Opinion | The battle may have been won, but the war must continue3 min read . Updated: 18 Oct 2018, 09:20 AM IST
We need this solidarity to continue even where the complainants lack social, caste and class capital
As soon as he stepped on Indian soil two days ago, the minister of state for foreign affairs was fending off reporters seeking his response to several allegations of having sexually harassed young women journalists at the workplace while he was a newspaper editor. The minister was all out to defend himself, releasing a statement that was worded rather clumsily for someone who was clearly taking legal advice at the time, for the very next day, the minister filed a defamation case against one of the journalists who had written about his conduct (without naming him) almost exactly a year ago. The minister was in no mood to resign and was all up for a fight, and it looked rather David and Goliath-like.
When they tell the story of The Minister who Lost his Nerve, not enough credit will go to a rather bland piece of judicial formality. The minister is represented by a large firm called Karanjawala and Co., which like many other firms, includes the names of all enrolled advocates on the vakalatnama, or power of attorney authorizing their appearance.This allows the firm to send any available advocate for the case without worrying about whether they had been authorized. A total of 97 lawyers were listed, and all hell broke loose, particularly by people who have no idea how filing appearances in the high court works. Be that as it may, it seemed to be just the push needed to turn the tide, and 20 former staff members of the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle, all women, offered to stand as witnesses to the minister’s prior conduct.
Here’s the thing about defamation cases. It’s one thing to file them, but the moment of truth comes when you stand there, in the witness box. You have to establish, with the guidance of open-ended questions from your lawyer, that you were capable of being defamed by virtue of having fame, via your career and your laurels. This is followed by a cross examination on basically any subject under the sun towards destroying your good name. And then, all these brave women will be called to depose against the minister’s contention that he was of “good character". They will be exempt from questions regarding their own character, as they are making no claims to be of “good character" themselves. And besides, the truth is always a defence to defamation. A defamation suit is like CPR to an allegation of sexual harassment that may be time barred. Why, the accused’s even paid the court fees.
It is an important act of solidarity that these many women came out to see the battle to the end, and did not shy away from the courts of law. In a way, M.J. Akbar’s status as a minister was perhaps his greatest undoing, and his poor attempts at mounting an elaborate and expensive defence was seen as the tyranny of a government already seen to be poor on addressing violence against women. We need this solidarity to continue even where complainants lack social, caste and class capital, or where the accused enjoy the protection of feminist peers and maybe their predatory behaviour wasn’t such an “open secret" because it didn’t happen to “women like us". It’s unfortunate we haven’t learned lessons from the December 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case. Let’s not get caught up in gloating over justice being served in extreme cases of depravity when there’s so much to be done to ensure no one is left out in the cold during the heat wave of #MeToo.
Amba Salelkar is an advocate and fellow at the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy in Chennai