Opinion

Maheshwer Peri on how he won the legal battle against IIPM's Arindam Chaudhuri

'The racket flourishes only because no one is taking it head on,' the publisher of Careers360 had said. 'I am saying that I will be the one to bell the cat.'

In November 2013, Mint profiled Maheshwer Peri, former president and publisher of the Outlook group and founder of Careers360 magazine, in which it quoted him on why he decided to take on Arindam Chaudhuri, self-styled management guru and head of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management:

“Why do all these people survive?” he said, of institutions like IIPM. “Because there is no stamina from the common man or even from a big organization like yours or mine to fight these cases to the end. If someone stands up and says, ‘I will take this to its logical end,’ these guys will be over. You need someone who has information, access, power and intelligence. That’s me completely. These people have been going around filing cases and settling them and ensuring that no one opens their mouth.”

“I am saying that I will be the one to bell the cat. I am belling the cat,” he added.

On March 19, in response to questions from friends, Peri let it be known – almost casually – on Facebook that his legal battle with Arindam Chaudhuri had come to an end on January 22 when he came to know that the businessman had withdrawn all legal cases against him.

Before that, in 2014, deciding a public interest litigation filed by B Mahesh Sarma, editor of Careers360, the Delhi High Court ruled that IIPM could not call itself a “management institute”.

In 2015, after a series of negative orders in various courts, IIPM announced it was shutting down all its campuses.

The cat had clearly been belled.

But Peri chose to keep quiet for almost two months before finally pulling the curtain down on a long drawn-out legal drama that took place in court rooms across the country for six years, with multiple hearings and legal bills that cost him a fortune (the figure has been estimated to be in eight figures), in which he challenged every civil and criminal case thrown at him, defended and won each of them in various high courts.

In these times of "paid-news" and the might of the advertisers, not to mention such demeaning terms as “presstitutes” and “news traders”, the story of how Peri and his fledgling Careers360 took on one of the biggest and most visible advertisers among India's business schools is possibly the best advertisement for the triumph of the judicial process.

How Peri and Careers360 persisted in their follow-up with a series of hard-hitting stories despite facing a slew of legal cases filed all across the country, which finally culminated in their dragging IIPM to the Supreme Court for abuse of judicial process is an object lesson in endurance, perseverance and defiance for journalists and publishers pursuing stories in the face of adversity.

It is a story where a publication not just defended itself against all charges, and saved thousands of careers of students in the process, but also provided hope to those fighting the good fight against intimidatory legal tactics. That all this could be achieved through proper judicial process could not have come at a better time.

For those who came in late

The legal battle had its genesis in a business-school survey carried by Outlook magazine in 2003 that ranked IIPM in fourth place in terms of industry interface. IIPM had claimed 100% placements in its advertisements and in the data given to Outlook, but Peri says he was moved by a visit from a parent of one of IIPM’s students, who claimed his son had not been placed and remained unemployed despite having paid a large fee for the course.

More investigations revealed more such cases. Because IIPM refused to part with details of their claimed placements, Peri says he decided to drop it from rankings and came out with a notice in 2005 that Outlook would no longer rank IIPM as part of its business school surveys.

Meanwhile, IIPM’s media presence only increased on the strength of high-budget advertising campaigns. Peri announced his intention to bell the cat in June 2008:

Nothing has changed: the same old untrue or misleading fantastical claims about salaries, placement records being better than IIMs, world class education, professors from foreign universities...you name it! Students are placed at Planman, a sister concern, at higher salaries meant to jack up placement ratios and dumped/sacked within two months. “We students realised the problems just three months into the institute but all escape routes had closed,” says a student. Students who were paying Rs 1.25 lakh a semester earlier are now made to pay Rs 4 lakh for the entire year. Banks that give out loans are willing conspirators.

The situation is by no means unique and applies to a whole lot of other “management” and “professional” institutes too. The racket flourishes only because no one is taking it head on.

Peri followed up the above in September 2008 with another article in Outlook where he was even more direct:

Articles with misleading facts are planted in the media, and come in handy for those who resort to advertisements to gain credibility.

Business school rankings and awards are up for sale; the price is paid through advertisements.

Peri left Outlook to start Careers360 which published three articles [all three and other facts of the case are available here] against IIPM after successfully getting the Delhi High Court to modify an injunction against publication of these articles passed by a lower court.

That is when the legal battle was truly joined.

The following are edited excerpts of Peri’s Facebook post:

I lost count of the number of cases I defended myself against. At one point, there were 14 matters that I was seized of at different levels, in different courts on different counts. When we did carry the series of three articles in 2009, we never imagined the assault would be so severe. I always believed that if I was wrong, I would unhesitatingly apologise and if I was right, it would not be settled or compromised but decided by a judicial order. 

I made a choice when publishing those articles.

There was a case in Delhi where I along with the promoter of Outlook (his family including wife and children) were dragged in. I was on my way out of Outlook when it happened. The charge was that Outlook was funding me as it was alleged that they felt threatened by the launch of IIPM’s magazine called The Sunday Indian

I was touched when the promoter of Outlook (whom I consider my godfather) called me and said that he supported me in this just fight and instructed me to send all legal bills to his office. The gesture was important for me, but it was a battle I started and had to fight on my own steam. Later, the Delhi High Court struck off the names of the promoter and family members.

There was a case in Gurgaon where my mentor Rajesh Jain and I were dragged in a criminal case. The intent was again to cause a “chilling effect”, but Rajesh was cool about it and gave me all authority to defend him along with myself. This case was quashed by the Chandigarh High Court in September 2015.

There was a case in Uttarakhand where my editor, my wife (in her capacity as director) and I had bailable warrants issued against us for non appearance (the summons were never received by us). My dear wife courageously told me that she was ok being jailed as long as she had me for company in her cell. The Uttrakhand High Court quashed this case famously saying: “The common expression in a Court room is “Satyamev Jayate”  – Truth shall triumph. Truth is also the best defence in a case of defamation. A truth spoken for public good can never be called defamatory”.

There was another case in Kamrup (Assam) which was a civil defamation case worth Rs100 crores (which made one probable investor back-out of investing in Careers360). There was a contempt petition too in the same court.

Somewhere in between, Arindam Chowdhury also carried a cover story in his magazine titled “B-School scamsters exposed”, which charged us of demanding money to give ranks to B- Schools. He was talking of his interactions with a research agency employed by Outlook (later Mint too). The article suggested that because their engagement with the researcher wasn’t transparent, by extension, I was dishonest too. This cover story made multiple charges against me, my integrity and character. It called Careers360 a yellow journal.

When I think of each of these cases, my blood boils. It was meant to harass us, bully us and make us submit to their whims. The article insulted us, humiliated us and was meant to destroy Careers360. It had a chilling effect on every other journalist in the country. Newspapers like the Indian Express fell silent after trying to take it up. Even at Outlook, one incapable administration in-charge tried to get into a “settlement” behind my back. It all fell apart because I refused to concede my rights as Publisher of Careers360. But for a supportive boss at Outlook, friends, understanding Angels and a great mentor, Careers360 would not have survived the onslaught. It was a battle between David and Goliath. It was just that I was a determined David.

So here is the conclusion. IIPM for some time had been pursuing a settlement. I was clear that I would defend myself as long as the cases existed. The only way out was for all cases against me to be withdrawn unconditionally. The battle started in courts and had to end in courts and not in board rooms.

So, in December last year, we filed a case in the Supreme Court accusing IIPM of abuse of judicial process and requesting transfer of the cases surviving in the North East. We contended that all parties were in Delhi and the subject matter of the cases in Assam had already been adjudicated in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Chandigarh. There were a few cases in Kamrup and Guwahati High Court, including the Rs 100 crore defamation case which was an irritant. In fact, in many negotiations for fund raising at Careers360, I had to give a personal guarantee/indemnity if this case were to go against the company.

Coming back to our case in the Supreme Court, it seems that IIPM and its promoter realised that the fight would lead to another adverse order, another loss. And an order from The Supreme Court can be crippling. Remember what happened to Sahara? So, on the day of the hearing they decided to withdraw all cases against me which were pending in Kamrup and by extension, in Gauwhati High Court. I was also informed that they also withdrew all cases against Outlook pending in various Delhi courts. And the Supreme Court order reads: “that respondent nos. 1 and 2 have decided to withdraw the proceedings, which are subject matter of transfer in the present petitions”.

That, dear friends, after six years of exhausting battle and legal costs that ran into eight figures, closes all my battles with IIPM. Lawyers are advising me to charge them with malicious litigation. I neither have love nor hate. I am immune to any negative feelings. I am cold. It is over. And this is my last word on IIPM, for I have loads of work to do before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.

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