NEW DELHI—It didn’t take long for the first defamation suit to land.
On Monday, MJ Akbar, the former editor who is now India’s minister of state for external affairs, sued journalist Priya Ramani, the first woman to publicly accuse him of sexually harassing her.
On the same day, actor Alok Nath filed a defamation suit against producer-director Vinta Nanda, who said last week that he had raped her decades ago.
Over the past two weeks, Indian women have been speaking out against men who have sexually harassed or assaulted them in the workplace and outside. The unprecedented outpouring of anger and solidarity, dubbed by many as India’s #MeToo moment, has taken many forms, the most prominent being naming and shaming the perpetrator on social media.
During this time, a small group of people—mostly journalists and lawyers—had been curating publicly accessible lists with contact details of lawyers who were offering their services pro bono, mostly to survivors who wanted to sue their harassers.
INB India reached out to some lawyers on one of the lists—which, though not fully verified for accuracy by those compiling it, continues to serve as a public database of sorts—to understand why they decided to participate in the movement and where they see it going, now that defamation suits are likely to stack up.
Lawyer Rutuja Shinde, based in Mumbai, has been actively working to help survivors of sexual harassment and is one of the people involved in curating the list mentioned earlier.
“What inspired me to help the survivors was that this movement needs to be taken from the computer screens to the courts and that requires legal assistance. Financial costs incurred for getting this legal assistance further burdens the survivors who’ve gone through enough trauma already. I wanted to make legal resources more accessible to them so that they are more aware and do not feel remedy-less,” Shinde told INB India.
Shinde, who graduated from the National Law University in Jodhpur in 2016, has been working with a Mumbai-based counsel since January 2017. She also practises independently and has worked on cases specific to workplace harassment earlier.
Since she became actively involved in the current movement, the young lawyer says that about 40-45 women have approached her through multiple channels: social media, email and “word of mouth”. With her guidance, she says, “some of them have filed complaints with the ICC/police. Some have approached me wanting help in defending themselves in defamation suits”.
ICC stands for Internal Complaints Committee, which is compulsory in all workplaces under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The ICCs in many media organisations are currently investigating the sexual harassment allegations raised against their journalists.
“I think all women have experienced harassment at some point in time. There is poor representation of women in law also. Creating a safe working environment for them is a necessity and this realisation made me take this up,” added Shinde.
Another Mumbai-based lawyer whose name was recently added to the list is Lakshmi Raman. Raman, who has been a lawyer for five years, mainly works on cases related to sexual abuse of children. Currently working with a senior advocate who practises in the High Court as well as the Supreme Court, Raman also takes up cases independently. At the time of speaking to INB India, she had not received any request for help from a survivor.
Raman said she hopes that women would use the list of lawyers instead of first resorting to social media and being slapped with defamation cases.
“Apart from encouraging women to come out and talk about their experiences, it is more important that they (women) use the right outlet to express themselves after obtaining proper legal guidance as to how to go about the entire process. A lot of women are approaching social media and thereafter not proceeding with the legal recourse, which defeats the entire purpose as it results in a ‘he said, she said’ and things being taken out of context.”
The Symbiosis Law School graduate, however, had a word of caution about the potential for “media trial” by vested interests who may not care about tarnishing the movement for their own agenda.
“I am hopeful that women approach us lawyers and recount their experience so that we can advise them as to whether a certain line spoken or gesture made constitutes an offence under the law rather than resorting to media trial, which just waters down the entire movement,” she said.
Harshad Pathak, a Delhi-based commercial lawyer, is not on any social media lists, but has communicated his willingness through lawyers’ groups to help survivors pro bono.
“The social utility of the #MeToo movement, the courage shown by women to revisit their traumatic experiences for a greater good, and the opportunity to contribute to the gradual dismantling of patriarchal structures were sufficient reasons for me to offer my limited services on a pro-bono basis. Even though this is not my area of expertise, the possibility of even one person benefiting from my assistance makes the commitment worthwhile.”
Pathak also said that since commercial law “does not have any social significance”, he rarely got a chance to use his learning for a common good.
“Moments like these provide an opportunity to make some amends,” he said.
Accused Someone Of Sexual Harassment? Lawyer Rutuja Shinde Tells You How To Proceed If You Have…
1) Named someone from, say, 10-20 years ago, before social media existed
Gather as much evidence as possible (correspondence/eye witness accounts etc) to make sure it adds credibility to the statements.
2) Named an organisation where the person works/worked
Get in touch with the HR of the organisation in order for them to conduct an internal inquiry
3) Named someone on behalf of someone else, keeping the primary accuser anonymous
If someone is acting as a body blocker, then he/she must do due diligence to ascertain the truth before posting accounts on social media.
4) Named someone but not lodged an official complaint against him
Lodging an official complaint is purely the choice of the survivor. However, the person who is named has the option of suing for defamation