CHENNAI: The Rs 100 crore defamation suit filed by Jay Amitbhai Shah, the son of BJP president Amit Shah, against a news website for questioning the sudden uptick in his fortunes is yet another signpost of how the law is increasingly being used to challenge content appearing in the media and how more and more public personalities are taking recourse to it -- some of them to get back at their critics, and some to deter any further scrutiny of their actions.
As a legal device, these tactics lead to uncertain outcomes, what with proceedings taking much too long to resolve. Unlike in the UK, defamation proceedings are not too swiftly conducted. Therefore, the defamation law is invariably used in India more as a weapon to create difficulties to media outlets than to make any real point.
The Indian courts are therefore flooded with defamation lawsuits that have been going on for years, and seem to be nowhere near a verdict.
Rahul Gandhi vs RSS
In 2014, on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Rahul Gandhi took on the RSS, saying, “The RSS people killed (Mahatma) Gandhi." The statement irked the right-wing organisation and one Rajesh Kunte, secretary of its Bhiwandi unit, sued Rahul for defamation.
The RSS tried a clever gambit of offering to withdraw the case if Rahul Gandhi stated publicly that he does not blame it as an institution for the death of the Mahatma. Of course, that would have been impossible for the Congress leader to do and Gandhi vowed he would never take back his words. "I stand by each and every word. I am ready to go to trial," he said. So the proceedings continue to drag on. While Rahul does have the difficulty of attending the proceedings in Bhiwandi ever so often, it also an opportunity for the Congress: Each time he makes an appearance, the whole slur on the RSS as complicit in the Gandhi assassination is dredged up.
Kejriwal vs Jaitley
Earlier this year, Arvind Kejriwal alleged that finance minister Arun Jaitley was involved in financial irregularities dating back to the time when the latter was the president of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). In response, Jaitley filed a civil defamation case against Kejriwal and sought Rs 10 crore as compensation.
Here is where things got a little interesting. During court proceedings, Kejriwal’s lawyer Ram Jethmalani allegedly called Jaitley a ‘crook’ and ‘guilty of crimes and cookery'. When Jethmalani was questioned by the court, he clarified that Kejriwal had directed him to say so. The veteran lawyer has since been sacked by Kejriwal.
Jaitley was not impressed with defamation within a defamation case. He filed another civil defamation suit against Kejriwal, demanding another Rs 10 crore as damages.
But it's another instance of how defamation suits work in this country. They don't come to conclusion quickly and each hearing provides the accused an opportunity to air the damaging content yet again.
Adanis vs EPW
On June 19, 2017, The Wire re-published an article from the Economic and Political Weekly, written by the latter publication's editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. The story was about how the Adani group's business practices. Two weeks later, the Adani group slapped a multi-crore defamation case notice against EPW publisher and Guha Thakurta. The fallout of the multi-crore defamation suit was that the publication asked Thakurta to pull down the article. Thakurta refused and resigned.
Ambani vs Ambani
The divide between the Ambani brothers — Mukesh and Anil — intensified when in 2008 Anil filed a defamation suit for Rs 10,000 crore against big brother Mukesh for remarks he made against him in an interview with The New York Times. The NYT had quoted Mukesh Ambani as saying that Anil had a network of lobbyists and spies. The newspaper had said, “What most distinguishes Reliance from its rivals is what Ambani's friends and associates describe as his (Anil’s) ‘intelligence agency´ a network of lobbyists and spies in New Delhi who they say collect data about the vulnerabilities of the powerful, about the minutiae of bureaucrats’ schedules, about the activities of their competitor.”
However, two years later, after their mother Kokilaben had brokered a truce between her two sons, Anil withdrew the defamation case against Mukesh in the Bombay High Court. Also, as part of the truce, the two brothers decided to scrap a non-compete agreement between their two groups, allowing more flexibility to utilise resources more efficiently.
What is defamation?
Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code state that, "Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter expected, to defame that person.”
The punishment for defamation is a simple imprisonment for up to two years or with fine or with both.