached the police, besides the internal complaints committee, if they had been set up at the organisations where he worked.

However, criminal laws cannot be applied retrospectively, and all the incidents on Akbar that have been shared are from before 2013. If any action has to be taken against him criminally, they will have to be as per the laws from that time. As it stood then, survivors may have been able to allege that Akbar’s acts amounted to molestation or attempting to “outrage the modesty of a woman”, punishable under the Indian Penal Code. However, they cannot do it now as the prescribed period within which complaints can be filed against offences that carry a sentence of less than three years has long since expired for most of the women who spoke up against Akbar.

Legal provisions apart, there’s one other problem with the women Akbar allegedly harassed seeking legal recourse to the law — the judiciary. Remember Bhanwari Devi? The woman from Rajasthan who started it all? Her attackers were not even convicted of rape on the most bizarre grounds possible. After much public pressure, the state government had filed an appeal in the Rajasthan High Court, but the matter has not been heard in two decades.

In the more recent times, even after progressive amendments to the Indian Penal Code, under which the likes of Tarun Tejpal and RK Pachauri have been tried, the trials have dragged on with no end in sight. Even where the trials ended quickly and justice was delivered, as we saw in Mahmood Farooqui’s case, there’s no guarantee that a superior court will not overturn a conviction on utterly flimsy grounds going only by the standing of the accused in society.

All of this, perhaps, goes to show exactly why the #MeToo movement exists as it does; somewhat anarchic but necessarily so, given the hollowness of the claims to “due process” ensuring justice for the survivors of sexual harassment.

Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2018 08:44:24 IST