As journalist Priya Ramani was acquitted in a defamation case filed by MJ Akbar, whom she had accused on social media of sexual harassment, Twitter handle @penpencildraw put it succinctly: “In landmark judgment Indian court does not punish sexual harassment survivor”.
The court emphasised that the right to reputation could not be protected at the cost of a woman’s right to life and dignity, and that she had a right to put her grievance on “any platform of her choice” and “even after decades”.
The law on sexual harassment in the workplace has clearly defined time limits for complaints. They have to be filed within three months after the last incident, although the sexual harassment committee has the leeway to make a special provision and extend this, says lawyer Sunieta Ojha. The widespread fear that this judgment will allow stale claims to be raked up is baseless, she says. The CrPC also lets courts extend the statute of limitations in the interests of justice. Sexual harassment also comes under the IPC, where there is no statute of limitations, so a case can technically be brought at any point. However, this has a dim chance of success given the difficulty of providing evidence in these cases, she says.
Time-barring complaints of sexual crimes can deter justice. “In many rape or Pocso cases, our concern is to get the complaint in soon, because there is a golden hour of evidence, and the trail can go cold after a long period. But to get to the trial takes such a long time that this can happen anyway,” says lawyer Karuna Nundy. What’s more, it is classic to complain late in such cases, she says.
“Our courts need to catch up with the idea that when people are harassed, it frequently takes them time to gather their cognitive, emotional and social resources,” she says In this case though, Ramani did not seek to prosecute Akbar for sexual harassment. She spoke her truth on social media, along with a cascade of testimony from other women during the #MeToo movement. It was Akbar who sued her for defamation, and “the effect was to chill the voices of the women speaking about their experience, to show how sexual harassment was rampant in every field,” says Ojha. Remember, the event described by Ramani took place at a time when there were no Vishakha guidelines on protection against sexual harassment. The law was created 17 years later, in 2013. She could not have sought remedy even if she wanted to.
Women are often compelled to stay quiet about sexual harassment as they fear retaliation, losing their jobs or other forms of harassment, says lawyer Vrinda Grover. The judgment signals that this issue can’t be approached in a straitjacketed manner of rules and technicalities. It focuses on “whether the system provided the occasion to speak, or not,” she says.
It does not further silence women or say they cannot speak out in the public sphere about sexual harassment, just because time has elapsed, says feminist activist Kavita Krishnan. “It will assure women that if they speak up, the accused is less likely to use defamation as a weapon to silence, now that there is a precedent,” she says.
Despite the media attention and support that Ramani got, Krishnan is not overly optimistic. Social media attention is fickle, cases of sexual misconduct continue to fall through, she says. It takes sustained feminist mobilisation and legal intervention, grassroots activism, for things to change.