Journalist Priya Ramani with her lawyer Rebecca John on February 17  in New Delhi
Journalist Priya Ramani with her lawyer Rebecca John on February 17 in New Delhi

Ironicallly, the M J Akbar defamation case has destroyed his reputation, with a Delhi magistrate’s court conceding Priya Ramani’s defence that the former minister did not have a ‘sterling reputation’ after 16 women had accused him of misbehaving with them. A woman has the right to put out her story (about sexual harassment) in public even after decades, the court opined, unwittingly upholding the ‘Me Too’ movement which began in 2006 and reached India in 2018.

What has escaped most people’s notice is this subordinate court opined there was no bar of limitation for a woman to complain in public about sexual harassment at the workplace because the dignity of a woman could not be curtailed by a man’s right to reputation, which, in this case, Akbar had forfeited. In a nutshell, a woman’s right to life and dignity overrides M J Akbar’s so-called right to a ‘sterling reputation’.

No bar of limitation

There is no bar of limitation under the Indian Penal Code of 1860 to lodge a criminal complaint—unlike civil cases—but chances of acquittal rise with delay. In rape cases, evidence such as semen is washed off, resulting in rapists being acquitted for lack of evidence.

The Priya Ramani case does not crystallise into a legal axiom for other courts because magistrates’ courts do not lay down the law. Whether the Delhi high court and later, the Supreme Court will uphold the reasoning of additional chief metropolitan magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey remains to be seen. Unlike Bombay high court judge, Pushpa Virendra Ganediwala, Pandey has upheld women’s rights. Ganediwala defanged POCSO by three insensate verdicts, which culminated in her confirmation as a judge being recalled.

Earlier, Magistrate Samar Vishal issued summons to journalist Priya Ramani but granted her bail in October 2018 after M J Akbar filed a defamation case. His successor Vishal Pahuja referred the case to the district and sessions judge, Rousse Avenue, New Delhi, for its transfer to another court in October 2020 because his court was a special court for cases against MP/MLAs. Meanwhile, the Delhi high court transferred 200 judicial officers, including Pahuja, so that Pandey took over.

Dignity of court

Another interesting aspect of this case is two senior women advocates, Rebecca John and Geeta Luthra, were pitted against each other. During the testimony of Wahab in December 2019, one of Geeta Luthra’s assistants kept laughing derisively in the court room. “Throughout Wahab’s testimony, she and many of the interns kept turning to each other and laughing, sometimes covering their mouths with their books,” a news report in The Wire had said.

While lawyers strive to win cases for their clients, derisive laughter during a witness’ deposition in court can be construed as demeaning the dignity of the court itself. More so, when all the lawyers are women and the witness herself is a woman. Magistrates can uphold the dignity of their own courts by admonishing such alleged undignified conduct. Or even referring the matter to the high court, for initiation of contempt action because the actors in this drama were lawyers who represented top-notch journalists.

Sedition and dissent

Though unrelated to this case, sedition is defamation of the state where an accused tries to incite violence against the state such as the Republic Day farmers’ violence. So, a Delhi magistrate’s court’s observations that sedition could not be used to suppress dissent is logical.

Nearly one year ago, Justice D Y Chandrachud declared during a public lecture that “blanket labelling” of dissent as “anti-national” or “anti-democratic” strikes at the “heart” of the country’s commitment to protect Constitutional values and promote deliberative democracy. Just as Priya Ramani has the right to free speech, so too do the farmers and those who support them but not vicious Khalistanis who want to dismember India.

This could be one reason why a Delhi additional sessions judge, Dharmendra Rana, granted bail to two men facing a sedition charge for allegedly sharing a Facebook post related to the Delhi police amid the ongoing farmers’ protest in the nation’s capital noting the law “is a powerful tool in the hands of the state” and “cannot be invoked to quieten any disquiet under the pretence of muzzling the miscreants.”

Sedition, as described under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, refers to ‘an act that brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise’. The words used are identical to the offence of defamation. But the Supreme Court has laid down that only acts which incite violence against the state are seditious.

Rise in sedition cases

According to records from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which has only been collecting data on sedition cases since 2014, there were 47 cases of sedition in 2014, which rose to 70 in 2018. However, while police across India’s 28 states indiscriminately slap sedition charges on individuals, most accused are discharged. Since 2016, there has been a conviction in just four sedition cases.

The law has its roots in the late 19th century, when it was introduced by the British to silence dissenters against its colonial rule. Since then, Section 124A has been misused against national icons including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, Bhagat Singh, Lala Lajpat Rai, and, perhaps, most notably, Mahatma Gandhi.

Just as the law of defamation can be misused by the rich-and-powerful like M J Akbar and former Supreme Court judge Swatanter Kumar in 2014 to silence their alleged victims, sedition can be used as a tool to silence critics. The Supreme Court rightly dismissed Subramaniam Swamy’s PIL to decriminalise defamation, which would permit irresponsible journalism. But the Law Commission of India, in its consultative paper on August 30, 2018, has said the time has come to reword the law of sedition because saying things like India is not a safe place for women is neither seditious nor anti-national.

And journalists like Priya Ramani and Ghazala Wahab may agree with that.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.

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