A former Indian minister has lost a defamation case against a journalist, in a ruling with huge implications for the country’s #MeToo movement.
Indian journalist Priya Ramani had faced up to two years in jail for criminal defamation over an article she had written accusing Mobashar Jawed Akbar of sexual assault. Akbar is a newspaper editor, government minister 2016-18, MP for the ruling BJP, and formerly an MP for the Congress party.
After Ramani named Akbar, over 20 other women came forward with allegations against Akbar, ranging from rape and assault to systematically using his senior position to harass young female journalists.
The verdict in Mobashar Jawed Akbar vs Priya Ramani is important. By ruling that women can and should speak publicly about incidents of sexual harassment, the court has sent a clear signal of support to women despite some backlash in India to #MeToo.
In noting that such public posts can legally be classified as being for the public good, the court has brought the question of sexual harassment into the public domain. It rejected the idea that social status should provide behavioural impunity.
“A 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 the woman.”
The ruling juxtaposes violence against women against Indian tradition.
“It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana were written around the theme of respect for women.”
In the Ramayana, Sita is held up as ideal womanhood, docile, devoted to her household work and patriarch, and is forced to prove her sexual virtue. This situates “respect for women” as appropriate for the right kind of women and the denial or extreme policing of women’s sexuality. The decision to cite Hindu epics is also a reminder Ramani’s case may have been aided by the fact the elite abuser she was facing is Muslim.
But by concentrating debate on the right to call out those with social status the case breaks through the prevalent idea that the poor and migrant labourers are the sole source of violence against women. As the judgement itself shows, pre-capitalist patriarchal politics are not simply the property of the lumpenproletariat, they are woven into Indian society.
Indian capitalism promotes caste and gender oppression, including pre-capitalist forms. This judgment also shows the danger of positing protective as opposed to liberational opposition to sexual violence against adult women. Violence against women is seen as a crime against decency rather than the woman’s person. But the Indian left and women’s movement can use this case in naming and challenging the culture of sexual violence.