‘I spoke the truth’: Priya Ramani says she’ll lead evidence in her defence against MJ Akbar

Recording her statement at a district court, Ramani called the defamation case ‘false and malicious’ and intended to ‘create a chilling effect’ among women who spoke out against Akbar.

ByGaurav Sarkar
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‘I spoke the truth’: Priya Ramani says she’ll lead evidence in her defence against MJ Akbar
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The Rouse Avenue District Court House complex played host to another high-profile case on Friday—the defamation case filed by ex-Union Minister MJ Akbar against senior journalist Priya Ramani. 

Although the matter is being regularly heard by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal, today was different. It was the first time that Ramani—who had earlier accused MJ Akbar of sexual misconduct and harassment—would take to the witness stand to record her statement under Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. 

The section itself “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”.

Ramani was present with her husband and friends in the hallway outside Courtroom Number 203 a little before noon, seeming anything but nervous. The proceedings began at 12.13 pm once ACMM Samar Vishal entered the courtroom. Everyone but Ramani took their seats. 

Printout de,” he told the court typist. He was referring to the list of questions that were to be put to Ramani by him, which she would then have to individually answer and explain.

“Priya Ramani, please take the stand.” 

Dressed all in black, Ramani made her way to the witness box. 

“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. 

“My article is a matter of record. My tweet dated October 8, 2018, is a matter of record. It is correct that it was related to the complainant MJ Akbar.” 

She clarified: “I did tweet on October 10, 2018, and October 14, 2018—not October 13, 2018. I spoke the truth. My tweet was not malafide, or in bad faith, or offensive maligning fabrications spun out of lies…” 

Chauhan and John both flanked Ramani as she read the question further. Samar Vishal looked on, head slightly tilted and with one hand casually placed across his mouth. 

Ramani continued: “I cannot say if it affected the complainant’s standing with family and friends. My allegations are true. The complaint of the complainant MJ Akbar is false and baseless.” 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 continued: “His (the complainant’s) complaint is false and the allegations made by me against him are the truth.”

The second question put to Ramani was specifically about Veenu Sandal, a witness who had previously appeared before ACMM Samar Vishal to defend MJ Akbar. “I do not know the details of Miss Veenu Sandal’s career. I cannot say if and when she read my tweets or what effect they had on her.”

Ramani said that a part of the question which spoke about how “deeply distressed” Sandal was when she learnt of the allegations levelled against MJ Akbar was “her personal thing and has no bearing on my case”. “Her statement was that she was deeply distressed to think that someone whom she had placed on a pedestal could do what I had alleged. This is her own personal opinion and has no bearing on my case. The rest of the averments made by Veenu Sandal in her evidence are her personal opinion.”

A confident Ramani ploughed on: “It is false to say that the complainant’s reputation was damaged. I do not know what interactions the complainant had with Miss Sandal, but my allegations are factual and the truth.”

Ramani moved on to answer the next question, which was referring to what Tapan Chaki had earlier said to this court when he had appeared as a witness defending Akbar, that MJ Akbar’s writing and administration skills are unparalleled. 

“I do not know the details of Mr Chaki’s professional career or his opinion about the complainant.”

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 has an impeccable reputation. The rest of the paragraph (in the question) is also false and his personal opinion.

“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 (another witness who had earlier appeared defending Akbar in the same court) spoke to form his opinion about the complainant, but many women—including myself—who have worked with Mr Akbar, have had a different experience.”

She said that Gujral did not know her and could not comment on her experience with MJ Akbar, and once again reiterated how there was “nothing special” about Akbar. 

“All editors are hardworking men or women, keeping long working hours and travelling for political stories on journalism. There is nothing special about the complainant. I do not know if and when Mr Gujral read my tweets. The rest of the paragraph is his own personal opinion. It is false that I damaged the complainant’s reputation.”

She moved on to the question, which was about another person who had previously appeared in front of ACMM Samar Vishal defending MJ Akbar’s reputation. 

“I do not know the details of Miss Joyeeta Basu’s professional career and details of her acquaintance with the complainant. This is her personal opinion.” Rebecca John asked her client Priya Ramani to clarify what exactly was Basu’s own personal opinion. The sentence was reframed. “…her high regard for the complainant is her personal opinion.” 

“It is false to say that the complainant was a complete professional, that he had an impeccable reputation, or that he was held in high esteem in office or in the eyes of the world. There was nothing scandalous about the tweet. Miss Basu is a false witness and her tweet supporting the complainant the day after I tweeted shows that the complainant’s reputation was not destroyed or irreparably harmed in her eyes.”

She added: “I do not know if and when she read my tweets of October 10, 2018, and October 14, 2018—not October 13, 2018. It is false of her to say that Mr Akbar’s reputation was permanently destroyed. My tweets were not malicious, as she says. I spoke the truth.”

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.

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