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How We Defeated IIPM'S Campaign To Silence The Truth With Defamation Laws

27/09/2016 1:55 PM IST | Updated 27/09/2016 3:48 PM IST
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Arindam Chaudhuri at his office in New Delhi.

When many lawyers advised me to file a case of malicious litigation against Arindam Chaudhuri and the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), I wasn't convinced. Having achieved my primary objective of exposing IIPM and forcing it to close down, while also defending myself from defamation charges, I wasn't willing to shift the goalposts. However, when I was approached for documenting the ordeal of defamation cases and their abuse—for the sole purpose of decriminalizing 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.

It is they who filed the cases, but it is us who pursued them, demanded a speedy trial and invoked students' interests.

Simply put, for seven years our judiciary failed and hence IIPM succeeded.

While every regulatory body called them illegal, IIPM still managed to entrap 30,000 students. Since our first exposé in 2009, at least another 15,000 students were sucked in. Most such students are at different consumer courts, trying to make the system work despite a high court order. The injunctions, cases, trial are too long. The costs and travails we went through is nothing as compared to the loss to the students of IIPM.

What you are about to read next 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. There isn't any drama to keep you glued. But it had to be documented, for the sake of our future.

Typically, every respondent tries to settle after a case is filed against them. This was different as we decided to pursue the case instead of settling with them, agreeing to a compromise or letting the cases lie in cold storage. We decided to turn their cases against them, on their head, and make a court confirm our charges against IIPM. It is they who filed the cases, but it is us who pursued them, demanded a speedy trial and invoked students' interests. Rarely have any respondents been so active. The petitioners were happy with the cases filed, the injunctions, and the media reports favoured them.

IIPM's legal onslaught

The cases filed by IIPM were planned to:

1. Prevent truth from being spoken and to kill any prospect of further investigation.

2. Show off to gullible students/parents the prima face acceptance for trial and the injunction as proof of their innocence and our guilt.

3. Ensure a chilling effect so that no one ever dares to write against their illegal practices.

The cases against us were filed in several different places and virtually everyone even remotely connected with IIPM was suing us, and everyone who would be able to exert any pressure on me/us.

1. We were fighting cases in different courts in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh, Dehradun, Assam etc.

2. The cases were fought in district courts and high courts in four states. There were also two cases in the Supreme Court.

3. The cases were civil and criminal in nature. One civil defamation case in Kamrup (Assam) actually got an injunction while asking us for ₹100 crore in damages.

4. There was also a contempt case filed in Kamrup for defying the injunction.

5. Anyone even remotely connected with IIPM took it on themselves to sue us. This included IIPM itself, its group companies, its employees and even an agent. All this because IIPM by itself could not file more than one case.

6. While IIPM and we were based in Delhi, the plaintiffs—employees of IIPM—filed the cases in Kamrup and managed an injunction gagging us from telling the truth. IIPM was into "forum shopping".

7. The respondents who were sued included promoters of Outlook, my co-investor in Careers360, my wife in her capacity as director, the editor, publisher and even Google and Weebly for carrying the stories. I shudder every time I think of it. The idea was to silence me and pressurize me to apologize, retreat and accept defeat.

8. "Pliable" sections of the media were extensively used against us. The most prominent one was The Pioneer, edited by a Member of Parliament. Even Tehelka tried going after us but failed.

The cases against us were filed in several different places and virtually everyone even remotely connected with IIPM was suing us...

It did cross our mind 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. You need a legal representative who was as convinced, committed to the cause and whose integrity is beyond doubt, and I found these qualities in my lawyer Anup J Bhambani. It is enough to say that he was more than a lawyer. This case is actually a victory for him more than me. We knew that giving in would add an aura of invincibility to IIPM. If we didn't have the will to fight, we should not have written against them.

The case diary

This is how the case played out and how the tables were turned.

July 2005: Outlook (I was the publisher) officially withdraws the ranking given to IIPM for stating wrong facts and takes out an advert stating the same.

June 2008: As publisher of Outlook I wrote a column titled "Racket game lobs". It names IIPM for making false claims. Arindam was furious, met me and we agreed to disagree.

Jan 2009: I resigned from Outlook and began preliminary work on publishing a student centric magazine called Careers360. Editor Mahesh Sarma along with a journalist Urmila Rao began work on a story dealing with promises and delivery in educational institutions. Even IIPM was approached seeking clarifications and information.

Feb 2009: Deeply troubled by the questions which CAREERS360 sent, IIPM approached a court in Delhi, showed my previous articles published in June-July 08, argued malice, filed civil and criminal complaints against me and Vinod Mehta (then editor-in-chief of Outlook).

We were not fighting to get some people their fees refunded. It was a larger war.

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

May 2009: This led the team at Careers360 to dig deeper regarding the activities of IIPM, and the evidence we gathered was enormous. So we appealed against the injunction in the 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 them. The order dated 1 May 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." Note: The injunction was against Outlook, but since I was the publisher for both Careers360 and Outlook I need 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 that students of IIPM would be eligible for an MBA from IMI, Belgium. We wrote to Belgium authorities and NVAO (the Belgium regulator) responded that IMI Belgium was not recognized in Belgium and any students claiming to be hold a master's degree based on a course done at IMI could be prosecuted in Belgium and the European Union.

July 2009: When we exposed the illegality of IIPM's offer of an MBA programme through IMI, Belgium, they came up with an announcement regarding a tie up with Buckingham University UK. We found it to be incorrect, wrote to the QAA (regulator in the UK) and published a follow-up story that said IIPM didn't have any tie-up with Buckingham University. Even the university was forced to confirm this as we coordinated with QAA.

But for our defamation law, 15,000 students' careers would have been saved.

The chilling effect starts here. To my utter shock and disbelief, the promoters of Outlook, along 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. He was my employer and my godfather. It was followed up with another case filed against the second story, in Uttarakhand. A further case was filed in Kamrup by some employees of IIPM and an ex-parte injunction was served to us. Yet another case was filed in Gurgaon against me and my co-investor in Careers360. One criminal case was filed in Karkadooma. The list goes on.

We decided to take this head on. A lot of parents and students started approaching us, lending their support and wanting to become a party to the case but we decided against it. This needed stamina and perseverance. Most parents were ready to settle a case if their fees were refunded, and this would have hurt the larger fight in the case. In hindsight, this was the best decision. We were not fighting to get some people their fees refunded. It was a larger war. At one point, I counted 14 matters between us in various courts, at various levels. The cases that confirmed our story, and which led to their downfall, follow.

October 2010: This was a case filed against us in Dehradun for the second article dated July 2009. We were even issued arrest warrants. We went on appeal against the summons at the high court in Uttarakhand. 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 defence 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 PIL filed by Mahesh Sarma, editor Careers360, in his personal capacity. He made UGC, MHRD and AICTE respondents in the case. This case had many ups and downs. It was even dismissed once and he had to move an application. In the end, after a prolonged battle, the judge ordered (see the full judgement here):

"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 2009 (25/07/2009) 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 the cases against us to Delhi to effectively defend ourselves. By then the three high court judgements started taking their toll on IIPM. It stopped getting students. Students, deprived of a legitimate qualification (MBA) started protests. Cases were filed by students and parents in various police stations and consumer courts. The Delhi police stood out as the most inefficient force, with students still waiting for some action post their complaint. A few consumer courts ordered against IIPM on the basis of the Delhi High Court order. The edifice started crumbling. Unable to stand the heat, IIPM decided to stop taking any new admissions.

The defamation law weakens the victims and strengthens the criminals. It rarely is used to fight for truth and mostly abused to cover lies. It deserves to go.

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 start the process by withdrawing cases filed against me and Outlook in Delhi.

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

What next?

There still is a possibility that I will file a case of malicious litigation. It depends on how they behave and what the larger objective is. I have time under the law of limitation. The defamation process was abused at every stage. The victims suffered. Truth suffered. Students suffered and lost careers for five years even after the exposé because the courts silenced the truth.

A weak criminal defamation law is tough on truth and helps the liars and cheats. It goes against truth being spoken. It kills free speech. But for our defamation law, 15,000 students' careers would have been saved. The defamation law weakens the victims and strengthens the criminals. It rarely is used to fight for truth and mostly abused to cover lies. It deserves to go. It doesn't have any place in civil society where transparency and accountability are far more important than imaginary fame and defamation.

Just decriminalize defamation. The truth will do the rest.

Note: I am a signatory to the #freespeech bill being proposed by a Member of Parliament as a private member's bill. If you agree with me, please support the drafting of the bill and pushing it to be made a law. Your support will strengthen the case against criminal defamation laws in the country.

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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