A victims right to speak up against sexual harassment
By Hritika Jain, third year at Chanakya National Law University, Patna
In 2018 the global wave of #MeToo movement against powerful and reputed men in the society hit India’s mainstream public discussion. Thousands of women shared their stories about sexual harassment by men in power across various spheres of life. This movement has travelled from the west to India and gained momentum after many famous personalities accused powerful men of sexual harassment. Against this backdrop, Priya Ramani, a well-known journalist, spoke up in a tweet about her encounter with sexual harassment by MJ Akbar, a journalist turned Indian minister. After this, many other women came forward and accused him of the same.
A week later, MJ Akbar filed a criminal defamation suit against Ramani in the Delhi High Court. Akbar denied the allegations against him and claimed that Ramani had defamed him by recounting her experience of how she was sexually harassed and tormented by Akbar. This form of retaliation where the accused slaps a defamation suit on the victim of sexual harassment in order to intimidate her (known as a SLAPP suit) has been used by many accused in the wake of the #MeToo movement in India. Recognizing MJ Akbar’s suit for what it is, in February 2021, the Delhi High Court took a step in the right direction by absolving Ramani of the charges. The Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Ravindra Kumar Pandey of the Delhi High Court held that
“the woman cannot be punished for raising (her) voice against 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 the Indian Constitution."
This verdict upholds women’s right to speak out against sexual harassment. It has recognized that victimisation is also a form of sexual harassment which includes filing of defamation charges. The court has observed that speaking out against sexual harassment isn’t defamation as nothing which is said for the public good can amount to defamation under the law. We must certainly celebrate this victory, but we also need to address certain fundamental concerns that arise out of this situation.
Ramani was the victim of sexual harassment, yet our legal system rendered a victim vulnerable to further re-victimisation at the hands of her accused. This goes on to show that our legal system consists of obsolete and defunct laws which vests power in the hands of the rich and powerful, enabling them to sway any situation in their favour.
The defamation charges serve dual purpose for those who are accused of sexual harassment. First, they get to protect their reputation by turning the tables against the victim. Second, they make sure that the victim’s truth is invalidated and she is proved guilty of making false statements, publicly humiliated and harassed. This cautions victims from raising their voice against sexual harassment since it affects their reputation in the workplace. Another important thing to note is that women who face sexual harassment often find it difficult to report it due to societal pressure and trauma. This might not let survivors address the incident of sexual harassment until many years have passed. This verdict acknowledges that such a delay shouldn’t cast a doubt on the victim’s narrative and prevent raising their grievance on any platform even after decades.
Defamation charges have chilling effect on victims of sexual harassment as it not only intimidates them and demotivates them from filing a sexual harassment complaint but also buries them under litigation costs and consumes their time. Till defamation law remains in place, the notions of free and fearless speech will always be in peril each time a victim of sexual harassment speaks their truth. This verdict by the Delhi High court is indeed a milestone in the history of Indian judgements as it encourages victims of sexual harassment to speak up against their abusers without fear of being labelled as a ‘liar’.
Picture Credits: DCAF