‘Gas Wars’ sparks a legal row

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Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and The Ambanis
Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and The Ambanis

Few had the gumption to oppose the Ambanis, just as the overwhelming majority of journalists preferred not to be critical of Reliance.”

These are lines from the book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and The Ambanis that details a business deal of the powerful Ambani family and the Reliance group. But the force of might of India’s richest and most influential businessman might weigh down heavily on journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the lead author of the book.

In the book, Thakurta purports to have chronicled the entire controversy surrounding the ongoing and proposed extraction of natural gas from the Krishna Godavari (KG) basin in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Andhra Pradesh.

Thakurta decided to self-publish the book after one publisher refrained from publishing it, another wanted to halve its 570 pages and yet another wanted to wait till after the 2014 Lok Sabha election results were out in May 2014.

Not willing to suffer the same fate of several recent books, including two on corporates (Air India and Sahara Group), Thakurta also arranged for the book’s distribution primarily through the internet.

However, the Ambanis have not taken kindly to the book and have served a legal notice on Thakurta, his two co-authors Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri and Subir Ghosh as well as six others through the solicitor firm Khaitan & Co on behalf of the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance India Limited (RIL).

Reacting to the notice, Thakurta said, “My co-authors and I have been more than fair to RIL, Mukesh Ambani, the government and the other side. The company and Mr Ambani’s version have been covered in greater length than the version that they have been critical of. I see it as an attempt to intimidate and harass me, the distributor, the co-authors, those helping in publishing, the sellers such as Flipkart and Amazon, and so on. It is an attempt to scuttle and suppress my fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India, which guarantees Freedom of Speech and Expression. Whereas, I have been faithful to my rights and obligations as a citizen.”

The book deals with several important aspects of the KG Basin issue and shares court proceedings of the litigation between Mukesh and Anil Ambani over the price of gas supply between the brothers as per their memorandum of family agreement. It discusses technical aspects of deep-sea drilling for gas and includes a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India report which had investigated into alleged malpractices by RIL.

The book also lays charge on the disintegrating political system of India, blaming it of crony capitalism. In key sectors such as energy and power and infrastructure, crony capitalism narrows down to undue favouritism to particular corporate houses for high-value projects in return for political contributions. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) had recently filed a complaint with the Delhi anti-corruption bureau while Arvind Kejriwal was still the Delhi chief minister.

The book has been well received by several reviewers, some of whom participated in a panel discussion during its launch on 15 April, 2014. The panel included former union cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, senior advocate and AAP leader Prashant Bhushan, senior journalists Sidharth Varadarajan and Sucheta Dalal and former petroleum secretary TNR Rao.

“It is an absolutely fair and balanced account. The legal notice is meant to harass the author and has even been extended to people who supported the effort such as the sellers, a journalists’ body and others,” says Dalal. “The company’s move is not un-anticipated but the authors are going to battle it out and we need to rally around and support them.”

The legal notice quite uncharitably trashes the researched book as a ‘pamphlet styled as a book’. Not only is there a claim of defamation for ‘personal gain’, the notice also claims that the book is in contempt of the Supreme Court because a PIL on the KG Basin’s D-6 block, filed by an NGO ‘Common Cause’, is pending before the apex court. Thakurta is a member of the governing body of Common Cause. The legal notice claims that the authors had a motive to create a negative public image of RIL and the Ambanis while the PIL was pending before the court. But while the PIL was filed in 2013, Thakurta has said that he started working on the book four and a half years ago.

The parts decried to be defamatory include those saying that CAG audits stated that the government prepared a favourable contract for RIL and that the prime minister himself changed petroleum ministers to favour RIL. The notice also points out several statements from the book designed to establish the authors’ case of crony capitalism by RIL. Further, the notice calls to stop the sale and publication of the book, destroy all copies and also demands an unconditional apology to RIL.

If the content alone was not enough, the legal notice has placed Gas Wars in the league of several controversial books. Recently, The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava (a former director of the company) was scuttled by Bloomsbury, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus was pulled back by Penguin Random House and the English-translated version of the Tamil book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World) by Joe D’Cruz was stopped from release by Navayana publishers. Bhargava’s chronicle was apparently scuttled because the publisher was new to the Indian book market and jittery about taking on a former aviation minister, opting for an out-of-court settlement with him instead. Bhargava has now gone the e-book way and is trying to self-publish a print version.

Another recent book on a corporate was business writer Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book on the Sahara Group. The group sued Bandyopadhyay with a defamation suit for Rs 200 crore and got a stay against its distribution in December 2013. In March 2014, Sahara group head Subrata Roy was bunged into jail by the Supreme Court, pending a decision on return of investments into the company where the identity of the investors themselves is under question.

This is not the first legal notice to Thakurta, who has been served a notice from the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) for a story on telecom. He had also received one from Bennet & Coleman for writing a piece on a court case involving the owner of the Times Group of publications and UK-based Financial Times. Over the years, Thakurta has used his independence as a freelance journalist to question the media, its ownership and functioning. Even now, the relaxed smile has not yet left Thakurta’s face; the legal notice might still end up bringing substantial publicity for the book.

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