A freedom under threat

A freedom under threat
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First Published: Wed, Jul 06 2011. 09 57 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Jul 06 2011. 09 57 PM IST
If you visit the website of the Indian Institute for Planning and Management (IIPM), you will find that its head office is located in Saket in south Delhi. In the same city, a few miles to its north is the office of Caravan magazine. In April this year, the New York-based author Siddhartha Deb wrote a profile of IIPM’s director, Arindam Chaudhuri, called “The Sweet Smell of Success”.
The article dissected the Chaudhuri phenomenon, and was based on interviews Deb had with Chaudhuri, his associates, students, and other detailed research. It presented the portrait of the man whose website describes him as a management guru, a transformational leader, and a new age Renaissance Man. Deb’s piece showed how Chaudhuri was marketing a specific dream, and how he fulfilled certain needs of young Indians keen to participate in the drama of globalization.
Chaudhuri didn’t like the odour the piece emitted. The IIPM said the article had caused grave harassment and injury, and sued the writer, the magazine, and among others, Google, for defamation. (I’m not sure why Yahoo! and Bing, other competing search engines, were spared). Chaudhuri does not seem to like criticism much. In the past, the IIPM has threatened a youth magazine with a lawsuit, and in 2005, when an IBM marketing executive criticized the organisation on his personal blog, the IIPM approached IBM, complaining about the employee’s writing, and threatened to cancel orders for laptops.
The IIPM’s suit claims damages of Rs50 crore. It is not filed in a court in Delhi, where both the IIPM and Caravan operate, but in Silchar, in Assam, which is about 2,200km from Delhi. The case may ultimately move to Delhi, if Caravan succeeds in arguing that Silchar is an inconvenient forum. But it would have to devote significant time and resources to the case.
Caravan intends to defend the suit vigorously and that is important because freedom of speech in India is vulnerable to many pressures, lawsuits being one of them. Some journalists are threatened physically. A few have lost lives. Some publications don’t pursue investigative stories against businesses because of pressures of advertising. A few don’t do so because they may have private treaty arrangements with some companies, which means they publish only positive stories about such companies. And publications, which do take their job seriously, have to factor in lawsuits.
So long as defamation laws exist in India, litigants like Chaudhuri have the right to sue, but by picking a court in an inconvenient location, and claiming huge damages, the intent is to stifle future criticism. Take me on, I will sue you somewhere far, and claim heavy damages. In a highly competitive environment of thin margins and dwindling advertising, editors have to consider whether a particularly troublesome story is worth taking on, especially if the target is likely to sue. To that, add the charming location, Silchar. Then do the math.
American legal scholars have a term for such litigation: a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP. Such suits may be without merit, but are intended to intimidate and silence someone from speaking freely, by placing a huge financial burden on the individual. Making the loser pay costs for both parties (as is the norm in Britain) can restrain frivolous litigation, but doesn’t prevent lawsuits from litigants with deep pockets, as has happened in Britain, where among the most frequent users of its libel courts are celebrities and business tycoons.
India has another dimension—criminal implications. Last month the poet Meena Kandasamy discovered that a judicial magistrate court issued her summons under sections 153, 153(A), and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, which punish provocative acts which intend to cause riot, or promote enmity between different groups, or ill will betweenclasses. Kandasamy translated Thol Thirumavalavan’s book Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers, which was published in 2004, and the author and translator were sued, along with publisher Mandira Sen of Stree-Samya Books in Kolkata. The offending passage showed two folk deities—Ponnar and Sankar—as “Dalit brothers” in an end-note. An advocate called M. Loganathan got upset because the deities were called Dalit. Kandasamy wrote in a blog: “Such a litigation reflects a worldview that if heroes have to retain godhood, they have to maintain caste-Hindu credentials. That is why, the litigant claims to be hurt when his ancestral deities are said to be Dalit. Such a frivolous petition only displays the loathsome, supremacist caste-Hindu mentality as to who is worthy of worship in our society: in this telling, a hero can never be Dalit, and conversely, a Dalit can never be a hero.”
Loganathan and the IIPM are not isolated cases. Parties claiming offence have frequently rushed to courts to silence voices they don’t like. Sadly, the tactics work: It drove a man called Maqbool Fida Husain out of India, forever. It is time to stop this march of folly.
Disclosure: I have met Kandasamy once in London. I have met Deb once at a party in Delhi. I happen to like their work. I am a contributing editor at Caravan, a position with no editorial or managerial responsibilities.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based inLondon. Your comments are welcomeat salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jul 06 2011. 09 57 PM IST
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