New Delhi: Hearings in the criminal defamation case filed by former Union minister M.J. Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani following sexual harassment allegations against him now run the risk of further delay. The special court hearing the matter – which has been hearing arguments for nearly two years now – on Tuesday refused to hear it further, saying as per the Supreme Court’s directions, it will hear only cases related to MPs and MLAs. The principal district and sessions judge will now decide who will hear the case on October 14.
During the hearing of the case today, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja noted that in terms of the order of the Supreme Court in Ashwani Kumar Upadhyay v UOI and another of 2016, special courts were created for the trials of cases against MPs and MLAs.
The SC had on September 16 held that such special courts can only take up matters that are filed against the legislators or MPs, and not by them. Considering this, the ACMM said, “as the present matter is not filed against MP/MLA, hence, cannot be tried by this court and needs to be transferred to the competent court of jurisdiction.”
The ACMM then listed the matter before principal district and sessions judge (Rouse Avenue Districts Courts) on October 14 for “further appropriate orders”.
The development comes at a time when both parties have made their final arguments and on a day when the counsel for Akbar, Geeta Luthra, was supposed to start her arguments on a rejoinder. The counsel for Ramani, senior advocate Rebecca M. John, had already completed her final arguments.
John said that this development will lead to a delay in the outcome of the case. It was in 2018, during the #MeToo movement, that Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual misbehaving with her nearly 20 years ago. As many as 14 women had accused Akbar of sexual harassment and assault during his time as an editor.
“I am still waiting for the order. It is listed before the district judge because only he has the power to assign another court. So let’s see what the district judge does tomorrow,” said John, adding that following inadvertent delays due to a death in the lawyer’s family, the COVID-19 outbreak and the inability of trial courts to function online earlier, it was only now that the proceedings have resumed.
“It was only now that the trial court was given virtual links and that is how it got taken up now. But otherwise there was no virtual link and no physical court and so it was not something that anyone could control,” she added.
Effort in familiarising new court with case remains a concern
Now, with the matter being placed before the district judge, John said “more than the delay”, what she was concerned about is the “effort” that would have to be placed again to familiarise the court with the case.
“More than the delay, I am looking at the effort involved because I had argued it for five days. And to re-familiarise a court takes time. Much of the evidence was conducted before the ACMM and he was very familiar with the facts of the case. So the arguments were somewhat seamless as he understood the case – he knew the background, he knew the context,” she pointed out.
John added that “a new court who has not seen the trial will have to first familiarise herself or himself with the facts of the case – all those details and lengthy arguments. So there is going to be a delay now.”
Demise of a lawyer’s mother and COVID-19 had also delayed proceedings
On the progress of the case thus far, she said there was some delay due to unforeseen circumstances. Following Ramani’s deposition last August, she said there were two more witnesses who had to be examined and cross examined. “We only finished in December. It was then listed for January this year but then Geeta (Luthra) – the counsel for Akbar – lost her mother just the night before and she took some time to come back to court. And then COVID happened and the court never functioned.”
“It was only now,” she pointed out, “that the trial court was given virtual links and that is how it got taken up now. But otherwise there was no virtual link and no physical court and so it was not something that anyone could control.”
Ramani had alleged that Akbar, when he was editor of Asian Age, had sexually harassed her. In response, Akbar, who had to resign as Union minister from the first Narendra Modi government due to the charges levelled by Ramani and a number of other women, filed a criminal defamation case. He claimed that Ramani’s allegations were “false” and that it had cost him his reputation.
Sexually harassed during job interview
In her testimony before the ACMM in August 2019, Ramani had detailed how she was harassed. “It is only now that sexual harassment at the workplace is regarded as a serious offence. I would like to state my story in brief. I was 23 years old when the complainant, the editor of a soon-to-be-launched Asian Age newspaper called [me] to a hotel for a job interview. When I got there, I had expected the interview to be in the lobby or coffee shop, but he insisted I come up to his room.”
“I was young, it was my first job interview and I did not know how to refuse. I did not know that I could set the terms of my meeting. When I reached his room, it was in an intimate space, essentially his bedroom and I was deeply uncomfortable and felt unsafe at Mr Akbar’s repeated inappropriate personal questions, his offer of an alcoholic beverage, his loud singing of songs and his invitation to sit close to him,” she said.
Ramani added that later she called up her friend, Niloufer Venkataraman, and told her what happened.
She said in October 2017, the #MeToo movement in the US emboldened countless women to break free and share their experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace. In that context, Ramani said she wrote an article in Vogue which was titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World”.
‘Spoke the truth in public interest’
She said it began with her experience, but she had not named Akbar then. “I spoke about many women’s experiences with their male bosses. One year later, when the #MeToo movement came to India and women in my industry, the media, started speaking about their stories of sexual harassment… I felt as a senior journalist a responsibility to remove the cloak of anonymity. I decided to name the editor [who had figured in] that Vogue article. I spoke the truth in the public interest and in the context of the #MeToo movement. In the context of the movement, I finally had the courage and the platform to name him publicly.”
Ramani claimed that Akbar filed a “false case” against her and has “deliberately targeted” her to “divert attention from serious complaints against him”.