Opinion

How IIPM and Arindam Chaudhury used the defamation law to hide the truth

The abuse of the statute hurt the careers of at least 15,000 students, says the publisher who forced IIPM to shut down

In March, the former president and publisher of the Outlook group and founder of Careers360 magazine described how he won the legal battle against the Indian Institute of Planning and Management’s Arindam Chaudhuri. Here, Maheshwar Peri details the cases filed against him and his publications only because he dared to question the claims made by the biggest and most visible advertisers among India's business schools.

Many lawyers advised me to file a case of malicious litigation against Arindam Choudhury and the Indian Institute of Planning and Management. I wasn’t convinced. Having achieved my primary objective of exposing IIPM – the Delhi High Court ruled that it could not call itself a “management institute” – while defending myself and forcing it to shut down all its campuses, I wasn’t willing to shift the goal posts.

However, when I was approached to document the ordeal of defamation cases and their abuse for the sole purpose of decriminalising defamation laws in India, I decided it was worth the cause. A law school also wanted me to document the entire story as a case study to be taught to their students.

First, it was a case of judicial failure. While every regulatory body called it illegal, IIPM managed to entrap some 30,000 students. Since our first expose in 2009, at least 15000 students were further misled into signing up for IIPM’s courses. Many such students are in different consumer courts, trying to make the system work despite the high court order. But the injunctions, the cases, the trials take too long. It needs to be stressed that the costs and travails we went through are nothing compared to the loss to these IIPM students, because apart from the exorbitant fees paid by them. It is also a question of academic years wasted and the overall impact on their careers. Simply put, for seven years, our judiciary failed and that’s why IIPM succeeded.

What you are about to read is long and boring. It is meant for lawyers, students of law, journalists, editors, publishers, academics and free speech thinkers. This is not meant to make an interesting story and is being documented so that the abuse of defamation laws can be highlighted for the sake of our collective future.

A different response

Typically, to avoid court appearances and legal costs, respondents tend to try to settle once a case is filed against them. But this was different as we decided to pursue the cases instead of agreeing to a compromise or letting the cases lie in cold storage. We decided to turn their cases on their head, and make a court confirm our charges against IIPM.

So it became that while it was they who had filed the cases, it was we who pursued them, demanded speedy trial and invoked the interest of the student. Rarely would any respondent have been so active.

The petitioners seemed to have planned their strategy around fling the cases, getting injunctions against articles questioning their claims and the media reports favouring them. The aims seem to have been:

  1. To prevent truth from being spoken and kill any prospect of further investigation.
  2. To show off to gullible students/parents the prima facie acceptance for trial and the injunction as proof of their innocence and our guilt.
  3. Ensuring a chilling effect so that no one ever dared to write against their illegal practices.

So many cases were filed by so many people against anyone who seemed even remotely to be able to influence me or my publications that it would perhaps be useful to list some of the important aspects of the legal strategy employed:

  1. Cases were filed against us in different courts, including those in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh, Dehradun, Assam.
  2. The cases were in district courts and high courts in four states and also the Supreme Court in two cases.
  3. The cases were civil and criminal in nature. One civil defamation in Kamrup, Assam actually got an injunction while asking for Rs 100 crores in damages.
  4.  There was also a contempt case filed in Kamrup for defying the injunction.
  5. It wasn't just the IIPM that sued – in some cases, the cases were filed by its group companies, employees and even an agent. All this because IIPM by itself could not file more than one case..
  6. IIPM was into ‘forum shopping’'. IIPM and we were based in Delhi but the employees of IIPM filed the cases in Kamrup and managed an injunction gagging us from telling the truth. 
  7. The respondents who were sued included promoters of Outlook, my co-investor in Careers360, my wife in her capacity as director apart, of course, from the editor, publisher and even Google and Weebly for carrying the stories.  The idea was to silence me and put pressure on me to apologise, retreat and accept defeat.
  8. A very high-profile advertising campaign with huge budgets was unleashed, using the leverage extensively against us. Publications with diametrically opposing political views ran stories against me. The most egregious of these were in the Pioneer, edited by none less than a Member of Parliament, and Tehelka.

It did cross our minds to give up the battle. The backlash was too much for a small company like ours. But as the cases mounted, we had good people standing up for us. First came the lawyer, who was as convinced and committed to the cause – and whose integrity was beyond doubt. Anup J Bhambani proved to be that individual in this case. Perhaps I should say that he was more than just a lawyer. This case is actually a victory for him than me. Giving in would have added an aura of invincibility to IIPM. If we didn't have the will to fight, we should not have written against them.

Here, then, follows the case diary.

July 2005: Outlook magazine (I was its publisher at that time) brought out an advertisement announcing that it was withdrawing the ranking given to IIPM in its 2003 business school survey. IIPM had claimed 100% placements in its advertisements and in the data given to Outlook. It was found to be false.

June 2008: As publisher of Outlook, I wrote a column titled “Rocket game lobs”. It recalled the advertisement above had suggested that all claims made by IIPM were wrong or misleading. This led to a furious Arindam Chaudhuri asking for a meeting, and our agreeing to disagree.

September 2008: I followed with another article in Outlook, "Selling a pig in a poke", where the charge was 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."

January 2009: I resigned from Outlook and began preliminary work on publishing a student-centric magazine, Careers360. Its editor Mahesh Sarma along with journalist Urmila Rao began work on a story dealing with promises and delivery in educational institutions. IIPM was approached for its side of the story, seeking clarifications and information.

February 2009: Perhaps troubled by the questions sent by Careers360, IIPM approached a court in Delhi, showed my previous articles published in June and September 2008, argued malice, filed civil and criminal complaints against me and Vinod Mehta, the editor-in-chief of Outlook.

March 2009: Just before the inaugural issue of Careers360 was to go to print, an injunction order was served against Outlook and me which effectively prevented us from publishing anything regarding IIPM.

May 2009: The injunction led the team at Careers360 to dig deeper regarding the activities of IIPM, and the evidence gathered was enormous. So we appealed against the injunction in Delhi High Court, showed all the evidence we had, proved public interest in the publication and got the injunction order modified allowing us to publish with a right of rebuttal given to IIPM. The order dated May 1 2009 said:

“The interim order dated 3rd march 2009 will not be taken as preventing the defendants from carrying out any further publication in relation to the affairs of the plaintiff institute”. 

Even though the injunction was against Outlook, since I was the publisher of both Careers360 and Outlook, I needed the vacation of stay since I was personally liable for contempt of court otherwise.

June 2009: The first story titled "IIPM- Best only in Claims" was published in the Careers360 magazine. Most facts published in this story were first shown to the Delhi High Court when arguing the vacation of stay. One important claim that we busted here was IIPM's claims in advertisements that students enrolling for the course advertised would be eligible to get a MBA/ BBA degree from IMI, Belgium. The relevant regulating authority in Belgium responded that IMI, Belgium was not recognised and hence not legitimate even in its country of origin, Belgium.

July 2009: When we exposed the illegality of its offer of an MBA programme through IMI, Belgium, IIPM came up with an announcement regarding a tie up with Buckingham University, UK. On investigation, this too was found to be incorrect as the regulator in UK confirmed that IIPM did not have any tie up with Buckingham University. The university too was forced to confirm this, on the direction of the regulator. This formed our second story against IIPM.

Chilling effect

This is where the legal threats were escalated. The chilling effect was sought to be started here. To my utter shock and disbelief, the promoters of Outlook with their entire family were served with a criminal defamation case. This was a clear case of abuse of criminal law to threaten and bully me into submission. The main promoter of Outlook happened not just to be my employer but also my mentor.

That was not all. It was followed soon by a case that was filed against the second story in Uttarakhand. Another case was filed in Kamrup, Assam by some employees of IIPM and an ex-parte injunction was served on us. Yet another case was filed in Gurgaon against my co-investor in Careers360 and me. One criminal case was filed in Karkadooma. The cases went on piling up.

We decided to take this head-on. A lot of parents and students started approaching us, lending their support and wanted to become a party to the cases. But we decided against it. This needed stamina and perseverance. Most parents would have settled the cases if the fees paid by them was refunded, hurting the larger fight in the case. In hindsight, this was the best decision we took. We were not fighting to get some people their fees refunded. It was a larger fight. At one point, I counted 14 cases against us in various courts, at various levels.

Key victories

The cases that confirmed our story and which led to IIPM's downfall, were:

October 2010: This was a case filed against us for the second article dated July 2009 in Dehradun. Arrest warrants were issued against us. We went on appeal against the summons at the Hon High Court in Uttrakhand. The Uttaranchal High Court order, said:

 “The entire edifice of our justice system rests on the principle of truth! The exercise in a Court is nothing if it is not a pursuit for truth and justice. The common expression in a Courtroom is “Satyamev Jayate” – Truth shall triumph. Truth is also the best defense in a case of defamation. A truth spoken for public good can never be called defamatory”.

The honourable court, while quashing the summons, said,

“This court is of the opinion that the criminal proceedings which are presently pending against the petitioner are nothing but an abuse of process and in order to meet the ends of justice, summoning order dated 12.10.2009 are liable to be set aside and are therefore set aside. The proceedings in Criminal Complaint Case No. 5020/2009… is also set aside”.

September 2014: The second and most important victory came in September 2014 on a Public Interest Litigation filed by Mahesh Sarma, editor of Careers360 in his personal capacity, in which he had made the University Grants Commission, Ministry of Human Resource Development and the All India Council for Technical Education respondents in the case.

This case had many ups and downs and was even was dismissed once and he had to move an application. In the end, after a prolonged battle, The judge ordered:

“In our opinion, the aforesaid is clearly a maze created by the respondent No 4 IIPM to entrap students to enlist with it in the hope of acquiring a qualification which the respondent No.4 IIPM is not entitled to confer and thereby enriching the respondent No 4 IIPM to a considerable extent as is evident from the huge expenditure earlier as well as now being incurred by the respondent No.4 IIPM in publicity in print and electronic media.”

“The respondent No.4 IIPM and its management / officials including its Dean Mr. Arindam Chaudhuri are restrained with immediate effect from using the word “MBA, BBA, Management Course, Management School, Business School or B-School” in relation to the Courses / programmes being conducted by them or in relation to the representations if any made to the public at large and/or to their prospective clients, customers or students”.

The court further said:

“We again clarify that the aforesaid would not relieve the respondent No.4 IIPM from the liability, if any in any action taken by any other person for having been misled in the past.”

“We also impose costs of Rs. 25,000 on the respondent No.4 IIPM, to be paid to Delhi Legal Services Authority within four weeks of today.” 

October 2015: On July 25, 2009, IIPM filed a criminal defamation suit against us in Gurgaon. This was also against my co-investor and friend. Even here we were issued summons and we went on appeal to the Chandigarh High Court. The third victory came here, where the court ruled:

“This court is of the view that the proceedings pending against the petitioner are nothing but an abuse of the process and in order to meet the ends of justice, the summoning order and the complaint is quashed”.

December 2015: We still had a couple of cases in Delhi and few more in Kamrup as well as Assam High Court pending against us. We approached the Supreme Court to transfer all cases against us to Delhi to effectively defend ourselves. By then, the three high court judgements had started taking their toll. IIPM had stopped getting fresh students. Students, deprived of a legitimate qualification – MBA – started protests. Cases were filed by students and parents in various police stations and consumer courts. Delhi Police stood out as the most inefficient police with students still waiting for some action post their complaints. A few consumer courts ordered against IIPM on the basis of the Delhi High Court order.

The edifice has started to crumble. Unable to stand the heat, IIPM decided to stop taking any new admissions.

January 2016: When our transfer petition came up in the Supreme Court, IIPM gave an undertaking that they were withdrawing all cases against me, Careers360 and Outlook. They started the process by withdrawing cases filed against Outlook and me n Delhi.

June 2016: Following up on their undertaking, IIPM withdrew all cases against me and Careers360 pending in Gauhati high court and in Kamrup.

Conclusion

There still is a possibility that I will file a case of malicious litigation. It depends on how IIPM behaves and what the larger objective is. I have time under the law of limitation.

But what stands out in this whole long drawn out litigation is that the defamation process was abused at every stage. We were not the only ones who suffered. Students suffered the most and lost out on valuable years of their education, careers and lives. In our case, we had the resources and the will to fight for the larger cause. In many other cases, the chilling effect is so pervasive and, as has been said, the process itself is the punishment. The biggest casualty is always truth.

A weak criminal defamation law is tough on truth and helps those who can use their money-power and the threat of a long and expensive legal battle to bend it to suit their purposes.

The defamation laws in our country go against truth being spoken. They kill free speech. But for our defamation laws, the careers and lives of some 15,000 students would have been saved. These laws strengthen and embolden criminals. They rarely are used to fight for truth and are mostly abused to cover lies. These laws deserve to go. They don't have any place in civil society where transparency and accountability are far more important than imaginary fame – and defamation.

We just need to decriminalise defamation. Truth will do the rest.

Disclosure: I am a signatory to the #freespeech bill being proposed by a Member of Parliament as a private members bill.

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