Knight in Shining Armor: The Delhi High Court Decisions for Disha Ravi and Priya Ramani


As the United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo cogently puts it,

The great ideals of liberty and equality are preserved against the assaults of opportunism, the expediency of the passing hour, the erosion of small encroachments, the scorn and derision of those who have no patience with general principles, by enshrining them in constitutions and consecrating to the task of their protection a body of defenders.

The Indian Judiciary, through a recent judgment and a bail order, has acted upon its role of defending the revered rights of the citizens in a noteworthy manner. One is the Rouse Avenue District Court’s acquittal of Priya Ramani in the defamation suit filed by MJ Akbar and the other is a Delhi Court’s order granting bail to climate activist Disha Ravi in the ‘toolkit’ case.

Disha Ravi, who was arrested by the Delhi Police on February 13th, 2021 under the charges of sedition and being part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to defame India for editing a publicly available Google document, was granted bail 10 days later by Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana. As has been the modus operandi of the police, complete indifference was shown to the formal procedures, established under the Indian Criminal Procedure Code and D.K. Basu Guidelines, while arresting her from her Bengaluru residence. Neither was the local police informed, as confirmed by the Bengaluru police officials nor was she allowed to consult her counsel before being taken to Delhi.

On 23rd February 2021, Justice Rana examined the issue of whether Ravi was simply a part of a peaceful protest dissenting against the farm laws or was involved in seditious activities through links with pro-Khalistani organizations under the pretext of the protest. The court relied on the landmark judgment of Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar (AIR 1962 SC 955) to reiterate that sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code has been limited to only those cases with “acts involving tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” But the court couldn’t find any direct link of evidence between the accused and the violence on 26th January. Also, the court noted that any call for any kind of violence in the toolkit is “conspicuously absent”.

Judge Rana solidified a 22-year-old’s faith in truth and justice by stating that,

“Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognized legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.”

The sedition law has been used time and again to stifle dissent, which is a part of an Indian’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. If the youth of the nation also conforms to the conservative notions of the society, how are new avenues to be discovered? In the words of Justice Deepak Gupta:

“If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created, no new explorations will be done and no new vistas will be found. If a person does not ask questions and does not raise issues questioning age-old systems, no new systems would develop and the horizons of the mind will not expand.”

The argument put forth by John Stuart Mill for pleading that a society should not only accept, but encourage dissenting opinions, was that it leads to the ultimate truth. He reasoned that since nobody is infallible there is a possibility that the mainstream opinion is not true. Even if it is true, those who hold the opinion do not feel the rational grounds of the opinion if it is not frequently challenged. Therefore, it is only through an open and inclusive space for discussion that an attempt can be made to reach the truth.

Justice Dharmender Rana, by quoting Rig Veda, drew on India’s cultural ethos and gave a push to the youth’s vigor to engage in meaningful deliberations, “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions.”

The feminist legal scholar Lucinda Finley argues that “The starting point of feminist work must be found in women’s experiences and not legal definitions.” This task, however, is not very easy. The experiences of women cannot be confined to a single prototype. Their lifestyles and perspectives are many and each one of them deserves accommodation in the domain of law.

This was exactly how Justice Ravinder Pandey, in the case of MJ Akbar v. Priya Ramani, closely made note of the circumstances a woman who has been sexually abused has to face. He highlighted that:

“The victims of the sexual abuse not even speak a word about the abuse for many years because sometimes she herself has no idea that she is a victim of abuse. The victim may keep believing that she is at fault and the victim may live with that shame for years or for decades.”

Various studies have shown that victims of sexual abuse have a higher propensity to suffer from psychological illnesses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The American Psychiatric Association also states that “To prevent the distressing reactions, survivors will avoid stimuli that provoke these feelings and this avoidance behavior can be severe enough to significantly impair daily life.”

In light of these studies, the Delhi Court’s judgment strikes the right chord by reiterating that victims of sexual abuse can raise their grievances even after decades and through any platform. The fundamental right of life and dignity is placed on a higher pedestal than the right of the reputation of an individual.

These two decisions assume significance as they come at a time a previous Chief Justice of India has just been acquitted of sexual harassment charges and when comedians and directors are being hauled up for hurting religious sentiments every now and then. The Kautilya Law of Fishes, where the strong fish devours the weak is not alien to modern society, except that it is not happening in the absence of state but with its complete support. These decisions provide a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak world.

Samayra Adlakha is a first-year B.A., LL.B student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India.