suppressing dissent

What happened to the legal action against 'Gas Wars', the book that took on the Ambanis?

The writer of the book, which is still available easily, details the events of the year gone by since legal processes were initiated.

A year ago, lawyers engaged by the two richest siblings in India, sent notices to me, my co-authors and my associates. It was claimed that we had defamed the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, in our book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. Over the past 12 months, I have often been asked: “What happened to the case against you?”

My standard reaction: “Case? What case?”

No legal proceedings

Contrary to what some may presume, Khaitan & Co., representing Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries Limited, the country's largest private corporate entity, and Mulla & Mulla, Craigie, Blunt & Caroe, representing Anil Ambani and the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, have not filed any legal proceedings against me, my co-authors and my associates, in any court of law in India or anywhere else, since the legal notices were served on us in April-May 2014.

A day after the book was launched in New Delhi on April 15, 2014, lawyers for RIL and Mukesh Ambani served the first notice on me, my co-authors Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, our publishing facilitator Authors UpFront, distributor FEEL Books, our printer, Internet retailers Amazon, Flipkart and Kobo, and even Deepshikha Shankar, who used to work for the Foundation for Media Professionals and who had forwarded an electronic invitation for the launch function to various people.

The notice alleging defamation described the nearly-600 page book as a "pamphlet" and called for a stop on the sale, publication and distribution of the book, suggested that all existing copies be destroyed, that online publicity be stopped, and an unconditional apology tendered by us.

A week later, on April 22, 2014, my co-authors and I received a second legal notice, this time from lawyers representing the younger brother Anil Ambani and the conglomerate he heads, ADAG. This notice asked for the removal of the website promoting the book, www.gaswars.in, besides an immediate halt to the sale, publication, distribution and circulation of the book.

What the notices said

Both notices, in standard legalese, said that “failing compliance” their clients would be “constrained to adopt such civil and/or criminal proceedings” as “advised”. On April 23, all nine respondents of the first notice from Khaitan & Co. received another round of notices, expressing unhappiness at the proceedings of the launch event.

This notice took umbrage at my quoting the former Governor of West Bengal Gopal Krishna Gandhi at the April 15 launch function. Gandhi had described Reliance as a “parallel state”, exemplifying corporate greed, earlier that same morning at the Indian government' auditorium in the capital, Vigyan Bhavan.

Ironically, Gandhi had made the remarks while delivering the 15th D.P. Kohli Memorial lecture, titled Eclipse at Noon: Shadows over India's Conscience, organised on the occasion of the conclusion of the golden jubilee celebration of the country's premier police agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

It is understood that a separate legal notice was sent to Gandhi. The April 23 notice had a rather prickly dart thrown at us. We were asked to pay “token damages of INR 100 crore” within ten days. We later learnt that a similar notice had been served on the editor of MoneyLife magazine and website for publishing a review of Gas Wars.

Striking fear

There's a term to denote the impact such legal notices are meant to have not only on those on whom these have been served by on others as well. It's called “chilling effect”. In legal jargon, such notices are called SLAPP or strategic lawsuits against public participation – that is, litigation meant to harass, intimidate and silence critical writers who are expected to give in after they are faced with prospects of incurring high expenditure on legal defence.

As far as my collaborators and I are concerned, our position has not changed. We do not believe there is anything in the book that is defamatory. The book, which had been in the making for more than four years, is based on government reports, various other publications and websites, and interviews with many individuals, including senior officials of the Reliance group.

On May 23, 2014, a month after we responded to the legal notices, a fourth notice was received by us from Khaitan & Co. reiterating the views that had been already made. The following month, RIL brought out a 56-page, glossy booklet titled: India has never been here before: Facts you didn’t know about KG-D6. (KG-D6 refers to the area in the Bay of Bengal off the basin of the Krishna and Godavari Rivers along the south-eastern coast of the country where a company controlled by RIL has been exploring and producing oil and natural gas.) Together with the booklet that contained endorsements of the work RIL was doing by eminent persons, a promotional video was released.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for me. I have been humbled and, at the same time, astonished by the reactions of different – and diverse – sections of people to Gas Wars. Expect new, updated versions of the book in different Indian languages.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a journalist, educator and documentary film-maker with 38 years of experience.

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