After a long and bruising legal battle - both civil and criminal - across several states, Maheshwar Peri's dogged persistence and staying power has led a big victory for freedom of the press and will protect students who have long been misled by IIPM's advertisements in every publication. In the course of the battle, IIPM closed its many campuses and chose to withdraw all cases against Peri, when the matter reached the Supreme Court
It is a big victory, not merely for Maheshwar Peri, but for all the students and parents who were lured by the fake claims of Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) and its poly-tailed, self-proclaimed economic guru Arindam Chaudhuri. IIPM’s strategy was to gag the media — sweeten large newspapers with advertisements and viciously target smaller publications with court cases filed all over India. But Maheshwar Peri, chairman and chief executive of Careers360, decided to take on Chaudhuri and IIPM and fight each of the cases filed against his publication. After IIPM lost a couple of important battles, he sought a transfer of all the cases to the Supreme Court; that is when IIPM capitulated and withdrew all the cases on 22 January 2016.
But even before that, a hard hitting order by the Delhi High Court had forced IIPM to shut down many of its campuses and to stop making false claims. People may recall how Arindam Chaudhuri, a big advertiser in the mainline media, puffed himself up with claims to be an economist, best-selling author (Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch), film maker (delivered a flop). He also set up events and seminars, which saw Bollywood stars (Shah Rukh Khan), top bureaucrats and politicians in attendance, enhancing his credibility and luring students to enrol for his management courses. This also allowed him to get away with the most audacious claims and actions - at one time he claimed to be setting up a campus at Boston near Harvard, to give the Ivy League university a run. He also tried to create a fake equivalence by claiming to be better than the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).
And yet, IIPM was never even recognised by either All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) or by University Grants Commission (UGC).
This carried on for decades while the mainstream media chose to remain silent because of his generous advertisements. It finally took one man's willingness to brave 50 court hearings, bear the eight figure costs and intimidation to bring down the dubious empire.
Chaudhuri and IIPM have been penalised and criticised several times by the High Courts. In September 2014, the Delhi High Court, while slapping a cost of Rs25,000 on IIPM for misleading students, restrained IIPM from publishing advertisements as a management and business institute. While IIPM and Chaudhuri had filed or fought cases till the High Court level, they surprisingly never ever challenged any order passed at this level before apex court.
The Delhi HC order says, “In our opinion, the aforesaid is clearly a maze created by the respondent No.4 (IIPM) to entrap students to enlist with it in the hope of acquiring a qualification which the respondent No.4 (IIPM) is not entitled to confer and thereby enriching the respondent No.4 (IIPM) to a considerable extent as is evident from the huge expenditure earlier as well as now being incurred by the respondent No.4 (IIPM) in publicity in print and electronic media.”
"There were two more cased pending in Guwahati. When me moved to the apex court, armed with these wins (in HCs), they probably decided not to challenge as the verdict may be adverse than the HC decision and withdrew the cases," Peri says.
While asking Chaudhuri to prominently display on IIPM website that they are not recognised by any statutory body or authority to offer courses, the Delhi HC Bench said, "IIPM and its management or officials including its dean Arindam Chaudhuri are restrained with immediate effect from using the word 'MBA, BBA, management course, management school, business school or B-school' in relation to the courses or programmes being conducted by them or in relation to the representations if any made to the public".
In the order issued on 22 January 2016, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices Jagdish Singh Khehar and C Nagappan, said, "Learned counsel for respondent nos. 1 and 2 (IIPM & Others) states, that he has been in instructed to inform this Court, that respondent nos. 1 and 2 have decided to withdraw the proceedings, which are subject matter of transfer in the present petitions. The statement made by Mr Arunabh Chowdhury, Advocate is taken on record. In view of the above, the instant transfer petitions do not survive, and these are accordingly disposed of."
Arindam Chaudhuri-led IIPM had filed multiple civil and criminal defamation cases against Pathfinder Publishing Pvt Ltd, the publisher of Careers360 and Maheshwer Peri, across different places. "I lost count of the number of cases I defended myself against. At one point, there were 14 matters that I was seized of at different levels, in different courts on different counts," Peri says.
He is reportedly have made appearance in over 50 court hearings. He says, "When we did carry the series of three articles in 2009, we never imagined the assault would be so severe. There was a case in Delhi where I along with the promoter of Outlook (his family including wife and children) were dragged in. Later the Delhi High Court struck off the names of the (Outlook) promoter and his family members. There was a case in Gurgaon where me along with my mentor (Rajesh Jain) were dragged in a criminal case. This case was challenged in the Punjab & Haryana High Court, which quashed it in September 2015."
"Then there was a case in Uttarakhand where I, my editor and my wife (in her capacity as director) had bailable warrant issued against us for non-appearance. This is on a case where we never received any summons. My dear wife courageously told me that she was ok being jailed as long as she has me for company in her cell. The Uttarakhand High Court quashed this case famously saying 'The common expression in a Court room is 'Satyamev Jayate'- Truth shall triumph. Truth is also the best defence in a case of defamation. A truth spoken for public good can never be called defamatory'," he added.
Peri was also slapped with Rs100 crore defamation case by IIPM. He says, "This was a case in Kamrup (Assam), a civil defamation case worth Rs100 crore, which made one probable investor back-out of investing in Careers360 even without understanding the nature of the case. There was a contempt petition too in the same court."
In the meantime, according to Peri, Arindam Chaudhuri carried a cover story in his magazine titled 'B-School scamsters exposed", which charged Careers360 of demanding money to give ranks to B-Schools. "This cover story made multiple charges against me, my integrity and character. It called 'Careers360' a yellow journal. When I think of each of them, my blood boils. It was meant to harass us, bully us and make us submit to their whims. The article insulted us, humiliated us and meant to destroy Careers360."
"It had a chilling effect on every other journalist in the country. Newspapers like Indian Express fell silent after trying to take it up. Even at Outlook, one incapable administration in-charge tried to get into a 'settlement' behind my back. It all fell apart because I refused to concede my rights as Publisher of Careers360. But for a supportive boss at Outlook, friends, understanding Angels and a great mentor, Careers360 would not have survived the onslaught. It was a battle between David and Goliath. It was just that I was a determined David," Peri says.
According to Peri, for some time during that period, IIPM was looking out for a settlement. He sent a message to Arindam Chaudhuri. The message reads, "Arindam, Please do what is good for you. Don't do favours as I never sought them. That will help you take the right decision. I have fought your cases for 6 years and will continue to do so. I never seek favours nor am I silent when I am needed to speak up. That is my DNA. For me, this battle is long over. I am only defending myself against your false accusations. I have much work to do and you are nowhere on my radar. The battle with you is long over. If you have learnt anything in the past 5 years, I am the happiest."
Peri says he was clear about one thing that he will defend himself as long as the cases would go on. "The only way out was for all cases against me to be withdrawn unconditionally. The battle started in courts and must end in courts but not in board rooms," he added.
In December 2015, Peri along with Pathfinder Publishing filed a case in the Supreme Court accusing IIPM for abuse of judicial process and also requested transfer of all cases in the North-East before the apex court. They contended that all the parties are located in Delhi and the subject matter of the cases in Assam has been adjudicated in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Chandigarh, so it should be heard together before the SC.
He said, "It seems that IIPM and its promoter have become wise. They realised that the fight will lead to another adverse order, another loss. And an order from the Supreme Court can be crippling. Remember what happened to Sahara? So, on 22 January 2016, on the day of the hearing, they decided to withdraw all cases against me that were pending in Kamrup and by extension, in Guwahati High Court. I was also informed that they also withdrew all cases against Outlook pending in various Delhi courts".
"...after six years of exhausting battle and legal costs that ran into eight figures, closes all my battles with IIPM. Lawyers are advising me to charge them with malicious litigation. I neither have love nor hate. I am immune to any negative feelings. I am cold. It is over. And this is my last word on IIPM, for I have loads if work to do before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep," Peri concluded the note on his Facebook page
Earlier in May 2014, the UGC issued a circular informing public at large and students that IIPM was not a recognised university and cannot award MBA/BBA degrees. "As per Section 22 of the UGC Act, 1956, the IIPM does not have the right to conferring or granting degrees as specified by the UGC under Section 22 (3). It is further clarified for information that IIPM is neither entitled to award MBA/ BBA. BCA degree nor it is recognised by UGC," the Commission said in an advertisement dated 18 May 2014.