By Manik Sharma Feb. 18, 2021
Journalist Priya Ramani’s acquittal must be celebrated for what it prevented, as dire as that might sound, and not for what it might change. MJ Akbar should have known he had already lost in public memory, what he assumed he could win by squeezing it out of a court. It’s a lesson, perhaps other men can take that no parade of power beats the quiet grace of introspection.
It’s been a whirlwind week for the Indian judiciary. In quashing MJ Akbar’s defamation case against the journalist Priya Ramani, it handed women who spoke up during the MeToo movement, a legible reason to feel vindicated. But in ludicrous accusations of defamation by men who consider it as an exhibition of power, it continues to, at a considerable cost of time and money, indulge its own flaws. The fact that we will celebrate Ramani’s right to not be criminalised for speaking up about her victimhood is a sign of the way justice remains, not only elusive, but twined with the will and exploitative whims of the powerful. Ramani’s acquittal must be celebrated for what it prevented, as dire as that might sound, and not for what it might change. Akbar should have known he had already lost in public memory, what he assumed he could win by squeezing it out of a court. It’s a lesson, perhaps other men can take that no parade of power beats the quiet grace of introspection.
Celebrating the avoidance of defeat is a characteristic of the underdog. Maybe that is who most women are. Though they are constitutionally guaranteed equality, the world works in ways that stacks odds against those who have to choose between either living as the unknown victim or being remembered as the casualty of someone’s act of power. Ramani, and the many women who stood by her, chose the latter. Not even out of a sense of “getting” justice, as much as a sense of a long-due release.
It’s easier for men to think of power as a function merely of aspiration, and not resistance. Rarely are we set as many obstacles that define our social, political, or professional progress in the world. Rarely are we required to defend who we are, the way we are. It sounds like a pool of entitlement, because it is. It blurs your vision about what separates diving from drowning. Men make a sport of both, because their social elasticity allows them to come up unscathed in either.
Men can often take for granted the powers that embolden their reputations. Precisely the reason why, Akbar believed his reputation was as unimpeachable as his journalistic work. The two are neither the same thing nor should be looked at with the same lens of reasonability. No amount of reputation underlined by glitter and gold can undo the damage to someone’s dignity. Reputation is a public good, and to the public it must always belong. Dignity on the other hand is personal, a fragile make-believe story about love and respect we tell ourselves to get by in an otherwise unforgiving world. Women in this country are expected to earn the first and fight for the latter. Men, on other hand, are naturally endowed with reputations that they can only be expected to lose. It’s no surprise then that our justice system has men flaunting their defamation suits as much as women have to hide theirs against rape or abuse.
Celebrating the avoidance of defeat is a characteristic of the underdog.
No defeat in history ever became a lesson if it wasn’t accepted. As much as we have versions of right or wrong, we have versions of justice and injustice as well. Enough conspiracies will be floated and doubt created to reject this strongly worded ruling of the courts. As often as men like to celebrate their victories over women – conning them, manipulating them etc – in groups, their realisations they take to the cold corners of rooms where anger and denial like to build a home. No two men ever perhaps, educate the other on the moral lesson of a story because it is always more masculine to defy it than to internalise its learnings. Echo chambers are just places vacated by men who would rather be part of male choirs that fetishise guilt.
Women might celebrate this judgment as a form of victory and they should, but expect men to be unbothered, unfettered by this latest lesson in social justice. If punishment were a lesson, we’ve already disciplined (in some cases eliminated) enough men to teach the others a lesson or two. Pain, however, can’t teach you anything until it is coupled with shame.
It’s a hard argument to make that such a judgment will pave the way for change. There is no dearth of lessons per se. But the gargantuan lack of sensitivity and introspection on this side of the gender divide may reduce this verdict to an echo of weakness. That it was the one that got away and that normal service should resume soon. I for one hope that isn’t the case.
It’s perhaps up to flawed men like me to look in the mirror and show it to others too. But too often that mirror is abandoned, forsaken in favour of what the ignorance might bring. Unlike women who must live with the trauma, the rewards for that misplaced idea of self-worship and self-worth are for the most part, hallucinatory. Only institutions, at the moment, can prevent it from becoming real. Let’s hope we can too.