Free Expression

Reliance sends legal notice to author over 'pamphlet' on gas scam

Company alleges that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta's book about Krishna-Godavari gas deal is malicious, names Flipkart and Amazon among respondents.

Reliance Industries Limited and its head, Mukesh Ambani, have sent a legal notice to journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, his co-authors and distributors for claims made in the book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. Focussing on gas exploration in the Krishna-Godavari basin, the book sets out to highlight alleged "cases of crony capitalism that allowed the Reliance group to blatantly exploit loopholes which were consciously retained in the system to benefit it," says the jacket.

Describing the self-published book as a "pamphlet," the defamation notice details RIL's objections and demands that the book be withdrawn, its online sales stopped and a public apology tendered. Among those served notice are the popular online book sellers Flipkart and Amazon.

According to the allegations made in the book jacket, "Prime minister of India Manmohan Singh has been accused of changing ministerial portfolios at the behest of the Reliance group. There have been claims that the group deliberately ‘squatted’ on reserves of natural gas and curtailed production in anticipation of higher prices that are administered by the government, to the detriment of the interests of the country’s people. Spokespersons of the group deny these allegations and contend that gas output from the Krishna-Godavari basin came down on account of unforeseen adverse geological surprises. Sections within the Indian government do not buy these arguments. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has alleged, among other things, that the contract between the government and Reliance Industries Limited is deeply flawed, thereby encouraging excessive capital expenditure and lowering potential benefits to the exchequer."

Point by point

The 11-page RIL notice contests these claims. It says the book seeks to influence an ongoing public interest litigation case filed against the Krishna-Godavari basin contract between RIL and the government. The case has been filed by Common Cause, an organisation led by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party. The legal notice says that Thakurta is a member of the governing board of Common Cause, and that the case was filed in the Supreme Court in anticipation of the book, to help its sales. Bhushan was one of the speakers at the book's launch in Delhi on April 15.

The notice gives an "illustrative list of malicious and defamatory contents of the said Pamphlet". It contests the charge that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found the contract drafted to favour RIL, or that RIL influenced ministerial portfolios. The book claims that S Jaipal Reddy was relieved of his charge as union minister for petroleum and natural gas in October 2012 and given another ministry because he was refusing to "kowtow" to RIL. The book says that the ministry under Reddy wanted to levy a penalty on RIL for the falling gas production in the area, which caused a loss to the exchequer.

The notice also takes objection to a number of remarks the book makes about Reliance and the Ambanis. Some such are cited: "From January 1980 till October 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, several government policies were ostensibly framed  or 'designed' to help the Reliance group." Another is a joke about the Ambanis: "A popular joke of the 1980s started with the question: Which is the most powerful political party of India? Answer: The Reliance Party of India."

Authors respond

In a statement to Scroll.in, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and his co-authors said that the book "has been 'more than fair' to Reliance Industries Limited and Shri Mukesh D Ambani by quoting and providing their version of events, circumstances and controversies in 'great length and depth', including detailed interviews with senior RIL personnel like BK Ganguly."

The statement said that "the authors are exercising their fundamental right to free expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India." It added that the legal notice "is like an act of intimidation and harassment" and that "an appropriate response" will be provided "as per the legal process".

 
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