The cross-examination of journalist Priya Ramani and Niloufer Venkatraman, her friend, began at 12.05 pm at the Rouse Avenue Court, Delhi, in the presence of the Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja. Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal was looking at the case before.
Venkatraman is a key witness in Ramani’s allegation that she was sexually harassed by her former editor and now BJP leader MJ Akbar in 1993. Akbar filed a defamation suit against Ramani last October.
When appearing in court on October 25, Venkatraman had said that in December 1993, she met Ramani before the latter’s interview with Akbar. They met at Venkatraman’s mother’s office in Nariman Point, and Ramani’s interview took place at the Oberoi Hotel. When Ramani’s interview ended, Venkatraman said, Ramani telephoned her on the office landline and described what had happened in the interview.
In court today, senior advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Akbar, began with her cross-examination of Venkatraman.
In response to a question from Luthra, Venkatraman said she has not produced the call records of the office landline used in her mother’s office in 1993. “It is wrong to suggest that I have not produced the said call records as no call was ever received by me from the accused,” she continued.
Luthra asked: “How active are you on Twitter?” Venkatraman said she wasn’t “very active”. “I often read but I don’t tweet.” Luthra asked if Venkatraman’s last two tweets before October 2018 were in 2017, then 2016 and 2012 before that — and Venkatraman said it was “possible but “I do not recollect exactly”.
Luthra asked, “When did you read the statement given by the complainant?”
Venkatraman replied, “I have not read any statement of the accused given in the court…I have been following the case in the media.” In response to questions from Luthra, she said she could not say whether there’s been “verbatim reporting of the proceedings taking place in the court” or if the “statement of the accused was reported by the media verbatim”.
Luthra asked again, “But you followed the case in the media?” Venkatraman replied in the affirmative.
Luthra asked if Venkatraman had retweeted a tweet by Ramani which said she had been sexually harassed in 1993. Venkatraman said, “I do not believe that I have retweeted the tweet.”
“Would that be shown in the accused’s Twitter, whether you retweeted it or not?” Luthra said. Venkatraman responded, “I’m not that familiar with the social platform so as to know whether retweets would show on the account of the accused’s Twitter account.”
At this point, Luthra asked that there be no live tweeting at the proceedings. Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja agreed.
Luthra asked if Venkatraman was carrying her mobile phone with her today. Venkatraman said she was, and she could check if she had “retweeted or not”. She added, “I have retweeted other media stories on my account pertaining to the present case.”
Venkatraman was given her mobile phone. She went through her Twitter feed and said she had not retweeted Ramani’s tweet. She retweeted media reports on the case on October 15, 16, and 17, 2018, she added, and had tweeted unrelated to the case on October 18, 2018.
Luthra conferred with her fellow lawyers.
Luthra suggested since Ramani had deactivated her Twitter account, retweets of her tweets would be untraced and unavailable.
In a previous hearing, Ramani had presented a printout of a screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation between her and Venkatraman pertaining to the case. In this context, Venkatraman responded to a question, saying: “It is wrong to suggest that I have sent the WhatsApp messages after discussing with the accused as there were immediately numerous comments on the tweet stating that she would be sued…It is wrong to suggest that I and the accused have pre-planned and conspired to create a false narrative for a defense against the complainant’s possible legal action or that I have fabricated to a false WhatsApp message to create a false evidence.”
After some back and forth, Luthra said: “I put to you that you have not personally witnessed or personally heard any interaction between the complainant and the accused with regard to the alleged incident.”
Luthra and Ramani’s counsel, Rebecca John, then got into a long argument. John said Luthra needed to be “specific”; Luthra said she did not want to use the word “hotel”. AMM Pahuja intervened and told Luthra she needed to be specific. Even so, Luthra resisted using the word “hotel” as the cross-examination continued.
Venkatraman said, “It is correct that I have not personally witnessed or personally hear any alleged events with regard to the complainant or the accused. I was not personally present. However, I dropped her to the hotel minutes before the interview began and she called me and told me the entire details after the interview was over.”
Venkatraman continued, on questioning: “It is wrong to suggest that my entire version about receiving any calls from the accused with regard to an alleged meeting with the complainant at the office of the soon launched Asian Age at the ‘Prabha Devi’ is false as no such meeting ever took place. It is wrong to suggest that no such meeting or interview ever took place.”
She added: “It is wrong to suggest that I being the closest friend of the accused, deposed falsely to support her concocted defence.”
Venkatraman’s cross-examination ended. Soon after, Ramani took the stand.
Luthra began her cross-examination with the same set of questions asked to Venkatrama, about the submission of the call records of their conversation in 1993 where they discussed the interview. Ramani said, “It is wrong to suggest that no such record was produced because I had not made any calls.”
When Luthra made some suggestions, Ramani responded, “It is wrong to suggest that I have read the comments on my tweet on October 18, 2018, and anticipating that the complainant may take legal action against me, I asked my friend Niloufer Venkatraman to send me WhatsApp messages which I have shown in the court to fabricate false evidence as she has been my close friend for the past 30 years.”
Ramani said it’s wrong to suggest that the WhatsApp messages were “preplanned and predecided for creating a false defence for a possible legal action against me”. She continued, “It is further wrong to suggest that Niloufer sent the WhatsApp messages on my instructions as there were immediately numerous comments stating that I would be sued.”
Luthra suggested that Ramani and Venkatraman “spoke and communicated in the normal course of life being close friends”.
John interjected, saying the question was not relevant to the case and since they are friends, they must have spoken. Luthra said the question had “a lot of relevance”. Ramani agreed that she and Venkatraman spoke and communicated since they were friends. On Luthra’s questioning, she said, “It is wrong to suggest that I spoke and communicate with Niloufer and preplanned the WhatsApp messages to fabricate evidence in support of my false case.”
Ramani was shown the printout of the screenshot of the WhatsApp conversation. Luthra said, “I’m suggesting to you that your screenshot of the WhatsApp messages…is edited and the bottom of the screenshot is cropped otherwise the textbox would have been visible at the bottom.”
Ramani denied the suggestion. Luthra asked for the original screenshot and Ramani checked her phone. She gave her phone to AMM Pahuja who said the screenshot had the textbox at the bottom.
Luthra said, “In view of the fact that the text box has not been shown by you in the evidence given to the court, you have filed only a cropped version of the screenshot.” Ramani agreed and said the textbox had been cropped. She said she had not “tampered” with the screenshot and that it was wrong to suggest she had “given a false certificate under Section 65B Evidence Act to support my defense”.
After a few questions on the screenshot, Ramani said she had reactivated her Twitter account on October 24, 2019, to “check for a clarification”. She responded that it was wrong to suggest according to Twitter’s terms and conditions, a deactivated account cannot be reactivated if 30 days have passed.
Ramani continued, “It is wrong to suggest that I could not file corrigendum because I never issued any clarification. It is wrong to suggest that details of the alleged events described by me are figments of my imagination and are a work of fiction. It is wrong to suggest that I had made allegations against the complainant for oblique motive and not to empower women.”
Ramani said it was incorrect that her conduct as a journalist has been “unethical and irresponsible” since she hadn’t “identified sources nor attributed credits”. She said, “It is wrong to suggest that what I have done by publishing the tweets is false, vindictive and malicious. It is wrong to suggest that it has harmed the reputation of the complainant. It is wrong to suggest that my tweets and publication has nothing to do with ‘doing the right thing’.”
Ramani’s cross-examination concluded with her saying, “It is wrong to suggest that I have deposed falsely.”
The court will hear the case again on December 10.