[Editorial Analysis] A verdict that has ended a long silence

Mains Paper 2: National
Prelims level: Priya Ramani case
Mains level: Role of women and women’s organization and Social empowerment.

Context:

• A Delhi court acquitted/free former journalist Priya Ramani in a defamation case filed by former Union minister MJ Akbar against after she accused him of sexual harassment.

• The court said that a woman has the right to voice grievance several years after the alleged crime took place.

• Women speaking up against sexual harassment are often disbelieved, often asked, “what proof do you have?” Other questions women face includes: “Why did you not speak up immediately after it happened?” and “Why did you take to media or social media to tell your story, instead of filing a criminal case?” The Ramani judgment is worth celebration.

The Key takeaways from the verdict:

• Didn’t “do’” anything: it drives the message home that you don’t have to touch someone inappropriately to sexually harass them.

• The Victim had to prove her intention: that a woman who was sexually harassed had to prove her motives, that she was not guilty of defamation and was not making false allegations.

• The Women and the workplace: Now all workplaces have to have Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (POSH) complaint cells but women are still wary for this very reason.

• The Women have a right to complain even after decades: The court says women have a right to speak about their experiences on any platform, even decades later.

• Not a man of stellar reputation: Court says “A woman cannot be punished “for raising voice against sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation.

• The public goods: the imputation is made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.”

Defamation and the defence:

• Under the Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation.

• The law of criminal defamation is premised on a person’s right to a reputation. Making or publishing “any imputation concerning any person, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person”, is criminal defamation.

• Mr. Akbar alleged that Ms. Ramani’s allegations, “by their very tone and tenor, are ex facie defamatory and had not only damaged the complainant’s goodwill and reputation in his social circles and on the political stage, which was established after years of hard work.

• Ms. Ramani premised her defence on the First Exception to Section 499 which postulates that “It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it be for the public good that the imputation should be made or published.

• Ms. Ramani also relied upon the” Ninth Exception” which says that, “It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.”

For public good, witnesses:

• The Third Exception was also pressed into service saying: “It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct”.

• The court accepted the “defence of the accused that she disclosed the truth regarding the incident of sexual harassment against on ground public goods.

• The judgment has thus ruled that Ms. Ramani spoke the truth, and that Mr. Akbar had a pre-existing tarnished reputation which had been exposed for the public good.

The Construction and Law in IPC provision:

• Article 15(1) The Construction provides that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen of India on the ground of sex.

• Article 39(a) The Construction provides the state to secure for men and women equally the right to an adequate means of livelihood.

• Indian Constitution guarantees several rights such as the right to equality in Article 14, right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of Constitution to all its citizens irrespective of gender.

• Section 500 of IPC, which is on punishment for defamation, reads, “Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

• Section 509 IPC provides that whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman.

• Section 506 in IPC, Punishment for criminal intimidation, Whoever commits, the offence of criminal intimidation shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both; If threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, etc.

• The objective of 504 IPC section is to prevent the intentional use of abusive language amounting to insult, giving rise to provocations causing the person against whom such words are used to commit breach of peace.

• The Section 67 of IT Act 2000, Punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form. Punishment for publishing or transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act, etc, in electronic form.

• Cognizable are heinous crimes, whereas non-cognizable offences are not so serious. Cognizable encompasses murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, counterfeiting, etc. On the contrary, non-cognizable offences include offences like forgery, cheating, assault, defamation and so forth.

Other cases:

• In the Mathura rape case of 1978, the Supreme Court’s acquittal of the policeman, Tukaram, earned it a stinging rebuke from legal scholars that “consent involves submission, but the converse is not necessarily true”.

• In 1988, IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj case prosecuted Punjab’s super-policeman K.P.S. Gill, for outraging her modesty. Mr. Gill’s conviction was maintained right up to the Supreme Court but he was released on probation and suffered no imprisonment.

• In 1990, S.P.S. Rathore case , another senior policeman in the neighbouring State of Haryana, tried to force himself on a 14-year-old tennis player. When the girl and her family complained to the authorities, a targeted pattern of vengeance and harassment followed which lead to her death by suicide.

• The founder-editor of a magazine, Tarun Tejpal’s trial case for an alleged digital rape, in 2013, of his subordinate in a hotel lift, is still pending trial in a court in Goa.

Way forward:

• The Ramani verdict is a huge moral vindication of the #MeToo movement, and will, hopefully, serve to deter powerful men from using the defamation law to silence survivors. But we are still very far away from ensuring workplaces free of sexual harassment for every woman, every transperson.

• This case open the door for many more women will now be emboldened to resist harassment at the workplace and elsewhere. Hopefully a few men are now deterred from trading power and position to secure sexual favors.

• Why the acquittal on a charge of defamation by a victim of sexual harassment is being celebrated when the alleged perpetrator has faced no criminal prosecution at all.

• In the name of good deed in a naughty world when contrasted against a series of cases where the legal process has failed to bring closure and justice to women.

• The Indian constitution granted men and women equally have the right to an adequate means of livelihood, that there is equal pay for both men and women, provide free and compulsory education for children and duty to improve public health.

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