The Ambanis and the freedom of expression

BY ARUNODAY MAJUMDER| IN Books | 28/04/2014
While the near ban on 'The Hindus' was widely reported, that on 'Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis' by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was barely covered by the media,
notes ARUNODAY MAJUMDER

Aaj doosra prempatra bhi aa gaya hai” (Today the second love letter has arrived as well), announced Paranjoy Guha Thakurta but without the characteristic blush of a lover in receipt of the coveted love letter. There was no pink in the air. It hung a trifle heavy over the canteen of Godavari Hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. It was 10:00 pm on April 22, 2014. Outside, news stations bleated ‘NaMo and Welcome’ and newspapers were in consultation with Yo Yo Money Singh on how to modify (Modify) the ‘Har Har …’ chant and amplify the ‘Dance of Democracy’. The media with its diarrheal but partisan freedom of expression had checkmated that of an already cornered Guha Thakurta.

My mother, an average reader/viewer of news, was momentarily upset at the decision to pulp ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ written by Wendy Doniger due to physical intimidation from saffron groups. But the legal threat of the Ambanis to which ‘Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis’ authored by Guha Thakurta is now subject, fails to upset momentarily my mother or ordinary news receivers like her. While the near ban on ‘The Hindus’ was widely reported, that on ‘Gas Wars’ barely was. Godzilla sitting on Antilla by the shores of Mumbai has issued the ‘finger on your lips’ order to television reporters and the ‘pen drop silence’ command to newspaper scribes. And the reporters and scribes have followed it like children at school. They are not ready to nip Costa Coffee and sip Sasta Coffee.

Pockets of resistance have managed to survive nevertheless, their existence as precarious but also as continuous as bubbles. On that night, the canteen was one such pocket. The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) had organised a public meeting on ‘Reliance Gas Deal: Ambani Shadow over Democracy’. The speakers besides Guha Thakurta were Surya Sethi, former principal advisor to the government on power and energy and Sagnik Dutta, principal correspondent with Frontline. The gathering was small. Roughly a hundred students from JNU and a few outsiders filled the premises. Akbar Chawdhary, president, JNUSU remarked, “This meeting is a solidarity meeting with the author, to defend his freedom of expression. It is a shame that the media has practically blacked out this important story, making it necessary for us to make it as public as possible.”

The second ‘love letter’ that Paranjoy had received earlier that day was a legal notice at the insistence of Anil Ambani. It accused the writer and co-authors, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmay Chaudhuri, of defamation. Big Brother Mukesh Ambani had already made arrangements for the first on April 16, a day after the book was launched in New Delhi. The summary of the contents of the letters is as follows: (a) the content of the book and a website by the same name defames Reliance and the Ambanis (b) the said content is “false”, “distorted”, “slanderous” and “libelous” (c) the existing copies of the book, offline and online, must be destroyed and further publication and distribution of it must be stopped (d) the demand for “an unconditional public apology … in the form and manner acceptable” to Reliance and the Ambanis.

In a statement the authors have argued, “As the book is based on information in the public domain that is available to everybody, it is surprising that the lawyers for Reliance Industries Limited and RNRL/ADAG have chosen to serve us notices but not those who prepared these reports over the last few years.” Guha Thakurta has already stated that the content is based on research from public documents and media reports. Interviews with Reliance personnel were also conducted and so, a confident Guha Thakurta is ready to bite the legal bullet. The co-authors too are neither crawling nor bending. Subir Ghosh says, “We are not surprised at the legal reaction of Reliance. That is the way they have reacted to voices against their financial interests. We will also respond legally.” Jyotirmay Chaudhuri says, “Paranjoy is the lead author. As we have mentioned already, we will respond legally.”

Incidentally, Amazon and Flipkart are addressees in the first legal notice for the distribution of ‘Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis’. But neither Amazon nor Flipkart have stopped entertaining orders for copies of the book. As of 02:00am, April 27, the book was available on both the websites.

At the meeting in JNU which stretched almost till midnight, Guha Thakurta reiterated his stand once again. Sethi provided a succinct explanation of the issues – family feud, gas pricing, corporate-state nexus and Rangarajan Committee report – that are central to what appears to be a grand heist in corporate history. However, Sethi should have avoided the example of a twenty thousand dollar dress deceptively enhancing the beauty of a woman while trying to clarify the concept of ‘gold plating’. A courteous example was not difficult in this case and the one offered was sexist. Sagnik Dutta made an interesting comment. In response to a question at the meeting, Dutta said, “I definitely think journalists should come out and participate in public dissent particularly in relation to political economic issues.”

The observation made by Dutta has import particularly in the context of the absence of his fellow professionals at the meeting. Dutta spoke not only about the suspicious dealings between Reliance and the state but also about the necessity to highlight them. Guha Thakurta, who is also an independent journalist of repute, has noted in an email exchange, “If a journalist wishes to remain in a particular job, she or he has to decide if it’s worth taking the risk of antagonizing her or his employer, editor or manager. At one level, this is a personal decision. Some individuals act on what their conscience says. Others don't. At another level, the decision could have something to do with jeopardizing one's livelihood.”

The risk to livelihood is often cited by journalists to justify their hush. But ‘livelihood’ has a very specific meaning – the act of securing the necessities of life – and not luxuries. If journalists can nip the Costa Coffee and sip the Sasta Coffee instead, the necessities are likely to be satisfied. But till then, what stops the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ from participation in the public sphere without any obligation to report the goings-on?

Perhaps the watchdog has made friends with the very leash that it is supposed to bite. Thus, it is time to boot out the crooked watchdog and erect the fourth pillar with honesty and zeal. 

P.S.: The authors, publishers and distributors of ‘Gas Wars’ have been sent a third legal notice and the second on behalf of Mukesh Ambani on April 23 seeking damages of Rs 100 crore if amends are not made within ten days.   

 

(Arunoday Majumder is an M.Phil student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics and has worked with two prominent English news television stations. He can be reached at arunoday.majumder@gmail.com)


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