On 30 November a desperate Sahara went knocking at the doors of the Supreme Court, pleading for more time to refund its investors. The apex court had already upheld a SAT directive ordering refund of Rs 24,029 crore to 29.6 million investors. Sahara had been pushed into a corner finally, and it was possibly time for writing a book on the group.

(Tamal) Bandopadhyay, who had been toying with the idea for a while, now decided to go the whole hog. In January 2013, he landed at Sahara Shaher – the township that’s home to the group on the banks of the Gomti river in Lucknow – to interview Subrata Roy, and even attended Roy’s extravagant 39th wedding anniversary celebrations. The interview itself was exhaustive, candid. “From there, the project took off. I planned it well and could complete it in about six months’ intense work and extensive travel across India. Of course, I could complete it in a relatively short time as I was extremely familiar with the subject,” recalled Bandopadhyay.

The subject of Sahara needed a large canvas – as that of a book, rather than a series of articles on the company and its doings and alleged misdoings. Bandopadhyay explained, “As a journalist, for about a decade, I had been following Sahara India Pariwar which had 4,799 establishments and businesses under 16 verticals and claimed to be the second largest employer in the country after the Indian Railways. Only four companies in the group had been listed (at least one of them got delisted later). India’s largest shadow bank in the form of a RNBC was under the Sahara fold till the RBI forced its closure.

“The glitz and glamour associated with the group boss Subrata Roy and the mystery that shrouded its business always fascinated me as a journalist. I was curious to know how Roy arbitraged between Bharat and India – the two nations, one full of poverty and other glamour, cricket, Bollywood, patriotism. People in Bharat looked at him in awe because of his proximity to cricketers and film stars. That’s how he built trust. It was a fascinating story.” This was the story that Bandopadhyay wanted to tell his readers.

The book on Sahara was to be an attempt at unravelling the mystery. “I had written quite a few long-form pieces in Mint and in my earlier paper, Business Standard, but if you want to create an impact, a book is always a better vehicle. Also, a typical Indian newspaper cannot probably afford the time and resources one requires to research such kind of subjects. I travelled extensively across India to meet people who had been associated with the group in some form and other, besides regulators and courts in different Indian states to get hold of documents. Affidavits and petitions led in courts are always an authentic source of information,” the journalist recollected.

Open secret

That Bandopadhyay was working on a book on Sahara and Subrata Roy was no secret. Sometime in October-November 2013, he was invited to talk about the book at a literary festival at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Though the book was not yet ready, the Business Today editor, who was present at the festival, asked for a chapter which the magazine could publish. They were handed over one.

It is not clear whether after reading the chapter that the Sahara group asked for a copy of the yet-to-be-published book, or the publisher volunteered to send a copy of the book to Sahara for eyeballing before its formal release. The fact remained that the group got hold of a copy of the manuscript and rushed to slap a Rs 200-crore defamation suit against the author and publisher at Calcutta High Court. On 10 December 2013, the high court granted the group’s plea for a stay on the release of Sahara: The Untold Story, and the court extended that interim order on 23 December until further orders. The group also made Jaico Publishing House, the publisher of the book, a party to the suit.

It was a classic case of pleading for prior restraint along the lines of the action against The Polyester Prince. In its 10 December order, the single-judge bench referred to one passage that had been cited by Sahara’s counsel:

More such incredible tales abound about Sahara, none that could be substantiated. A group employee in Mumbai asked me whether I had seen the “torture chamber” in Sahara Shaher. What’s that, I asked. The chamber, apparently, is where an erring employee is dumped at night in his underwear and subjected to physical abuse and humiliations by his subordinates, including his driver and guards if he’s of high office. Sahara does this to shame a rogue employee and destroy his self-respect and dignity, the group employee said. A communication executive at Sahara laughed when I checked with him about the authenticity of the torture chamber.

The judge went on to rule:

Prima facie, the impugned materials do show the plaintiffs in poor light. Since the book or any electronic form of the material has not been published as yet, the balance of convenience lies in restraining its publication till the prima facie case is more fully brought out in the presence of the defendants.

Bandopadhyay never received the notice himself as it was served at the office of HT Media (which owned Mint) in Kolkata. “It was on 12 December 2013 that my publisher Jaico told me about the development. I met a nervous Akash (Shah), my publisher, that evening at a hotel in Lower Parel, Mumbai. I persuaded him not to back out and fight it out in court as I could support with documentary evidence every word of the book. Quite a few law firms in Mumbai and Kolkata were willing to fight for me in the courts. I chose Fox & Mondal which worked for me pro bono. Akash employed a separate law firm.”

“At the very first hearing at a trial court before the Christmas vacation, the judge told my lawyer to put in Rs 200 crore in an escrow account if we wanted to go ahead with the publication of the book. Those were tough days. I did not have to spend anything as legal expenses but had to rush to Kolkata frequently to meet my law firm and prepare my lawyer for the case. Mint stood by me, freeing me from my daily chores in office. My wife and son were pillars of support.”

Beyond the trial court, Bandopadhyay moved a two-judge divisional bench of Calcutta High Court at the advice of his law firm and also started planning to subsequently move the Supreme Court with a special leave petition (SLP).

Rearguard action

The aggression that Sahara showed in the case of the book belied the face-saving brave front that it was frantically trying to put on in the Supreme Court, which had in November 2013 placed restrictions on the group’s sale of moveable and immoveable property and also barred Roy from leaving the country. In January 2014, the apex court directed the Sahara Group to reveal the source of the Rs 22,885 crore that had been paid to OFCD investors. It warned Sahara of inquiries by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Registrar of Companies if it failed to reveal the source.

“As the media – both international and in India – started extensively reporting on my case, the group probably thought it was not wise to fight on so many fronts. A feeler was sent to me for discussion. I agreed to discuss and move ahead. We had rounds of discussion at Sahara Star Hotel near the domestic airport in Mumbai. The meetings lasted for long hours, at times from afternoon till early morning of the next day. Since I was not willing to drop things from the book that the group wanted me to do, a compromise was reached whereby the publisher would carry the disclaimer which says the book is ‘defamatory’ and also offered the group’s point of view,” Bandopadhyay said.

But since Sahara had a history of dragging everyone to court – from the RBI to SEBI, surely Bandopadhyay expected them to confront him the same legal way? “Not really. I was not prepared for legal action, even though my publisher was very apprehensive. The publisher consulted a legal firm, got the manuscript read over and over again, and asked me many questions to check whether I could stand by what I had written and whether those would hold good in a court of law. Following the queries by legal experts, I tweaked the manuscript wherever it was needed and kept all documentary evidence in my possession to support my thesis,” he responded.

In any case, the project was not guerrilla warfare, i.e. journalistic assault by stealth. “I took Roy and his group in confidence right from the beginning. I had spent two days with him in January 2013 in Sahara Shaher, Lucknow, and played back an hour-long interview. Roy’s office got back to me with clarifications which I accommodated. I also accessed some photographs from the group’s archive. All were done transparently with an explicit understanding that I was working on a book project besides a long form story for Mint. However, I never showed the manuscript (to Roy/Sahara). To be fair to the group, it did not ask for it either. Probably, Roy expected something else and my treatment disappointed him.”

The negotiations could have well reminded Bandopadhyay of the many parleys that he had himself reconstructed in his book. One of the most riveting was the fast-paced account about the two meetings with RBI officials that eventually brought the Sahara India Pariwar down on to its knees. Apart from the description of the roller-coaster ride that had happened behind the scenes, what also came out from the story was how formidable the Sahara folks were – they were no meek pushovers. The RBI team, represented by its toughest members, had to use every cell in their brains to hem in the Sahara officials.

And here was Bandopadhyay battling the same firm and its unyielding squad of negotiators on his own. “Indeed there was pressure on me to drop many references, change things, etc, but I would not call it (the negotiations) hostile. The meetings were long, and out of sheer fatigue one could have agreed to things which they were suggesting. An external communications agency was doing the mediation. Sahara was represented by its communications division, backed by the legal cell. There was nobody present from the legal cell at the meetings, but it was consulted extensively over phone. I was alone at the discussion table. There was a steady ow of food, soft drinks and we even had beer in the evening once.”

Bandopadhyay also met Roy twice at his Mumbai office – once before the negotiations started, and another time when they were close to reaching an agreement. On the second occasion, he hosted dinner for the writer. “He was polite and nice to me; there was no hostility.”

Roy’s troubles

Other developments were taking place in parallel. When the Sahara India Pariwar had taken on the RBI and SEBI, it had continuously thumbed its nose at the two regulators and seemed undaunted by their legal/constitutional status. It would issue rhetorical full-paged advertisements in newspapers and carry on with its business as usual. Roy and his group met their eventual Waterloo when they carried on with their irreverence a bit too far – with the Supreme Court. On 20 February 2014, the court ordered Roy to be personally present in court six days later over the failure of his group companies to return money to the holders of OFCDs. Roy did not appear, citing his mother’s illness, prompting the court to issue a non-bailable warrant.

What the court said on 26 February 2014 was significant. Dismissing the counsel’s request for excusing Roy from personally appearing before the court in view of his mother’s illness, the bench of justices KS Radhakrishnan and JS Khehar remarked, “Since, we have already declined to grant exemption from personal presence of alleged contemnor no. 5 (Roy) on 25 February, we find no reason to accede to the renewal of the request made today.”

The judges also noted that the medical certificate produced as evidence to show his mother’s health condition was issued, of all institutions, by the Sahara Hospital in Lucknow. “In our view, the factual position indicated therein does not solicit the exemption sought. The arms of this court are very long. We will get him here if he does not want to come on his own. If other directors can come, why can’t he? Yesterday only we had refused your plea for exemption from personal appearance. All this is going on for last two years. We are issuing non-bailable warrant now,” the judges said.

Roy was arrested in Lucknow two days later after he surrendered to the police, and was kept in police custody. The Supreme Court on 4 March sent Roy and other directors of the Sahara India Pariwar to Tihar jail after he failed to convince the judges about his proposals to refund investors. [At the time of this book going to the press, Roy was still in jail.] In April 2014, Sahara withdrew its defamation suit against Bandopadhyay and Jaico after, what was described as, “an amicable settlement.”

An extraordinary disclaimer

The book was released in May 2014, and carried both on the back cover and the front-inside flap, apart from an insertion that preceded the dedication page, a statement from the Sahara India Pariwar.

The disclaimer went:

The book Sahara: The Untold Story, written by Shri Tamal Bandopadhyay, is based on a particular notion, wrong perceptions supported by limited and skewed information. Hence, it does not reflect the true and complete picture.

The book portrays Sahara in bad light by attributing unfound facts and incidents to which we have objections.

The book also overlooks, or at the best just glances over, the contributions made by Sahara India Pariwar by financially including the poor and rural India, and inculcating in them the habit of saving, thus paving the road of progress on the one hand and safeguarding them from the clutches of money lenders and loans on the other.

It continued:

This book on Sahara does not explain the fact of how Sahara in its journey of 37 years has become one of the biggest conglomerates of the country just because of the stout business ethics, quality business practices and years of relentless services to its customers and depositors, which has generated faith among crores of our depositors, investors and customers across the country.

The book also forgets to address this core constituent of the story of Sahara India Pariwar, about whom everyone talks but does not venture to know – the very poor depositors who have faith in us and whose hard-earned earnings Sahara is a faithful custodian of, for so many years.

The book at best can be treated as a perspective of the author with all its defamatory content, insinuation and other objections, which prompted us to exercise our right to approach the court of law in order to save the interest of the organisation and its crores of depositors and 12 lakh workers.

And ended, ironically, wishing Bandopadhyay the very best:

We are sure that the readers are intelligent enough to see through the maze of plots and appreciate the values that we stand for and the activities we undertake for nation building.

We also wish the author success, though we don’t agree with many of the things and the way they were presented in the book.

This was possibly the first time that a book had been published that included such a disavowing disclaimer from the subject at hand. So, did it harm the credibility of the writer? Did the “compromise” work out better for the Sahara India Pariwar than it had for the journalist who had undertaken such painstaking research?

A statement issued by the group asserted, “In line with the best traditions of Sahara and as a gesture of our respect for a journalist’s freedom, we had withdrawn our case against the publication of the book. But we have put forward our objections and reservations in the form of a disclaimer in the book and we are sure that the readers are intelligent enough to see through the maze of plots and appreciate the values that we stand for and the activities we undertake for the sake of nation building.”

Bandopadhyay was more forthright: “I think this is probably the first instance in Indian publishing history of using such a disclaimer. The decision to display it prominently was my publisher’s to get publicity for the book. I guess this generates interest, curiosity among readers. To that extent, it has helped the book sell more. I have seen at airport bookstalls people buying the book after reading the disclaimer. Has it helped the group to explain its point of view? I don’t know the answer.”

A lot of information about both Roy and Sahara were already in the public domain when Sahara: The Untold Story was published. What Bandopadhyay had added were behind-the-scenes details, and a contextualisation of the complicated issue of RNBCs.

“With honesty and sincerity, I tried to reveal the mystery that shrouded the group through painstaking research. Has any newspaper or magazine ever reported what transpired at the meetings that the RBI held at its headquarters with Roy in the run-up to the clamp down on his RNBC? The book says all that, with graphic details, as if I were present at those meetings.

"It also gives an insider perspective of Sahara’s fight with market regulator SEBI. These are only two examples. The book is filled with many incidents and anecdotes that were not there in the public domain. Have I been able to accomplish what I aspired for? Probably not. But the book has raised many pertinent questions and created a context for future research on the Sahara group.”

Excerpted with permission from Sue The Messenger: How Legal Harassment by Corporates Is Shackling Reportage and Undermining Democracy in India, Subir Ghosh with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Paranjoy (Authors Upfront).