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Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
How the powerful threaten our basic freedom
It is the Polyester Prince story all over again. In the 1990s, Reliance Industries used the courts to bully a meek publisher and stopped the India release of a book that dissected Dhirubhai Ambani’s path to fabulous riches. In the days before social media or online book distribution options, the stay by a lower court was enough to stop it from getting into shop shelves. Nearly 15 years later, Indian industrialists, especially those in politics or with great political clout, are using the same bullying tactics.
In January, Praful Patel, the powerful minister from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) pressured Bloomsbury India to withdraw The Descent of Air India—a tell-all book that exposed how India’s national airline was systematically looted and pushed into the red. Naturally, Mr Patel’s stellar role, as aviation minister, in giving a huge push to the airline’s collapse through venal senior management and reckless purchase of aircrafts is described in detail. When Mr Patel filed a case with the metropolitan magistrate in Mumbai, the author Jitendra Bhargava (for decades, the public face of Air India) decided to fight back, while the publisher, Bloomsbury, chose to issue a public apology and destroy the remaining stock of the book. Mr Bhargava says on his facebook page that this was a unilateral decision without any discussion with him; he has also told the judge that he can substantiate everything he has said in the book. Mr Bhargava will soon self-publish it as an e-book.
In the very same week, the Sahara parivar decided to take the Ambani route. It filed a Rs200-crore defamation suit against journalist Tamal Bandopadhyay for a book that has not even been published and managed to obtain an interim stay against its publication from a Kolkata court. While Sahara claims that the book is defamatory, it has been the subject of innumerable adverse news reports ever since August 2012 when a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court (SC) ordered it to refund a whopping Rs24,000 crore raised through two group companies. In the subsequent months, the group patriarch, Subrata Roy, has been restrained by the SC from going abroad. The group has been rebuked by the apex court for trying to ‘fool’ it and has a contempt petition filed against it by SEBI for calling the market regulator a ‘sarkari gunda’. It will be interesting to see whether Jaico, the publisher of Sahara: The Untold Story also caves in or fights back.
Meanwhile, both Bloomsbury and Jaico would do well to look at what happened with The Polyester Prince. While the publisher chickened out of a fight, photocopies of the book were in great demand and author, Hamish MacDonald, grew in stature. A decade latter, when Anil and Mukesh went to war over the division of the family business, the dirty reputation that they washed in public began to make the revelations in Mr MacDonald’s book seem mild by comparison. More interestingly, Dhirubhai Ambani’s story, warts and all, became a popular Bollywood movie with the blessings of his son. Hopefully, the judiciary will take this into account while deciding on how much credence they should give to the claims of controversial corporates and politicians who want to use their financial muscle to gag whistleblowers and publishers.