The exoneration on February 17 of columnist Priya Ramani by a Delhi sessions court in a criminal defamation case filed against her by once much-celebrated author and hitherto cabinet minister in the BJP/NDA government at the Centre, has further damaged the already tattered reputation of M.J. Akbar, who over four decades had built a reputation for trenchant political and socio-economic insights and felicity with the English language. At the height of the women’s global Me Too movement (2018), several women journalists went public and accused Akbar of sexual harassment. One among them was Priya Ramani, who writes a weekly column for the business daily Mint.
Instead of offering the defence that the dangerous liaisons he had perhaps initiated were consensual, Akbar — who in his long career had acquired quite a reputation as a Don Juan of the newsroom — ill-advisedly went into denial mode. Worse, he filed a criminal defamation case under s.500 of the archaic Indian Penal Code, 1860, against Ramani for loss of “stellar reputation”. A big mistake because Akbar’s stellar reputation was as a man of letters, not for personal propriety. Also a big mistake because it’s widely accepted that the laws of criminal defamation are obsolete and abolished worldwide. Therefore, judges are reluctant to jail accused in defamation cases, especially women. If at all, he should have filed a civil action for damages. Even so he would most likely have been awarded contemptuous damages, i.e, the lowest coin of the realm.
Moral of the story: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or become legally trigger happy.