New Delhi: Priya Ramani took the stand on Thursday for perhaps the last time in the defamation case filed against her by former Union minister M.J. Akbar, who she has accused of sexual harassment.
The case began in a district court in Delhi in May 2019. The defamation case pertains to a tweet Ramani had made in October 2018, about an incident when she says Akbar sexually harassed her about twenty years ago.
On Thursday, Ramani’s cross-examination by Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra drew to a close. On Friday, one of Ramani’s witnesses, Niloufer Venkataraman, is expected to take the stand. At the next hearing after Friday, journalist Ghazala Wahab is due to be present as a witness for Ramani. Wahab had written an article in The Wire last year titled ‘M.J. Akbar, Minister and Former Editor, Sexually Harassed and Molested Me’
Ramani had written an article in Vogue in 2017 about sexual harassment by male employers. She had anonymously referred to a sexual harassment incident and also spoke about the global outcry on sexual harassment following news reports about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment of women. In 2018, Ramani retweeted her earlier link to the Vogue article and said that the anonymous male employer she had referred to in her story, was Akbar.
Akbar at the time, was a serving minister in the Narendra Modi government.
At least 16 women then came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar in 2018. This included allegations of molestation, published in The Wire, and a case of alleged rape, published in the Washington Post.
Akbar however, decided to sue only Ramani, for defamation, for her tweet where she named him.
In court on Thursday
The atmosphere in court today was much the same as it has been since May: The two women lawyers representing Akbar and Ramani sparring in court with each other and with the judge. Akbar is represented by Luthra, who usually is in court with a minimum of six to seven juniors apart from a number of others who have come to observe proceedings. Ramani’s lawyer is Rebecca John is usually accompanied by about four juniors.
During Thursday’s cross examination, Luthra asked Ramani if she remembered specific comments that were left by strangers on the internet, when she spoke out about Akbar in October 2018. Ramani was also asked about tweets she had made nine years ago, in 2010.
Luthra asked Ramani about two tweets from a Twitter account named RajivAzad and another account named IndiaWhatsup. Both these accounts had replied to Ramani’s 2018 tweet saying that they were surprised to learn about allegations of sexual harassment against Akbar.
Ramani’s lawyer John objected to the questions about unknown strangers on the internet making comments.
Ramani also said at this point that she had recently deactivated or deleted her twitter account.
Luthra then began to ask her if she had intentionally tried to interfere with evidence by deleting or deactivating her Twitter account. John also objected to this, saying that Ramani’s entire Twitter account is not evidence and only a few tweets from her account were included as part of the evidence, and that there had been no court stipulation that Ramani keep her Twitter account active.
Luthra also asked Ramani about a number of articles that she had written which were allegedly critical of the government.
Luthra then said that prior to Akbar becoming a minister in the Modi government, Ramani had, in fact, tweeted out about him without mentioning sexual harassment. She suggested that Ramani seemed to admire Akbar prior to him becoming a minister, despite her allegations of sexual harassment.
Two tweets from 2010
Luthra then referred to a tweet which Ramani had apparently retweeted in 2010, which was by MJ Akbar and on the subject of the right and wrong way to use metaphors. Ramani said she didn’t recall this tweet by Akbar or her retweeting it. Luthra then said that Ramani had tweeted, again in 2010, about Akbar’s columns in India Today and The Times of India. Again Ramani said she didn’t recall this. To this, Luthra presented a print out of just this second tweet to the judge, Ramani and John.
A squabble broke out in the courtroom about whether these tweets were permissible, as they had not been flagged earlier. Luthra’s team said that Ramani could check the tweets on her own Twitter account but since she had now deactivated her account, this might not be possible. Ramani then began to explain why she deactivated her account, but Luthra’s team began shouting that Ramani could not be allowed to explain this in court.
The judge, as well as John and her team, said that Ramani should be allowed to say what she likes which is relevant to the issue, as a witness. Luthra then got into an argument with the judge.
Finally, the judge prevailed and Ramani explained that she deactivated her account as this case has been very hard on her since and that she has had to travel between Bangalore and Delhi regularly for hearings. She said she wanted to take a break from Twitter to focus on her personal and family life.
As the hearing for the day wound up, Luthra made further suggestions to the court which Ramani answered with either yes or no. Ramani’s closing statements in the court record said that she had no intention to defame Akbar and that she had spoken up in good faith and had not intended to damage his career or reputation.