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When complainant becomes ‘accused’

Priya Ramani took the witness stand for the first time in the case against MJ Akbar of sexual misconduct and harassment

Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 “envisages power of the trial court to examine the accused to explain evidence adduced against him/her,” and explicitly points out that it (the section) is meant “for the purpose of enabling the accused personally to explain any circumstances appearing in the evidence against him”.

“I have framed the questions … if you want to suggest any alterations or something…” said ACMM Samar Vishal, addressing Ramani’s counsel, advocates Rebecca John and Bhavook Chauhan.

Both advocates asked for the judge’s permission to stand next to Ramani while she took her seat in the witness box. Together, the three of them went through the document containing the questions framed by ACMM Samar Vishal.

Ramani began answering each of the questions put to her.

She said that she had begun her article (exhibited as CW 1/9) with a narration of her experience with the MJ Akbar, but a latter portion of it “referred to experiences of other women with other male bosses…My tweets did not become the basis of articles in internationally known newspapers and websites. The complainant is deliberately singling out my tweets. The articles were, in fact, based on collective accounts of many women—including me—who spoke up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of MJ Akbar. It is false that my tweets affected the reputation of the complainant. I spoke the truth and there was no deliberate attempt to harm the complainant’s reputation.”

She went on to name the witnesses who had appeared for MJ Akbar, vouching for his reputation as an editor and as a respectable person in society, calling them “motivated witnesses in a false case against me”.

“Sunil Gujral, Joyeeta Basu, Veenu Sandal, Habibur Rehman and Tapan Chaki are all close personal or professional confidants of Mr Akbar. They were all motivated witnesses in this false case against me. My allegations were not against the complainant’s reputation as a writer or author. My allegations related to being sexually harassed and the complainant’s conduct as an editor of a daily newspaper. My words were not false or offensive.”

She went on to explain how it was “nothing special” for the editor of a publication to simply do his job. “All other editors I have worked with in my 25 years of being a journalist have writing skills, administrative skills, are exacting and demanding when it comes to copy, when it comes to schedule, and they have all had an uncanny sense of what constitutes news. There is nothing special about the complainant.

“It is false that Mr Akbar is a perfect gentleman holding a good reputation in society. I don’t know which colleagues and friends Mr Gujral spoke to form his opinion about the complainant, but many women—including myself—who have worked with Mr Akbar, have had a different experience.”

The next question put to Ramani was a funny one. It was about a certain individual’s printer details. “I do not know about Mr Manzar Ali’s printer details,” remarked Ramani, and everyone including ACMM Samar Vishal cracked a smile. As the court typist went on to write her response verbatim, John told him to rephrase it to simply “I do not know”.

“Why is this case against you?” asked ACMM Samar Vishal.

Ramani responded: “Sir, this is a false and malicious case filed to create a chilling effect among all the women who spoke out about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of Mr Akbar. It is an attempt to intimidate me by deliberately targeting me. The complainant seeks to divert attention away from the serious allegations of sexual misconduct against him and the public outrage that followed.”

“Will you lead evidence in your defence?”

“Yes,” responded Ramani.

“Do you have to say anything else?” asked ACMM Samar Vishal.

“My defence is the truth spoken in the public interest and for the public good,” said Ramani. “It’s only now that sexual harassment at the workplace is regarded as a serious offence. Sir, I would like to share my story in brief…”

ACMM Samar Vishal granted her permission.

Ramani narrated the incident of sexual misconduct between her and MJ Akbar when she was 23 years old and interviewing for a job at the soon-to-be-launched Asian Age newspaper in Mumbai.

“I was 23 years old when the complainant, the editor of a soon to be launched Asian Age newspaper, called me to his hotel for a job interview. When I got there, I had expected the interview to be in the lobby or the coffee shop, but the complainant insisted I come up to his room. I was young; it was my first job interview. I did not know how to refuse. I did not know I could set the terms of my interview.

“When I reached his room it was 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. Later that night, I called my friend Niloufer Venkataraman and told her what had happened.”

Ramani continued: “In October 2017, the #MeToo movement in America emboldened countless women to break their silence and share their experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace. In this context, I wrote an article for Vogue magazine, addressed to, and titled ‘To the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world’ where I spoke about many women’s experiences with many male bosses. I began the article with my MJ Akbar experience but I did not name him.

“One year later, when the #MeToo movement came to India and many women in my industry, media, started speaking up about their stories of sexual harassment, I felt … a responsibility to remove the cloak of anonymity. I decided to name the editor in that Vogue article. I spoke the truth in the public interest and in the context of the #MeToo movement. I finally had the courage and the platform to name the complainant publicly.”

There was pin-drop silence in the courtroom as Ramani continued.

“The complainant has filed a false case against me. He has deliberately targeted me to divert attention away from serious complaints against him. Through his testimony, he feigned ignorance about my story and my truth.”

At this point, the court typist typed “stories” instead of “story”. Ramani corrected him and remarked: “Ek hi hai, bhai sahab.”

She concluded: “It’s unfortunate that women who have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace must now defend themselves in criminal proceedings for speaking the truth. That’s all your honour.”

With this, Ramani’s 313 statement came to an end. Her counsel also moved an application under Section 315 of the CrPC, which allows an accused person to be a competent witness, as well as a list of defence witnesses.

There are three witnesses in total, including Ramani. Their examination by the prosecution will now take place on September 7 and 9.

As the proceedings came to an end, Ramani came out of the courtroom and hugged her husband. She is expected to be the first witness to take the stand on September 7.

www.newslaundry.com