By Manik Sharma Feb. 17, 2021
After a two-year fight, a Delhi court today acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the defamation case filed by former Union minister MJ Akbar, whom she accused of sexual harassment. The win belongs as much to Ramani as to her incredible lawyer Rebecca John and the hundreds of women she has, by virtue, represented the dignity of.
Back in 2018, when the MeToo storm hit Indian shores, one of the more high-profile names to attract unwanted but deserved attention was then Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar. Though Akbar resigned from his post after several women came forward and echoed experiences that senior journalist Priya Ramani had put out in the public domain, he also decided to retaliate. Defamation cases in India are usually a signal of guilt as much as they are of clout. It is this very clout that guides, but more often misguides the conduct of most men in power. Nothing shouts entitlement like the ability to corrupt and manipulate the very systems that are designed to check it. It made Akbar’s defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani, all the more discouraging and potentially detrimental to even take up. Not for Rebecca John though.
After a two-year wait, the courts today acquitted Priya Ramani from charges of defamation. In doing so it upheld the tender yet unyielding faith in the judiciary, especially of women who have come to doubt it in recent times. “Right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity”, the court said in its verdict, in what can only be described as a biting criticism of the stance Akbar’s lawsuit had taken. But as much as John’s, this fight has also belonged to Ramani and the hundreds of women the lawyer has, by virtue, represented the dignity of. It takes a village to get justice in this country, it can be done if you have fighters like Ramani and a guiding light like John, to hold your hand.
In a lecture to students of NSLIU, Bangalore from 2017 John says, “There are laws and laws and more laws in India, but nobody follows them, least of the judiciary”. It’s a scathing yet introspective indictment of the landscape that John makes her living off. This contemplative inward-looking gaze has in today’s day and age become rare to the point of being regarded as heroic, or worse, anti-national. India’s institutions do not comply with moral audits nor do the powers that drive them respond to scrutiny. In such a climate, people like John come across as made from a different fibre altogether. “Criminal lawyers are the last defence of civil liberties,” John says in the same lecture. Her statement exposes the direness of a justice system that is more than happy to let the state, instead of the individual, dictate, our moral ambivalence.
John has been practicing criminal law for more than three decades now and has often argued against the powers that be. Alongside Vrinda Grover, she fought on behalf of the victims of one of Independent India’s biggest state-orchestrated communal mass murders in the Hashimpura Massacre (1987). From representing activist and Marxist thinker Kobad Ghandy to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, John has often stood for the oppressed, especially in circumstances where their argumentative position has been compromised by the state’s machinery. More than her work on the floor of India’s court, however, John is also one of those rare people who consistently points to the many flaws of the justice system. “One of the least scrutinised bodies in this country is the judiciary,” John said at a small gathering in 2015. In her lecture in Bangalore, the senior lawyer pulled no punches when she said most judges, most benches in the country are populated by inadequate, untrained men who might not even completely understand the laws, the essence of the laws they play with. “This country does not reward excellence,” she confirmed, with a sense of finality.
Lawyers are not the heroes we know or celebrate enough, but they are the ones we need.
Though John has handled some high-profile cases over the years, none have perhaps matched the popularity and dubiousness of the Aarushi Talwar murder case. Caught between the media circus and public hysteria that favoured the more scandalous possibilities of the litigation, the lawyer argued against the might of the CBI that would eventually be left red-faced after the Talwars were acquitted. Speaking after the verdict, John, though relieved, could not help but point to the investigative agency’s patchy record of forging cases. “It happens in our criminal justice system,” she said, “often witnesses are planted”. The senior lawyer has not only been critical of institutional corruption but also of the gullibility and opportunism of independently owned media. In an interview with the media watcher The Hoot she said, “When it comes to reporting cases that are pending investigation, excessive media coverage can seriously prejudice the rights of the accused and sometimes, even the rights of the victims, and can lead to miscarriage of justice.” The same was probably true in the case of the Talwar family whose guilt was declared long before it could be evaluated.
Lawyers are often represented in cinema as whimsical jesters, more poetic than they may turn out to be purposeful. But rarely is reality so rewarding or celebratory of those who stand against the tide, against popular narratives, against hate, against bullying, against the onslaught of new memories. Reality instead, is devoid of both the drama of wit and the adulation of justice. It is filled with people, who do unrecognisable yet wildly significant things. It is filled with unremarkable faces, who lead remarkably significant lives. We may not recognise them if they pass before us on the street, but in their own ways they have spent lives making them very streets walkable, liveable, and memorable. They are not the heroes we know or celebrate enough, but they are the ones we need. And they are heroes for the precise reason that they don’t act or pretend to be one.
Rebecca John, thank you for fighting the good fight.